AN AMERICAN RUIN
Who came up with the notion that baseball stadiums are like cathedrals? We don't know cathedrals, but we know Tiger Stadium, and it was about as far from a church as you could get. To fully appreciate the Corner's charm, you probably had to have a nebula of memories and remembrances surrounding the place, for unlike Wrigley Field, whose aesthetics might inspire one to compare it to God's house, Tiger Stadium usually elicited polite smiles or outright disappointment from the new visitor. To begin with, parking was always a scene. Toothless biddies with orange flags would wave you over a curb while their toothless sons would guide you onto a thin slice of lawn with the precision of a traffic control officer. From there you took a rusty pedestrian bridge over I-75 to the stadium and, just as you passed over that roaring freeway, you were afforded a beautiful view of the sun setting through the smashed windows of the abandoned fifteen story Michigan Central Railroad Station. On the outside, the stadium resembled one of those massive, state fair-style barns or a warehouse. Stepping inside, you'd walk up concrete ramps, past green metal girders flaking paint, all this lit by dusty, bug filled lamps that gave the place an even grayer hue. The smells and sounds of the city receded, leaving you with the comfortable reek of sweat and cigars and steamed hot dogs, and the soft scraping of shuffling feet. Not the stuff of dreams, perhaps, but a place where you could relax and leave the troubles of the world behind. Checking your stub in that thin light, you'd turn and head up through a tunnel of light to your seat, which hung over a field criss-crossed with different shades of green. There was no majestic skyline view, no Rocky Mountains, no San Francisco Bay. In Tiger Stadium you had baseball, and that's all that anyone wanted.
They took the old place away from us back in 1999. Mike Ilitch, owner of the Tigers, gave the citizens his usual assortment of half truths and outright lies, most notably that the old place was falling apart and that he needed luxury suites to increase revenue that would finally make the team a contender. If he meant that, three years later, the Tigers would contend for the right to call themselves the worst team in history, he was right.
But we should set our bitterness aside, for what's done is done. It's time to move on. Even though the new park is a humorless edifice, with its gaudy concrete tigers, giant Mau Tse-tung-size photos of the old greats, and Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds that only serve to distract children from the game, hopefully the current generation of fans will cultivate their own memories there and recall them with fondness. Like a baseball glove, it might take a few years to soften into a perfect fit, as the old one is forgotten.
And therein lies the problem: Tiger Stadium is still around. For Detroit is the only city in America where the new park sits in the figurative shadow of its elder. In most cities, when a new stadium is built, the old one, unless it has other uses, is bulldozed and the property developed. Not so in Detroit. The property is unattractive to developers, a problem that infects all of Detroit. In fact, most of the buildings in downtown Detroit are abandoned. Walk through your downtown and try to imagine a twelve block section of empty skyscrapers boarded up, falling apart, home only to countless vagrants and the occasional rave. You can't just blow these places up: by the estimates we found, it would cost anywhere from two to six million dollars to kill a building the size of Tiger Stadium. Normally these costs are considered a part of the redevelopment plan, but if there is no plan, that's just wasted tax dollars in a city that doesn't have much to spend.
Oddly enough, there has been some interest in developing the Corner, from turning it into luxury condominiums, to housing minor league baseball. And where you'd think that these plans would be met with approval, thus far, there has been only resistance, from a city without focus and a Tigers owner who simply doesn't care.
Since the stadium closed in September 1999, Peter C. Riley has dedicated himself to saving Tiger Stadium. Riley, a native of Grosse Point (an affluent suburb just north of Detroit), worked for nearly eleven years in professional baseball, first with the Tigers, then the Baltimore Orioles and back with the Tigers again, most recently in player development. When the stadium closed, however, he left the Tigers staff to begin Michigan & Trumbull LLC, a non-profit organization whose primary function was bringing sports back to Tiger Stadium, thereby saving it. "We felt that, for the most part, Tiger Stadium could only be used for the purpose of sport," Riley argued. "That's what we approached the city with four years ago."
Detroit's many sportswriters and fans applauded this decision, and some even argued that, in the off-season, Tiger Stadium could house sports teams from the city's many colleges. All well and good, except that the city had visions of developing Tiger Stadium. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press the city asked developers "
to preserve the field and build lofts into the upper decks, a public plaza, shops and a glass-enclosed sports center with ice rinks, swimming pool and a rock-climbing wall". A bizarre plan to say the least, but par for the course in a state that built Auto World in Flint, hoping to turn that forlorn city into a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, a developer came forward with plans to just that.
This didn't deter Riley, who felt that, even in the best case scenario, redevelopment would take a few years to get off the ground. "This was about today, tomorrow and next week," Riley pointed out. "It'll be a year or maybe two before you get that deal done and even start building. We told the city that the minute you get somebody, you can throw us out. We're renters. Give us sixty days notice, provided its not in the middle of the baseball season, and we're gone." Although the city council felt the idea was sound, when Michigan & Trumbull approached Mayor Dennis Archer in 2000, with the hopes of fielding an independent minor league team in 2001, there they were immediately put off. "The city had a large investment in the new stadium, so you feared right off that it would be an unusual beast to tackle," Riley admits. "No one was doing any cartwheels over the idea, and no one could commit to any dates or numbers." He discovered that whatever team played there couldn't play on days the Tigers were in town, making it nearly impossible to work out a schedule of 41 home games. Even worse, the city demanded to know where the team was, for Michigan and Trumbull didn't own one yet. Riley countered that he had commitments from both the Northern League and the Frontier League, but couldn't actually secure a team without a place to play and a commitment of dates. The city told Riley that they would get back to him. Weeks went by before a member of Archer's staff called and said, "I recommend you call the Detroit Tigers about working out a suitable lease."
