Recently, on a cold but sunny day in Detroit recently, I met an old friend for breakfast in a section of the city called Corktown. After eating and exchanging goodbyes, I had to pay my respects. To a baseball field.
Yes–I’ll admit it–it’s kind of crazy. And this field, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, is a skeleton of what it once was. This place, though, holds memories for me and for countless others. Built in 1912 (the same year as Boston’s Fenway Park), this used to be the site of Tiger Stadium, where baseball was played for 77 years. This is where Lou Gehrig, an iron man who played in over 2,000 straight games, played in his final game. It’s where Ty Cobb, one of the greatest hitters of all time, practiced his bat magic. It was where millions went to share their love for baseball.
After many years had passed, attending games at the stadium became kind of a laborious process. The park began to show its years, especially in comparison to newer stadiums around the country. Supporting posts obstructed sight lines to the field, the seats were cramped, and parts of the stadium began to rust or crumble. This was all compounded by the fact that the Tigers fielded some terrible teams.
After winning a championship in 1984 and being competitive for a few more years, the team would fail to make the playoffs until 2006. Further adding to the organizational turbulence, the franchise was sold in 1992 to pizza mogul Mike Ilitch (of Little Caesars). The mediocrity of the Tigers franchise combined with an owner that had money to burn spelled impending doom for Tiger Stadium. The team moved into the newly built Comerica Park across town in 2000 and the old cathedral stood vacant and silent. Its demolition had been a point of contention between passionate fans and the city of Detroit for years. Many wanted to preserve at least a part of the stadium by creating a business development to remind the neighborhood of the history created there. The city, with many more pressing issues, entertained development proposals, but decided that it was time to demolish in early fall of 2009.
In all honesty, it was a matter of time before the stadium came down. Discussions about the future of the stadium had lasted too long and frustration over the process had turned some of the biggest supporters extremely bitter. But the demolition only made sense. After all, Detroit was especially hard-hit by the economic recession during this time and the hopes of improving the existing site were overly optimistic. Detroit has a plethora of issues far more important than that of a rusted baseball stadium and finally moved forward with the demolition.
It still doesn’t make it any easier. Baseball in Detroit, like other sports in other towns and countries, has a cathartic quality to it, allowing us to forget about struggles in our lives and communities. Sports are not nearly the most important part of our lives, but they can help remind us of what’s important. This was especially true for the Tigers in 1968. Race riots rocked the city for five days in the summer of 1967, exposing the brutal racial tension and segregation that had been buried for years. A year later, while things still were turbulent outside the city, the team inside the walls of Tiger Stadium gave Detroiters a chance to forget for a few hours. The team went on to win the championship that year, giving the city a little boost from the terrible events of the previous year.
When we attend sporting events, we usually go with those closest to us: our friends and families. Some of my earliest memories are attending games at Tiger Stadium with my siblings and dad. A native Detroiter, my dad taught me a love for the game and for the team. I remember learning what the players did between innings and the fluidity of a shortstop fielding a ground ball. We often arrived at the games a few hours early to watch batting practice, the near-empty stadium filled by the echo of the ball cracking off the bat.
As I walked through the rusty iron gates that once led to the stadium and walked up to home plate, I was surprised how small the field felt. The grand coliseum that surrounded it made everything feel much more grand. Hell, the hardware store across the street from right field seemed close. I kind of wondered why this place held so much reverence; why a group called the Navin Field Grounds Crew still keeps up the field. Why did I feel attachment to a place that no longer existed? But then I’m transported to another place, where the sound actually echoed and rocked the stadium, feeling it pulsate through my body as I fidgeted on the cramped seat. I remember the smile on my dad’s face as I learned the game. There, I felt like I was practically on top of the field, listening to the chatter of the players on the field. It was our own Colosseum.
These days, I’m still in love with the game and the energy of a ballpark. It’s a different experience than Tiger Stadium, though. Most of today’s parks are incredibly open and relaxed, accommodating to the family-friendly experience necessary to fill seats. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I often feel like I’m relaxing on my couch and watching the view on my TV. I miss feeling like I’m a part of double play to end the inning. I miss the inconveniences, like craning my neck around a support beam to track a fly ball. I miss feeling the weight of baseball past as I walk through the gate, of the religious experience to come.
I guess they don’t make them like they used to.