Tigers in Transition: They’re rebuilding . . . at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

This is part three in a three part series in which HBT looks at the Detroit Tigers. On Tuesday we discussed how a Tigers team which has won the past four AL Central titles finds itself at a crossroads. Yesterday we look at their former ace, Justin Verlander, who finds himself at a crossroads of his own. Today we look at the city of Detroit and a part of its baseball history which has risen from the ashes.


DETROIT — The Tigers don’t know if they’re going to rebuild yet. Or, short of a rebuild, if they’re going to restructure or renovate, as it were. They may not make a decision about that until after this weekend. But there’s a lot of rebuilding, restructuring and renovating going on all around them. Indeed, for the first time in years, they may be behind the rest of the city when it comes to looking toward the future.



To most outsiders who don’t think too much about the city, Detroit remains a punchline. Or a place to be patronized and condescended to. The first thing that comes to mind for them are the vacant buildings which constitute America’s choice Ruin Porn. Or the crime. Or the recent bankruptcy. In their minds it’s some mashup of the opening scenes of “Beverly Hills Cop,” the Old Detroit of “RoboCop” or blighted old neighborhoods of “Gran Torino.” And, to be sure, if you’re looking for blight, decay, crime and municipal mismanagement, there is still plenty to be found in Detroit as it can be found in all big cities. It just remains easier to find in Detroit.

But the Detroit of 2015 is not the Detroit of 1995. Or even 2005. It still has a long way to go, but unlike was the case for so many years, it’s moving forward.

source: Getty Images
Getty Images


The city emerged from its 2013 bankruptcy last December and, while it’s still being overseen by a commission of outsiders, it once again has its own elected representatives in charge, shed $7 billion in debt and has nearly $2 billion at its disposal to improve services over the next decade. It’s the subject of new interest from tourists and the convention business. Young people, including artists and entrepreneurs, are rediscovering the city and realizing that its past problems have inadvertently created some good opportunities. Detroit is nowhere close to being the booming, healthy metropolis it was when my parents grew up there in the 1940s and 50s, but it’s breathing again. It’s stretching out its limbs and is poised to stand on its own two feet once again.

I spent my youth visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Detroit. Then, like so many other people, I sort of forgot about it for a while. I began coming back a few years ago to take in Tigers games at Comerica Park. I stay downtown when I go. I make a point to walk to as many places as I can and patronize as many local businesses as I can. I’ve made new friends here.  But I’m just a tourist. And no amount of tourists and well-meaning but naive do-gooders who think they can “save” Detroit will, actually, save Detroit. If it even needs “saving.” No, progress in Detroit will come from the people who call it home. Either now or who will do so later. And who will do so on the terms of the city and its people, not out of some charitable or, in my case, nostalgic impulse.

One place where the people of Detroit (and, admittedly, its suburbs) are working to rebuild and restore a part of the city is particularly near and dear to me. Tiger Stadium, at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, just west of downtown.

source: Getty Images

Of course the grandstand is no longer there. Or the lights or the foul poles or the major league baseball players for that matter. The last pitch thrown in that ballpark came in 1999 and the structure, after years of decay, ceased to be in in a two-phase demolition in 2008 and 2009. Then, for the next year, mother nature took over.



In early May of 2010 Tom Derry of Redford, Michigan was watching news coverage of the death of Tigers Hall of Fame radio announcer Ernie Harwell and was surprised to see that, rather than go to Comerica Park to pay their respects, a lot of people went to the empty lot that once held Tiger Stadium. Derry thought it was pretty neat — he didn’t realize that you could even get onto the site of the old ballpark — and decided that, the next chance he got, he’d go down there himself. “I thought I’d love to go take some swings and throw the ball around where all the greats played,” Derry said. “So I came down here on Mother’s Day 2010.”

What he found wasn’t pretty. The base paths, pitchers mound and dirt around the batters box were still there, but just barely, as weeds had begun to overtake them. There were large pieces of rubble from the demolition of the bleachers and stadium facade. “It looked terrible. There were tall weeds, tall grass. Garbage everywhere,” Derry said. “It was a real eyesore. So I figured heck, I got a riding lawnmower. I have some friends that will help. So we came down here a couple days later. May 12, 2010 was our first cleanup.”

