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Published: Sunday, 3/20/2011

Baseball brings people together

BY BEN KONOP
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

LAKELAND, Fla. -- There are a lot of things not to like about baseball: Slow paced games. AstroTurf. Expensive hot dogs. The Yankees.

Connie Farmer, 81, and Fran Sutherland, 68, are most definitely not on my baseball gripe list.

The two salt of the earth “double cousins” (dads were brothers, moms were sisters) from Detroit won’t show up on any box scores or highlight reels. But every spring, together, in a damp, dark corner of Joker Marchant stadium under the grandstands, the two women do what a Rabbi might call a baseball mitzvah.

For the last seven years, strictly on a volunteer basis, they raise about 40,000 dollars each spring for poor kids in the Lakeland area by running a silent auction of Tigers memorabilia donated by the team. The money goes to local Boys and Girls clubs, helping to do things like purchasing playground equipment in the rougher areas of town.

The double cousins get to the stadium each morning around 10 a.m. to set up the day’s wares, watch a little batting practice, and then befriend the legions of fans that ask them everything from directions to the ladies room to whether Larry and Lance Parrish are related.

“We kind of double as an information booth and public relations office too,” joked Fran, who in her previous life in Michigan taught elementary school.

The two relocated snowbirds hold season tickets to the Lakeland Flying Tigers during the summer, and together religiously attend fan club meetings, bowling nights with the players, and team golf outings. They acknowledge that Tiger baseball plays a central role in their life. And it’s not just the baseball.

“Baseball brings back all the memories of the 50’s when my dad would explain the rules to me and we would sit and watch games together,” recalled Fran.

Connie remembers cheering on the 1945 Tigers with her father, a Detroit policeman who had the skid row beat.

“If he was still alive, he would be coming to these games and would probably be pretty jealous of what I’m doing.”

The two women forged a motherly bond with players like Brennan Boesch and Will Ryhmes, who played at Lakeland on their way up to the majors.

“We do feel protective of them, that bond is important,” said Fran.

For Connie, that bond extends to players like Willie Horton, who she counts amongst her all-time favorites.

Horton, an African-American who started his career for the Tigers in the early 60’s, endured the last vestiges of Jim Crow in his early days training in Lakeland.

“He spoke at our fan club once and told us about having to walk all the way to the stadium from Highway 92, because they wouldn’t let him ride the bus. I think he is a heck of a strong guy,” she rightly observed.

You also won’t find Cathie and Adrianne Holmes on my baseball gripe list. The mother/daughter combo from Toledo is in their fourth year of making their all girls trek down I-75 to Lakeland for Tiger spring training.

The two diehards say they watched all 162 Tiger games together last year together, either in person, on TV, or recorded on DVR.

Cathie, 55, was taught the game by her father. Like generations of Toledoans, myself included, she “listened to Ernie Harwell on a transistor radio under the pillow” as a kid.

Her father died before her daughter was born, so Cathie looks at passing on her love of the Tigers as a way to connect her child to the grandfather she never knew.

“Spring training is our girl time…baseball and bonding,” according to Adrianne, 22, who played softball at Central Catholic.  “We make up our own inside jokes about the players, calling them different nicknames.” [Though they wouldn’t reveal any of the names to this reporter…I guess some things are better left between mother and daughter].

The pair perched themselves in the sun drenched front row down the right field line this week, within shouting distance of Maglio Ordonez. Adrienne poked fun at her mother for dropping a couple foul balls that Ordonez tossed into the crowd . “They somehow go right threw her fingers,” ribbed Adrianne.

Stories like this fill Joker Marchant stadium this spring.  They may not be unique or grand, but they are special.

They shed light on the deepest, most important aspects of being human -- like loyalty, family, and love.

If we didn’t have baseball, I’m sure we could find their manifestation somewhere else, but thankfully we have baseball, and fans, and family on a sunny spring day in Florida.

And we have women like Fran, Connie, Cathie, and Adrianne to tie it all together.


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