From Cricket to Kickball: Sports Rule on Belle Isle

Loop around Belle on a Saturday or Sunday in the summertime, and you'll likely see some distinguished looking gentlemen dressed in crisp white playing the age-old game of cricket over by the Casino.

Elsewhere, less formal folks are kayaking, rowing, walking, running, biking, hooping, batting, fishing, swimming and sailing.

Whatever the sport, Belle Isle is the place to let your jock flag fly. Detroit's island park is many things to many people -- its durability and versatility are two of its greatest assets. Here's a look at three Belle Isle pastimes that bring their dedicated flocks to the park.

The classiest looking sport ever

The Greater Detroit Cricket Club's home pitch is Belle Isle. Cricket has been played on Belle Isle since the 1960s, and the sport has increased in popularity as immigration to Metro Detroit from cricket hot spots like Bangladesh has grown.

The club has players from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the West Indian Islands of Barbados and Jamaica, as well as a smattering from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia and England. This melting pot is apt, as cricket is the second most popular game in the world, after football (meaning soccer, obvs).

A game can run about six hours long, and Belle Isle is home to 7 clubs and about 14 teams. They play Saturdays and Sundays at the pitch near the Casino and another one at the Athletic Fields. That adds up to about 200 players calling the island their home pitch.

While there are some downsides to playing cricket on the island -- the grass isn't quite short enough and the lack of enclosure means they can't charge for tickets during big tournaments -- player Faisal Sultan sees more pros than cons. "It's one of the most scenic grounds, with the water," he says. "People always say, 'Oh! That's Canada!'"

A little bit of Williamsburg can't hurt

The word kickball conjures two diametrically opposed images: innocent school kids and Williamsburg hipsters. Like many trends, adult kickball's surge probably has a lot to do with a desire to recapture some of the pure joy of youth.

Slightly less distinguished than the cricket guys, Detroit Kickball, er, kicked off this year with five teams gathered from various watering holes around town -- like Big City, the Park Bar, Foran's Irish Pub and Rumors on the River.

Games are played at 2 p.m. Sundays at the Athletic Fields and are followed up with a visit to one of the sponsoring bars. While you might picture the players as a mass of skinny, white, twentysomethings -- and you do see plenty of those -- the actual mix is much more diverse.  

The vibe is relaxed, with beer and music just as much a part of the game as the ball itself. Competition is in the air, but camaraderie is truly the name of the game.

Swingin’ in the 313

Over on the far eastern point of the island, just past the lighthouse and the Blue Heron Lagoon, nature-lovers walk their dogs or go to fish and birdwatch. It is also home to the island's golf facilities.

The nonprofit First Tee operates the driving range that is part of a 20-acre facility that also includes a one-acre grass hitting tee, a two-acre chipping and putting practice area, three sand trips at which to practice bunker shots, and a five-hole mini golf course for chipping and putting. “It’s a great place to learn for kids as well as adults,” says Dave Coy, who runs the facilities.

The 1,500 kids in First Tee’s program take six-week courses at various parks around the city and then take a written and practical exam at Belle Isle. Other kids sports organizations, like Think Detroit/PAL, make use of the facilities as well.

Coy estimates 20,000 people use the Belle Isle facilities each year. Revenue from grants and admission fees keep the doors open, but "barely," he says. The facility was upgraded 10 years ago thanks to Ford Motor Co., making it "one of the best in the state," he says.

Although it is a bit off the beaten path for some metro Detroiters, Coy says a trip out to the greens is worth it. "The beauty kind of sells itself," he says. "We just gotta get 'em here … they’ll come back."

The driving range is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to dusk, and the season starts up in March and wraps up in November. In the off-season, if the weather hits 50 degrees, Coy will open the doors for intrepid winter golfers. He hopes to one day be able to offer heated bays or even a dome – a costly expenditure but one that he thinks would prove extremely popular.

Since he started at Belle Isle three years ago, Coy has lapped up the island’s history and is glad to see improvements. He hopes to see better signage so that people can find not only the driving range, but all the other great stuff on the island, like the swan boats, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit Yacht Club and the Conservatory.

"The island’s taken small steps," he says. "And there’s already a lot going on on Belle Isle."

For more information, Tracey Lawrence, the Recreation Department's reservations and event coordinator, at 313-628-2081, can connect you with many of the various leagues that play on the island.

Other teams, leagues and annual events:

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is development news editor for Model D.

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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