Courtesy Navin Field Grounds Crew

Thus began the work of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, a group of volunteers dedicated to restoring and preserving the ball field that once sat inside Tiger Stadium. They show up every Sunday — and often on other days — to mow the grass, rake the infield dirt and pull weeds. If you find yourself in the area now you’ll find a very, very nice ball field. There’s some crabgrass here and there — it’s nine and a half acres and no one is springing for that much Scotts Turfbuilder — but it’s better than a lot of Little League and Babe Ruth fields I played on when I was a kid. 

The work wasn’t always easy. At first Derry and his fellow Grounds Crew members were harassed by police and threatened with arrest. I speculated that maybe the city was worried about liability, but Derry said that was really a secondary concern.

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

“I think it was less that and more that we were a group of preservationists that may scare off a potential developer,” Derry said. “So they threatened to arrest us. They sent police out onto the field. Told me that if you come back again you’re going to be arrested. It was ridiculous. We’re just some middle aged people armed with rakes and lawnmowers. With all the problems the city has they threatened to arrest us? And what if they take my mower? You know, I’m not really wealthy. I mean, I work for the Post Office, and I need my riding mower for home too.”

Eventually the city started to ease off. Maybe because there wasn’t much in the way of development going on in Detroit in 2010. Maybe because the Grounds Crew began coming on Sunday mornings when city offices were closed and fewer people noticed. But eventually, Derry believes, the city finally realized that the Grounds Crew was providing a benefit. “Without our group, this would be a nine and a half acre garbage dump,” Derry said. “There’d be five-year old trees growing here. All kinds of trash. Who knows what else?”

Now the site is something of a tourist attraction. Derry says that visitors have come from Europe and Asia. Several couples have gotten married on the baseball diamond, including Derry himself, who wed his bride Sarah at home plate last August. Derry says that, on dozens of occasions, he has witnessed people scattering the ashes of their loved ones on what he calls the “sacred ground” of old Tiger Stadium.

I’ve never seen ashes being scattered there, but on my visits back to Detroit over the past few years there are always people at the old site of Tiger Stadium. On this day I came across two young men playing catch, John Czech, 23, and his brother Christian, 21 of Clinton Township, Michigan. Derry is 52 and I am 42 so both of us have living, adult memories of Tiger Stadium. But the Czech brothers were little kids when the Tigers moved into Comerica Park. What possible reason would they have for being here?

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

They never went to a game at Tiger Stadium, Christian told me. Their father was not a baseball fan at all. But John caught the baseball history bug at some point and turned Christian on to it too and playing catch at Tiger Stadium is an exercise in living history for them.

“To stand in the same spots where Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Horton. To stand on the same mound Mark Fidrych pitched on. Grabbing the dirt. I just love the feeling,” Christian said. His brother John added, “Denny McClain was 31-6 right there . . . you stand at the plate and you know Babe Ruth hit his 700th homer there. Reggie Jackson going to the standards. It’s cool for someone like me who never saw a game here. Hey, it’s not The Stadium, but the next best thing. You can play on the field,” Czech said.

You get to come out here where all the great Tigers played. And then you get to go over to Comerica Park and see all the not-so-great Tigers,” he laughed.

And the fans of Tiger Stadium are getting younger every day. While the Czech brothers played catch between first and second base, I saw this fellow raking the infield dirt over by short:


That’s Felix Lambie, 5.5 (and he’ll make sure you know he’s not 5, but “five and a half!”) of Oak Park, Michigan. Described by his father John, 40, as “the youngest member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew,” Felix and his dad come out to work on the field every other Sunday.

“I grew up here,” Lambie said. “This was maybe my favorite place on Earth when I was a kid. I watched the Tigers win that World Series, in ’84. Sat right over there in right field. I was nine years old, in the upper deck with my dad. I was about 25 feet from where Kirk Gibson’s home run landed. I probably came to 300 games here as a kid. I grew up with my dad telling me the stories about Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer and Al Kaline.”

Derry says there are around 25 regular members of the Grounds Crew. I’ve talked to a handful of them over the years. Almost every one of them will say something along those lines. You just have to adjust the names of the ballplayers and the particular memories for era. Of course, it’s not all nostalgia. The members of the Grounds Crew have the future in mind as well.

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

“Being able to come down here just to be here on the same space where that happened is just amazing,” Lambie said. “To be able to do it with him (gestures to Felix) after what my dad and I did here is so very special. And you know, just to help keep this an active, open, welcoming green space in the heart of Detroit is just something that means a lot.”


