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.
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.
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.
THE NAVIN FIELD GROUNDS CREW
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.”
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.
“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?
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.
“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.”
THE FUTURE OF NAVIN FIELD
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.”
“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?”
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.