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Sports

Tiger Stadium: A love story

Ballpark's final chapter is uncertain; one man's nostalgia isn't

Photo: Bruce Cook
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Published 10/15/2008

Henry asks determinedly, "Dad, why is Tiger Stadium damaged?" Our heads twist back, as the car banks slowly on the exit ramp toward his Indian Village preschool. A faint blur of green grass flashes beneath the tangled gray, blue and remaining upper-deck orange.

My almost-4-year-old has been asking this question for almost four weeks. He repeats it whenever we pass near the tractors and the dismembered steel carcass, which resembles a scene from his favorite dinosaur book, of pterodactyls pecking at reptilian remains in a tar pit. "Woo. Dad. Look at the damage. Tiger Stadium. Why is it damaged?" The probing keeps stumping me, it beats out all other recent queries, such as, "Are um-pirates bad buys or good guys?" and "Which flavor is better, chocolate or 'nilla?" or "Do you love mommy's big butt?"

He implores further, "Why is it damaged?"

My initial response offers an elaborate cocktail of too many flying baseballs and broken bats. I mix in imagined storms, tornadoes, lightning bolts and actual blizzards, particularly the 1969 Thanksgiving Day Detroit Lions game against the Minnesota Vikings, a bitter 27-0 Siberian torture I endured with my grumbling father (Tiger Stadium also hosted the Lions until 1975).

"Why, dad?"

Inevitably, I turn to the notion of inevitable old age, a hazy concept he finds more puzzling than his unborn baby brother. "The stadium got sick and old," I feebly confess.

"Why?"

My answers poorly conceal my dismay. If the topic doesn't change soon, he will only get more frustrated at my aggravated gloom. I wonder if he remembers our frequent bike rides encircling the abandoned structure, Henry bouncing in the bicycle seat, chuckling at my cries of "Let's go, Tigers!" in the years and months before the wrecking crews arrived.

Someday he will connect the dots, like precise pencil markings on a nine-inning scorecard, of how a city's treasured sports landmark became abandoned, plundered and razed. The longer explanation will include how the completed enclosure of the stadium in 1938 inadvertently reinforced the ongoing racial segregation dominating Detroit, professional baseball and the Tiger organization (not to mention the country overall). For decades, despite how the well-intentioned but predominantly white fan base and the ensuing Tiger Stadium Fan Club (originating in the late 1980s) would celebrate the striking intimacy of the ballpark, its fate would be doomed by unresolved contradictions of trying to organize a mostly neglected 82 percent black metropolis.

"Did you know, Henry, if it wasn't for Tiger Stadium, you might not be here?" I blurt. "Your mommy and I should even be in the Baseball Hall of Fame," as if that would clarify my declaration. I decide it's time he learns some facts of life, to relay the origins of his origin.

On my 41st birthday dinner, Saturday, April 13, 2002, in the dim lighting of Carl's Chophouse, we're toasting the Cabernet and our shared future. Deborah soon murmurs her growing unease. "I'm sorry but I shouldn't have moved into your place without a commitment. You're not that serious. I think we made a big mistake."

My confident nonchalance must have been comforting. "Let's just visit Tiger Stadium tomorrow afternoon, take a few photos, play catch from the pitcher's mound with an authentic hardball and hear our shouts reverberate all around the empty seats. You know, for my birthday."

Her therapist profession knew the statistics; that although older couples are less likely to get divorced, cohabitation before marriage slightly increases the likelihood of serious marital troubles. Probably potential birthday disasters as well.

"I just feel you'd be much happier if you stayed a bachelor high school teacher and baseball coach. You just want to run around old ball parks and get your picture taken in some adolescent baseball fantasy."

"My security guard buddy Tom will let us in. It'll be fun, for both of us. Trust me."

"But when can we go look at a ring again?" She starts sobbing the way a polite potential fiancee might cry, just loud enough so only I could hear, just visible enough so I could still finish my last scoop of chocolate ice cream without embarrassing stares from any surrounding tables.

"Um, next week, next Friday, uh, payday."

We keep repeating this exchange the next day, whenever I remind her of our true mission, to slip into the empty ballpark and romp with the Hall of Fame ghosts of Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg and so many others, like Willie Horton, my favorite Tiger from the 1968 world champions.

"But isn't Willie Horton still alive?" she asks.

"Yes, but living people can leave shadow ghosts," I reassure her. "The stadium will surely unveil spirits of the dead and the living."

"I have a lot of laundry to do. Why don't you get some other spirit to go? You could reminisce about where you used to sit with old girlfriends."

The late afternoon sun still bathes the upper-deck bleachers as we park near the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, across from St. Peter's Church, where we first met during the 1994 baseball strike, when owner Mike Ilitch introduced some cosmetic changes to the ballpark while simultaneously planning to abandon the stadium for a new one downtown, right behind the Detroit Athletic Club. Since many of the key powerbrokers were DAC members, the desertion of the once-treasured ballpark would be a smoother behind-the-scenes sell before the city dwellers fell in line with the 1996 public funding approval vote.

My friend Becky Cook, a professional photographer, pulls up right on time, just as Deborah finally starts considering the profound magnitude of playing catch with an authentic hardball on such sacred ground.

Tom and I trade grins as he quietly unlocks the front office door to paradise. I momentarily race ahead of my two female companions, clutching my two infielder gloves, skipping around the brick tile corridor and up the first walkway incline, to deeply inhale that surge of green that always greeted me, from when I could barely see over the railing to my own private farewell on that second-to-last game three years earlier.

