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Save Tiger Stadium, Save the World (or at Least a Corner of It)

I can't remember exactly when I attended my first game at Tiger Stadium. Maybe I was 7 or 8 years old. You see, with the exception of my mom's fanatical Scottish relatives who would make ritual sacrifice in the name of their Celtic -- that would be the soccer team from Glasgow, not this year's NBA Champs -- my family wasn't really that into following sports.

I do remember my dad taking us kids on occasion down to the game. We would sit in the centerfield bleachers, usually in the upper deck, which I thought was pretty cool. With the open air it felt like you were looking down on the game from up in space. And as an added bonus you got a great view of the big screen scoreboard -- you just had to crane your neck 180 degrees.

It wasn't until that magical 1984 season when I really developed a love for the game of baseball and for Tiger Stadium. That season I learned how to score and I started to follow the players and their stats. Whitaker and Trammell. Morris, Parrish, Gibson, Lemon, Evans, Brookens, Hernandez, Herndon even Marty Castillo and his pennant winning catch. They all developed a special place in my heart, as did the quirky ballpark where the flagpole was inbounds, and where I first learned the phrase "sacred ground," a sacred ground now under imminent threat but still worth saving.

Ghosts and legends

Over the months leading to the World Series, a deep sense of pride of place and tradition washed over me. And by the time Detroiters around the world were singing Bless You Boys, I was deeply aware that the electricity of the '84 Tigers was intensified by ghosts of the past -- of both player and spectator and the singular dance they played at The Corner, a relationship built over nearly a century.

As my connection to Tiger Stadium grew stronger, I was also learning about the growing threat to its well-being. In the late 1980s, I had some of my first exposure to the historic preservation movement through the efforts of Friends of Tiger Stadium, an organization promoting the preservation of Tiger Stadium through smart alternative solutions and who orchestrated several well-attended stadium hugs in response to growing official sentiment that the old ballpark should to be replaced.

Friends of Tiger of Stadium also taught me that Detroit's baseball stadium was not only a interesting touchstone to our city's past, but that it had national significance as one of the oldest parks in the majors. After Comiskey Park in Chicago was torn down in 1991, only Fenway Park in Boston could claim the title of oldest with Tiger Stadium, which opened on the same day in 1912, although under another name, Navin Field.

There were so many things about Tiger Stadium that made it exceptional, from offering some of the most intimate seats in baseball to its history hosting other notable events over time, like being home to the world champion Detroit Lions (if you can believe it), to a boxing match with Detroit's own Joe Louis, to the 1990 appearance of recently-freed Nelson Mandela, released from a South African prison after almost 30 years. Though the name changed over time . . . Navin Field, Briggs Stadium and finally Tiger Stadium . . . the "Corner" provided Detroiters generations of history and memory.

I moved to New York City for a decade to study and work, but Tiger Stadium was still in my blood and on my mind. Once the decision to build a new stadium was made, a friend from college and I decided to buy season tickets. He even moved to Detroit for a year to work for the Tigers during the last season. I would make trips on Spirit Air, which had flights into City Airport at that time, to pay my respects to the old ballpark.

It all culminated on September 27, 1999 against the Kansas City Royals. At the end of the game, I felt like Tiger Stadium's heart was being ripped out as a groundskeeper pick axed home plate from its mooring and hoisted it above his head for the ceremonial trip downtown to what I saw as the corporate fantasyland of Comerica Park.

For me, that was the end of baseball, and indeed my interest in professional sports for some time. I was sick of the inflated salaries and ticket prices, corporate boxes and naming rights, historic pastiche and parking lots. I swore I would never go to a game at Comerica Park. Well, despite my intentions, my boycott lasted about five years, and even though I go to Tigers games periodically, it's never really been the same.

Dreams of the field

For a white boy from northwest Detroit, Tiger Stadium was one of the few places where I saw people from all over the region congregate within the city limits. It's also the place where my classmates would dream of playing in the Detroit Public Schools high school playoffs. It was the place where Chet Lemon and Larry Herndon roamed the outfield and Alan Trammell and "Sweet Lou" Whittaker turned masterful double plays longer than any other duo in the history of baseball. In short, I knew it as a place where Detroiters of any color, both on and off the field, could come together for at least a team, if not always for a city.

This is why Councilwoman Barbara Rose Collins' statement recently about wanting to demolish Tiger Stadium because of its racist past is particularly disturbing. It's true Walter Briggs senselessly fought off integrating the team and African-American fans were often treated as second-class citizens. While there's no excuse for these injustices, the cumulative psychic energy of nearly 7,000 baseball games and the spirit of a city, both good and bad, shouldn't be reduced to rubble without consideration. This impulse to erase community history is short sighted and reactionary. Learning from past miscues should mean keeping layers intact and relevant to today so that future generations better understand their community's narrative.

The former project manager of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy stated it eloquently in a recent rebuttal to Councilwoman Collins. He suggested that the Conservancy's plan to transform Tiger Stadium into a community facility which leaves the field and a portion of the stadium intact would allow Tiger Stadium not only redeem itself, but also provide a vision for how an historic asset can be recast for the benefit of today. Black, white, brown and yellow can learn to play on grounds where greats Ty Cobb (who would likely never have willingly played against black players) and Satchel Paige (who for most of his career wasn't allowed to play in Tiger Stadium) were brought together, though decades apart, for love of the game.

It's true many plans have been floated over the years, and it's truly a shame that so much of the stadium is being lost. But by now it's water under the bridge. A smart, creative reuse and scaled back version of Tiger Stadium would be an incredible victory for the city.  It would show the world proof positive that Detroit is smart about reusing its historic assets because we believe in the power of their story. We believe in the city's future because we believe in our city's great past and growing from lessons learned. And if you believe, then right now you're someone who needs to support the Conservancy.

Dan Varner is one of those people. He's the CEO of Think Detroit P.A.L. and current President of the Tiger Stadium Conservancy. Varner also grew up watching Tiger games in the center field bleachers and has fond memories of the stadium. But when asked about the project, his initial reaction is pragmatic. "I was recruited to the board because of my connections to youth baseball. In a city with a desperate need for more high quality facilities, I saw Tiger Stadium as a great opportunity."

For Varner, the project is first and foremost a matter of economic development in an area of the city that has seen new growth and positive change. "This project can serve as a catalyst to work with what is already happening." Of course the rich history of Tiger Stadium is not lost on Varner either. "It captures the imagination . . . " he muses, "kids stepping into the same batter's box as the greats."

Varner also understands that Tiger Stadium meant so much to so many generations of metro Detroiters in so many ways. He deftly explains to me how the stadium symbolized both the big picture -- when it was the place where Detroiters came together during the 1968 championship season to calm frayed nerves after the explosive summer of 1967 -- as well the intimate -- a snapshot of a family gathering or a moment of father-son bonding. If it comes to pass, Varner predicts the project will be "completely unique in the country."

All things considered, I'm inclined to agree, and I'm looking forward to the future of Tiger Stadium. I hope you are too.



The Old Tiger Stadium Conversancy will have a formal fundraising announcement in the coming weeks to help augment the $4 million earmark the Conservancy is expecting from the Federal Government to begin the project. For more info, go to www.savetigerstadium.org.



Francis Grunow is the former Executive Director of Preservation Wayne. He is currently a law student at Wayne State University. Reach him at feedback@modeldmedia.com.



Photos:

Seated, Dan Varner current President of the Tiger Stadium Conservancy


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


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