Commentary

Preserving Tiger Stadium

The heart of Detroit is back. Now it's time to save its soul: Tiger Stadium.

Originally Published: April 26, 2011
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images; Peter BakerRoyals catcher Chad Kreuter scoops up dirt before the ballpark's closing in 1999. Fan Erik Kuran spruces up in 2011.

It's early on a foggy, tranquil Sunday morning in Detroit. Inside the abandoned lot that used to be Tiger Stadium, I'm making my way, slowly, toward the massive, iconic center-field flagpole, the only piece of the structure still standing. Featured in the Chrysler/Eminem "Imported From Detroit" Super Bowl commercial, the 125-foot steel pole once stood at the foot of the stadium's bleachers, the super-cheap, sun-drenched seats where I spent many a day as a kid.

I left Detroit after college, 20 years ago, and ever since I've watched my hometown's slow and steady demise from afar. So back at the flagpole, just a few feet from where I tore out a souvenir divot after the Tigers won the 1984 World Series, the strangest realization hits me: I'm trespassing on the one place in Detroit that still feels like home.

From 1896 until the Tigers moved into the cookie-cutter Comerica Park in 2000, Tiger Stadium was Motown's unofficial epicenter. It was a sturdy, dignified and proletarian ballpark with a cantilevered rightfield deck that lurked over visiting players like a UAW foreman. "Sports venues, like few other building types, represent the shared history of a city," says Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "They evoke memories that transcend generations and ethnicities, with experiences that are not just personal, but also collective. Without them a city becomes homogeneous, struggling to find an identity."

That, sadly, was Detroit in 2009, when the city demolished Tiger Stadium. With heartbreaking speed, the famous corner of Michigan and Trumbull became just another of the city's apocalyptic collection of 90,000 abandoned lots, another symbol of despair in a town so paralyzed by its problems that it lacked the vision and will to perform even the simple, noble act of saving a ball field. "This was sacred baseball ground, and it had been turned into a 9.5-acre garbage dump," says Tom Derry, a 47-year-old fan from nearby Redford Township. "The weeds where Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle once played were eight feet high. It was disgusting."

Last May, after seeing the condition of the field, Derry returned with rakes, garbage bags and a handful of helpers he named the Navin Field Grounds Crew, after the stadium's former moniker. Giving new meaning to the term grass-roots movement, they kept coming back -- even after cops threatened to arrest them for trespassing -- until the field started to reemerge from the rubble. (Home plate and the pitcher's mound were easy to find, marked by the ashes of several Tigers fans who had chosen this ball field as their final resting place.)

Almost a year later, there is something undeniably uplifting and -- I'll say it -- beautiful going on here. With the recent addition of bases and chalk lines, it's easy to imagine a pristine, renovated, quaint public ball field, similar to what the Milwaukee Brewers did in 2001 to preserve the old County Stadium site. All a new Tiger Stadium would need is a little love from a corporate benefactor. Coincidentally, from the top of the refurbished mound you can just make out the blue logo of General Motors, the revamped company that recently announced a $4.7 billion profit for 2010. "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet." Is that just a jingle? I wonder. "Rejuvenated landmarks do well," adds a hopeful Meeks, "because they represent the past but point to the future."

This one, I can tell you, is already thriving. A family from Indianapolis stops by for pictures. A young woman with curly black hair, who used to go to games with her father, sits on a homemade third base bench, smiles in silence for 20 minutes, and then walks off. A dad and his 7-year-old son skip the beginning of the actual Tigers game across town to get in a little BP here.

Later in the day, I watch from my old bleacher spot, near the flagpole, as a group of 20 young adults play a full pickup game. They're all trespassers, just like me. But they seem to understand what the rest of the world has long ago forgotten about Detroit.

There's a diamond here, waiting to be rediscovered.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.