Emma Hamrick, Sports Editor
At the Baseball Hall of Fame, bronze plaques for baseball greats like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Joe Dimaggio hang as testaments to America’s pastime. What many spectators of the Florida Southern baseball team fail to recognize is that the men etched in bronze in Cooperstown once dug their cleats into the same dirt as the Mocs at Henley Field.
“My daddy tells stories of having watched Hank Greenberg from the Tigers play ball there in the thirties and forties,” Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs said.
In October, the nationally-recognized historic landmark will likely fall into the hands of the FSC Athletic Department as the City of Lakeland plans to sell the field to the college.
“We did not go searching for it, it came to us,” FSC Athletic Director Pete Meyer said. “Florida Southern has played baseball on and off for the last half century at Henley Field.”
For the past 20 years, Henley Field has served as a home base for Mocs gameplay. While the field is of primary importance to the Mocs baseball program, the field is one of nine other baseball fields, including Joker Marchant Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Detroit Tigers, owned and operated by the City of Lakeland.
According to Bob Donahay, parks and recreation director for the City of Lakeland, FSC has been primary user of the field.
“It’s an easy fit, if we can afford it,” Meyer said.
The City of Lakeland plans to sell the field for $1 million, despite the fact that the property itself may be worth more.
“We are in a time or a period, like many cities, where revenues are a challenge. We have more services folks want than we have money to provide. And it’s fairly expensive for us to maintain Henley Field,” Wiggs said.
The historic significance of the field also played a role in the sale.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s a stadium that’s on the National Historic Registry. Therefore, it will be a baseball stadium for the rest of time. We are in the process of rehabbing, remodeling, and refurbishing Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on campus. We have a history of historic preservation. This is a perfect fit for us,” Meyer said.
Wiggs credited FSC’s proven dedication to history as a reasoning behind the sale as well.
“One of the really big things was our recognition that Florida Southern appreciates history and appreciates facilities like this that have played a certain role in the history of our city… We know Florida Southern will protect the integrity of the facility,” Wiggs said.
Prior to the finalization of the purchase, the City of Lakeland has agreed to make upgrades to the field. While the FSC-owned home team dugout recently underwent upgrades funded by David Jenkins, the visiting team’s dugout will be renovated to become the home dugout for the Detroit Tigers Class A Advanced Affiliate, the Lakeland Flying Tigers, during their residency at the field for the 2016 season.
The City will maintain the stadium until the close of the Flying Tiger season.
“The city will still maintain and pay utility bills. And from April to September, [the Flying Tigers] will be at Henley. We are bringing in Minor League baseball for new lights and upgrades to the clubhouse. All of the improvements will stay with complex and are negotiated into the price of the sale,” Donahay said.
Beginning the first week of October, the City of Lakeland, Polk County, and Major League Baseball will begin an extensive 17-month renovation project on Joker Marchant Stadium, thus displacing the Flying Tigers from their home field. Once renovations to Joker Marchant Stadium are completed, the Mocs will completely take over Henley Field.
According to Meyer, anyone outside of the 2016 Flying Tigers seeking the rights to use Henley Field after the finalization of the sale would have to obtain permission from the college.
“Anyone in the future looking for a baseball field to play or rent in the spring, summer, or fall, we will refer to the field and Florida Southern. I want [FSC} to be successful and make money off of it. Florida Southern has been a great partner with the City of Lakeland for years. If Florida Southern does well, the city does well,” Donahay said.
If the sale is finalized, the baseball team would continue their routine use of the field.
“This gives [the baseball team] more freedom. We will have our own facility for the first time in, I think forever,” Meyer said.
One of the things Meyer is most eager for the “visibility for the college” with future logo signage and upgrades to the stadium visible from Highway 98.
While the sale has yet to be finalized, Donahay doubts there will be any issues in the closing.
“We ran so many different scenarios of anything we could possibly think of. It just made sense. We went over every piece of it and brought in many different departments to make sure all of our bases were covered,” Donahay said. “It’s been a natural, easy sale for both of us and a great recruiting tool for the baseball team having their own field. It’s historic, neat, with a bunch of history. And the players who played there back in the day are amazing.”
Both Donahay and Meyer hope to continue the relationship between the city and the college in the future.
“The opportunity to go through the process with the City of Lakeland and potentially own Henley Field is a win-win for the City of Lakeland and Florida Southern College and the fact that we have the winningest small-college baseball program in America,” Meyer said.
The Mocs will kick off the season in early February.