That idea of a green space Lambie mentions is a big, big part of what motivates the Grounds Crew. Derry says that, rather than merely preserve history, he thinks of the restoration of Tiger Stadium as his group’s small contribution to the overall revitalization of Detroit.

“We absolutely think of it in terms of turning the city around,” Derry said. “You know, we’re in the middle of this Corktown neighborhood which has changed so much in the past ten years. A lot of bars, restaurants. It’s improved so much. New people, young people are moving down here. Property values are going up. And it just makes sense to have a nice green space in the middle of Corktown.”

Over the past few years there have been several redevelopment plans for the Tiger Stadium site. At first they would have meant for the end of a baseball field on the property. In 2012 the city explored the idea of turning the site into a storage facility for floats and other equipment for the annual Thanksgiving parade. That was eventually scuttled. More recently the Larson Realty Group has proposed a plan to turn the property into a mixed-use development which would, in conjunction with the Police Athletic League, include a ballpark and preserve the dimensions of old Tiger Stadium but replace the grass and dirt with artificial turf. It is likely that the Larson/PAL proposal would close off the grounds to the public except for when PAL-sanctioned events took place.

The idea rankles Derry.

“Our group is not anti-development, but we are concerned with preserving the ball field. We’re concerned about preserving the historic dimensions of the ball field and we’re also concerned about preserving the historic playing surface, which has been grass,” Derry said. “PAL is saying they’ll put in artificial turf. We think PAL is a great group and they’re doing great things but we’re obviously opposed to this idea. We think it’s ridiculous. To take a historic field like this and to tear out the grass and the dirt and to put in artificial turf. We’re trying to convince PAL to stick with real grass.”

Derry continued:

“60,000 people a year go to Dyersville, Iowa to visit a Field of Dreams where Joe Jackson never played and no major league baseball player ever played. It’s a phony, Hollywood Field. We have the real deal here. We have the field where Joe Jackson actually did play, and scored the very first run on April 20, 1912. Ty Cobb scored the Tigers first run by stealing home that day. This is the real Field of Dreams, right here. And to tear up this grass would be one of the biggest errors in the history of baseball.”

While Derry isn’t against development, in his heart of hearts, that idea of a green space he and Lambie talked about is never far from his mind.

“We think it makes more sense to just make this a city park where everyone could come. Right now it’s accessible to everyone, 24 hours a day. People can come out here and play on the baseball field, play soccer in the outfield. Have a picnic. Walk their dog. We believe it just makes sense to have this jewel of a park be the centerpiece of a rejuvenated Corktown neighborhood. We have almost ten acres here of grass. An open park, in the middle of the neighborhood. Why not let people come here whenever they want?”

Photo by Craig Calcaterra

As Derry spoke I was struck by the notion that this is a most unusual problem for a city like Detroit to have. Sure, in most other cities there are constant battles about how to balance development and civic life and how to preserve land and buildings that, while not contributing much to the city’s bottom line, contribute greatly to citizens’ lives.

In Detroit, however, the idea of reining in developers has not exactly been a pressing issue in recent decades. There are more vacant lots here than anyplace else. Apart from three casinos, some sports facilities and a handful of renovations of historic buildings aside, developers have not exactly run rampant.

But as Detroit rises from the ashes again, it will begin to encounter the dilemmas of development more and more. And, while its residents will likely have no desire whatsoever to return to the bankrupt and nearly-beaten Detroit of a few years ago, they may remember it fondly in at least a few ways.

Such as a time when strange, serendipitous things could happen. Like those years when a couple of dozen people showed up every Sunday morning at 10 AM, armed with riding lawnmowers, weedwackers and rakes and brought the dead back to life.

You can visit the Facebook page of the Navin Field Grounds Crew here. If you’re in the Detroit area and would like to help out, they assemble at the old Tiger Stadium site at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull each Sunday morning at 10AM. If you can’t help out in person, they do sell nifty t-shirts, hats and DVDs which can be obtained by sending a private message to its Facebook page or by emailing them at NavinFieldGroundsCrew@gmail.com. Oh, and on occasion, people have donated Home Depot and Lowe’s gift cards. They go through a lot of mower blades and belts.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images

TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.