Volunteers working to preserve Tiger Stadium
Wish you were here.
Published: March 24, 2014
“Every weed out here bothers me,” Tom Derry was telling me as we pulled off the Lodge Expressway and drove past Brooks Lumber in his big red pickup along Trumbull Avenue, behind what was right field of old Tiger Stadium. “It ticks me off. I don’t know why. I don’t feel that way about my own lawn, but this one I do.”
It was early October 2012 and I was revisiting Detroit, where I lived in 1991 and ’92, as part of a long driving trip around America. I was driving Tom’s truck because Tom, a postal carrier and founder of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the group of volunteers who maintain the field in Corktown where Tiger Stadium stood for nearly a century, had recently broken his leg falling off a porch.
We turned right onto Michigan Avenue. “Geez, man,” I said.
“Yeah, I know it’s depressing, and it’s a shame,” said Tom. “But look at how well the grass is kept. Two years ago, the weeds were so tall you couldn’t see anything.”
We parked on Michigan, behind first base, and walked in through an unlocked gate. Where the first-base dugout had been, someone had set up a homemade wooden bench. “Yeah, to think that that’s the pitcher’s mound,” said Tom. “Cy Young pitched there. Babe Ruth pitched there, Satchel Paige pitched there. Mark Fidrych. It’s amazing to think that Ty Cobb stood right there, and Babe Ruth was on the mound pitching to him. When I was a kid, my favorite Tiger was Norm Cash, who played first base. And it’s so cool to stand there and think this is where Norm Cash played, and Hank Greenberg, and Gehrig.”
“So this is the original dirt?” I asked him.
“Yeah, the dirt’s the same. All we’ve added is a bit around home plate, where we have the erosion.”
Tom reminded me that the flagpole had been in play. “It was the tallest in-play obstacle in major-league history,” he said. “And I believe the only reason they didn’t take the flagpole to Comerica [Park] was that it was just too much work. But they took home plate, and I don’t think that should have been allowed.”
Behind the flagpole, on the other side of the freeway, the Motor City Casino was visible. “Casinos are bad,” I remarked.
“Yeah, they are,” Tom agreed. “Every time I take a picture, I try to take it with Brooks Lumber in the background, not the casino.”
“But the casino’s right there, behind center field.”
“Yeah, and you can’t keep it out of the picture, unless you Photoshop it or something. It’s owned by Mrs. Ilitch. Sometimes I wonder if Mike Ilitch ever looks down from the upper floor, across the street, to watch the peasants working on the old ball grounds.”
It was billionaire Tigers owner Mike Ilitch who forced the spending of several hundred million dollars of public money to replace Tiger Stadium — which saw its last game in September 1999 and was finally torn down for good in September 2009 — with Comerica Park downtown, at the epicenter of his pizza and real estate empire. “I wonder how Ilitch sleeps at night,” I wondered.
“I’m guessin’ he sleeps really well,” said Tom. “’Cause he doesn’t care! He doesn’t give a shit.”
Tom and friends maintain the field because no one else will. He told me that writer David Fleming had come to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues in April 2011 to write an article for ESPN: The Magazine. “He stood on the pitcher’s mound, and he could barely make out the GM logo at the top of the Renaissance Center. And he thought about baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. And he put that in his article, and someone at GM read it. And they contacted the city. They made an offer to maintain the field for free. And the city turned them down! People couldn’t believe it. The city said it had major retail value, and here we are more than a year later, and nobody’s making offers.”
It’s now another year and a half later, and the site’s purported major retail value has yet to materialize. Proposals and rumors have come and gone, including the apparently unfounded but deeply ironic rumor that the site might have been used for a new publicly subsidized hockey arena for the Ilitch-owned Red Wings. “I hear things, and then it doesn’t seem like anything happens,” Marygrove College professor Frank Rashid, who co-founded the activist group the Tiger Stadium Fan Club in 1987, told me. “There are plans that are floated, and they get to a certain point and they get stopped.”
There was, for example, the Parade Company proposal. “The Parade Company wanted to move its headquarters to the Tiger Stadium site, build a new warehouse and move its offices,” Gary Gillette, secretary of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, explained to me. The Conservancy controls a $3.8 million federal earmark that Sen. Carl Levin’s office secured for economic development in the Corktown neighborhood. “Even assuming we would have been willing to commit our $3 million to their project, they weren’t able to raise the rest of the money they needed. The project died a natural death because it wasn’t a project that could be financed.”
The conservancy has given small but effective grants to Corktown businesses (including several profiled in Metro Times’ Feb. 5 cover story on the neighborhood), but it still controls most of the money. “We still have the majority of our earmark available for redevelopment of the Tiger Stadium site,” Gillette said. “Everyone loves us because we have $3 million to spend. We actually have more than that. The future of the site is a mixed-use development, where mixed use is a combination of commercial and recreational. There’s talk about housing, but there’s a housing shortage in Midtown and downtown, but that doesn’t extend to Corktown.”
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