Some of the upholstered seats in the Tiger Den have been ripped out, and tall weeds are poking up from isolated cracks in the cement, like little boys standing up to glimpse an Al Kaline missile flying into the stands.

Yet the trimmed field remains remarkably intact. A game could be played there in minutes, which of course, will be played as soon as I help Deborah over the railing and onto the reddish brown carpet of the foul territory clay.

Deborah has floated down from the section where my mother and childhood friend Robby Rote once endured a sweltering August afternoon in 1969, a marathon that lasted 13 innings. Mom chaperoned us, grudgingly appreciating my endless belief in a game-winning homer (which became an unlikely two-out RBI single by the familiarly feeble Don Wert). As she openly prayed for either team to score, I also first noticed how her loyalty to her son would never waver.

"This place is so beautiful," Deborah whispers.

Deborah's surprising willingness to play catch quickly conquers any mild regrets at not sneaking in a wood bat and metal spikes. Neither of us really dressed for the occasion and, besides, some wild fungo whacks into the stands might have distracted too much from the true mission of the day, to pitch from the mound.

Deborah and I make a few short practice tosses from the infield grass. She giggles each time the authentic hardball plops into her glove. Lost in our playground world, our voices echo softly around the park. Pausing after each lob to survey the empty stands, they seem even closer to the playing field than I ever imagined. Hapless Yankee and White Sox outfielders surely heard our every catcall, even during that historic 1984 World Series championship season, when only your best friends could secure some tickets besides the bleachers.

With few suggestions about what to shoot, Becky doesn't really start snapping photos until I take the mound, until I start to actually pitch. I think, this is the same hill where Hal Newhouser, "Schoolboy" Rowe and Jack Morris all stood and hurled, where Nolan Ryan threw the last stadium no-hitter in 1973, where Mark "the Bird" Fidrych dabbed the dirt and talked to the ball — "Come on. I'm ready," Deborah announces. She dutifully positions herself behind home plate to honor the official 60 feet, 6 inch distance, where Mickey Cochrane and Bill Freehan once caught —

"Go ahead."

Even in high school I could not break the 65-mile-an-hour speed limit. Strictly a junk ball control pitcher who seldom struck anybody out, my length of stay in a typical game always depended more on able fielding. Miraculously, Deborah snags my first soft strike. I yelp. She catches the next pitch, another strike.

Now I am Mickey Lolich, confidently grooving the ball to Freehan and my third World Series victory to win it all in 1968, the same year Dad started taking me to Tiger games. I point to the section of my baseball baptism, an outrageous 13-1 romp over the Indians. It is time to attempt one medium-sized fastball. "Hold out your glove, dear, away from your body, OK?"

Leaning from the stretch, I throw a dart into the palm of her outstretched glove.

"Ow!" She drops the mitt and the ball. "It hurts. Ow!" Her grimacing and finger-shaking snaps me out of my smiling trance. I beg her to come to the mound.

"I'm sorry. I — I, I have something that will help it, some first aid. Come here, quick."

Until this moment, our photographer has not been informed of the real nature of this unique event. Awkwardly, the first aid box emerges from my front pocket, one designed especially for single women like the one shuffling towards me.

"Here. Will this make you feel better?"

The series of photos from that ensuing minute suggests the effectiveness of Deborah's rapid pain reliever. She gasps and stumbles backward while Becky's shutter clicks away.

"Oh, my God." Her laughter and additional gasps do not make the proposal any easier.

"So will you — are you OK?"

"I don't believe it. Yes. Oh, my."

Then she nervously tries to slip on the ring. I would later claim that despite the numerous great pitches made from this exact mound, mine was surely the first pitch for marriage, and surely deserves a mention in the Hall of Fame if they ever create a detailed exhibit honoring Tiger Stadium. The ring only fits her pinky. We'll have to return to the jewelers, after all.

Trembling, we take one step from the pitcher's plate and kiss.


Henry responds drowsily to my strange story. There are just too many perplexing details about the stadium and too many extra innings acting out his version of fantasy baseball last night. I will have to show him our proposal photos, maybe when the remaining ruins of the demolition fade further.

After preschool, Henry will return to running the bases of our Detroit Woodbridge front yard, a few houses south from the old Ty Cobb house on Commonwealth Street. My eldest aunt used to play with Cobb's kids, and neighborhood folklore recalls how people only talked to Cobb when he rode a streetcar, never when he chose an angry hike to the stadium, trying to blow off excess venom.

One day, Henry will also learn why the Detroit Stars of the Negro League in Hamtramck used to sometimes outdraw Tiger games, and how Henry's first name relates to the greatest home-run hitter of all time, Henry Louis Aaron, who was also the last Negro League player to play in the majors. Henry probably won't remember the bike rides or backseat drives around a ballpark that, sadly, no longer exists, but that sanctified pitcher's mound might survive after the last of the bulldozers and trucks depart.

My son might eventually court his lover from the preserved grandstands behind home plate. He will note, "My dad says he and I used to visit here when they were tearing this down." Henry might also pitch a summer league or high school game precisely from where his father made a romantic offer the day after his 41st birthday.

That future would be all right. He might even throw a few curves.

William Boyer is a Detroit high school teacher, baseball coach and freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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