My greatest MLB memories are all in Tiger Stadium.
Gone are the obstructed view seats. Gone is the roar of the crowd. Gone are the locker rooms legends once walked. Gone is “The Corner.” Or at least the building that once stood proudly at the intersection of Michigan and Trumball. In Detroit.
For all of its problems—crooked mayors, high crime rates, high drug use, soaring poverty, empty lots and even entire blocks, and so on and so forth—Detroit has a lot of things going for it. It’s the home to Stroh’s beer, Sander’s Ice Cream, Faygo, Vernor’s, coneys (REAL ones! Like those at Lafayette Coney Island. Their arch-nemesis next door ain’t bad either), pizza delivery (Domino’s ring a bell?), awesome pizza in general (try the original Buddy’s when you’re in town), the Motown sound, the real heart of Rock and Roll (I think Detroit got screwed on that one), and great sports teams and fans.
Thankfully Detroit’s done one thing right: Preserved history…kind of. Tiger Stadium, the stadium I grew up with, was torn down in 2009. Admittedly, it had been neglected, not unlike the city itself. In spite of the city’s bankruptcy, in spite of the murders, in spite of the lost population, in spite of the lost jobs, they are still a rightfully proud city. And they kept key parts of the field. Intact still is the very field on which most of the greatest baseball players of all time have played.
Detroit currently doesn’t have much to believe in. It’s all but dead. But what they have done is work on preserving some of the greatest aspects of the city. The old train station that can be seen from The Corner is scheduled for a face lift, for example. And Tiger Stadium…as I said, they’ve kept key aspects of the field although the stadium itself is now long gone. Currently, the group in charge of the space is adamant about what they want done with the space. Although there have been multiple good offers to keep the field and build such things as shopping space around it in an effort to bring back some business, the group has turned down every offer, regrettably. The lot needs more TLC than the dedicated folks can give it. But I am proud of those who push to keep the field groomed and take real pride in preserving the site to the best of their ability. But it deserves more than what they can offer it. I’ve wondered why it hasn’t been developed by Mr. Ilitch. I’ve thought of it being the main field for Little League championships (this idea has been pushed by some of the groups that has bid for the site, in fact) or why Mr. Ilitch hasn’t developed it into a shrine to the greats, a mini-Baseball Hall of Fame spot. Why not have the area host college games? Or host old-timers games? There’s so much potential for the lot, but a small group of hard-nosed individuals are keeping it from growing into a great spot again. This is hallowed ground. They are treating it like a cemetery through, a dead place, not a place of awe.
I went back home earlier this year (2013). I grew up both in the city of Detroit and in its suburbs. The city and area remains and always will remain home for me. Part of our yearly pilgrimage to Detroit is to drive by The Corner. This time we stopped.
I am not ashamed to admit that I felt nearly overwhelmed with emotions as I passed through the blue gates that still line Michigan Avenue. Walking the baselines gave me a sense of… “awe” doesn’t quite fit the feeling, but I’ll go with that for the moment. To think that I was walking on baseball hallowed ground; this is the same field (obviously with some modifications—different dirt, grass changes, etc.) that every great player between its construction and its closing played on at least once.
As I walked to the flagpole I heard Ernie Harwell describing a homerun.
On the base path I felt the ghosts of my baseball heroes run through and around me as if trying to avoid the tag or beat the throw.
Settling on the mound I imagined Jack Morris hurling complete game after complete game and refusing to be taken out even though you could tell he was getting physically exhausted.
Standing in the batter’s box I imagined just getting the chance to try to hit a pitch from The Bird or Morris or McLain (yes, they are all Tigers. No other pitchers mattered to me while I was a kid.). I imagined what it must have been like for George Brett, Reggie Jackson, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig to set foot on the field, regardless of the name of the stadium at the time. I was standing, walking around, baseball hallowed ground. The grass and dirt under my feet. My kids running around in it. And my heart dropping as it finally hit me that one of the greatest parts of my youth was all but gone, and could be completely gone at any time thanks to politics.
I imagined being Sparky Anderson walking on to or off the field, crossing the chalk of the lines, trying to remember what superstitions he stuck with as he walked on and off the field. Did he walk over the line? Did he intentionally step on the line? Did he look down as he walked as some skippers do? My memory is imperfect but I remember how much this town loved George and his team (probably much to the chagrin of Reds management I’m sure, many of whom are still kicking themselves for firing him. Thanks for that!).
I tried to explain to my very young kids what existed here when daddy was a kid; I knew my daughter couldn’t grasp the awesomeness of where she was. She didn’t understand that one of my
favorite players, Al Kaline, ran this very diamond; she didn’t understand that on that mound once stood the goofiest and one of the
greatest Detroit pitchers ever: Mark “The Bird” Fidrych”. She didn’t get any of that. She didn’t grasp the size of the building here until daddy stumbled upon a framed photo of Tiger Stadium while in Cincinnati. It was serendipitous (and ironic). Then she could see where the flag pole was in relation to the stadium. She thinks it’s “cool” but I’m not convinced she “gets it.”
But she will. Some day when she has kids and her favorite park is torn down and replaced with some fancy-shmancy new park, she’ll understand the importance of the field for her generation. And so will my son. I’ll do my best to teach them the game, to let it teach them about life. Baseball is life in a microcosm. The highs, the lows, the hard work and dedication it takes to succeed, the fights and the hugs, the respect and disrespect, the game of inches are all part of life. I want my kids to understand it in that way too. They might have trouble with the curve, but they—hopefully—will always understand the importance of hallowed ground.