These are odd words considering that the city owns Tiger Stadium. The Tigers have nothing to do with the place other than a nebulous agreement to maintain it (an agreement that most agree pays the Tigers $400, 000 per year). Riley knew then that his plan was doomed and didn't even bother to call the Tigers. "Think about it: I'm going to call the Tigers and, knowing I'm a direct competitor, ask to work out a lease? That's going to be a really short conversation." In fact, when we asked a Tigers representative about this plan, he stated that Major League Baseball wouldn't allow a minor league team. When we pointed out that MLB has no say over independent leagues, he asked us to call the city, stating that they had the final say. When the city wouldn't comment, this same person (who remained nameless, in the Media Relations Department), stated that the Tigers don't want the competition. But why wouldn't the city want something anythingin Tiger Stadium which might help defray the cost of upkeep? After numerous phone calls to the city (including one man who asked to call later and speak with a woman who would give me answers "which are truthful!"), we never received any information.
In spite of these problems, Riley decided that he would try to field some baseball in Tiger Stadium, with the hopes that, when people returned to the Corner and money (no matter how little) came flowing in, the city might see to opening its doors to minor league ball. He managed to get a collegiate barnstorming team called the Motor City Marauders to play a few games the next summer. As expected, Michigan & Trumbull was told that the team couldn't play when the Tigers were in town. Riley agreed, countered with his own dates, and was given the runaround. Finally, after much back and forth, the Tigerswho demanded control of ticketingagreed to two dates and a rain-out day. Even then, Riley met with resistance from both the city and the Tigers. They Tigers wouldn't allow him to use their box office until the weekend before the first game, and there was trouble with the park itself. "We were assured that for the price we were paying to rent the stadium (around $14,000), we would show up with our players and umpires and everything would be in working order. So when we get to the walk-through, the city rep says, 'scoreboard doesn't work, PA system doesn't work, lights don't work'." And yet, as Riley points out, all of these work for the Tigers fantasy camps, which Riley has attended. Because of this, the Marauders games had to be played during rush houras opposed to the original 7:30 pm startand right in the middle of the week. They drew around 1,400 fans. Other than a couple more fantasy camps, nothing has been played in Tiger Stadium since.
Ever since the stadium closed, the city of Detroit has been taking requests for proposal to develop it. A number of different developers have come forward, with the notion that somehow you could rebuild the place into condominiums. Problem is, the designs for Tiger Stadium would wreck the place. Turning the Corner into lofts would make it an amusement park replica. The few drawings we've found on the internet are, in our mind, bordering on ludicrous. But aside from the city and the few developers willing to tackle the job, there is another group that wants condos, and not baseball. These are the citizens of the Corktown neighborhood, who live directly in the shadow of Tiger Stadium.
Corktown is a small neighborhood, reduced from around 25,000 in Detroit's heyday, to just over 1,200 people today. And yet the neighborhood is one of the strongest in the city, filled with a mix of different ethnic groups, from Hispanic to African-American to Maltese, who are proud of their neighborhood. "It's like Sesame Street," says Mark Faremouth, Community Development Coordinator for the Corktown Citizens District Council, a neighborhood group affiliated with the city. "People ask me on the phone 'what are you watching in the background?'. Well, the windows are open and there are kids everywhere. There's a strong sense of community hereall the neighbors know one another." If any area of Detroit has the possibility of being revitalized, it is Corktown, whose property values have increased significantly over the last five years. But Tiger Stadium, while respected by the locals, has not always been the source of pride for the citizens of Corktown. "Parking has had an impact on this neighborhood." Faremouth says. "In the past, people tore down nice homes for parking. During game days, they parked on the street and often urinated on yards." Ideally, the Corktown residents would like to see the place developed, to help satisfy what one Corktown resident described as a 'strong need for retail space and housing.' "Who wouldn't want to have a loft overlooking Tiger Stadium?" one resident said. And what about razing the place? "Anything would be betterjust do something with it."
This makes it sound as if the solution is obvious: develop the place. If only it were that easy. Back in December of 2001, the city accepted a bid from Nonrahs-Sinacola Stadium Redevelopment LLC. According to articles in the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, the developers found financial backing for the project, drew up designs, and then
nothing. The city has stonewalled plans for development. "I have a group interested in putting up financing," said David Sinacola (in a quote from the News) . "Here you have a developer willing to risk $170 million, and the city isn't returning our phone calls." This may have been, in part, due to a change in administrations in the mayor's office. But whatever the reason, that was a few years ago. As of this writing, nothing has come forward, and the city refuses to answer questions.
Between the city and the Detroit Tigers (who also didn't return our calls about the future of Tiger Stadium, other than to say they don't want minor league ball), you come away with nothingTiger Stadium remains empty, unused. "I think it's outrageous that for four years there has been no discussion about using it or demolishing itno one wants to be the bad guy," Riley says, with an air of defeat. "Maybe, in a roundabout way, what they've done is left a shrine to their ineptness." Tiger Stadium has certainly aroused imagination: from both city newspapers we've read of plans to use Tiger Stadium for bullfighting, dog racing, an RV park, boxing, a "Hispanic university" and, most improbably, to have the Baseball Hall of Fame move there.
Undoubtedly, this unique situation will keep Tiger Stadium standing empty for a number of years. We imagine the ball field choked with weeds, swaying in the wind to dark and empty stands gutted by souvenir seekers. Perhaps there will be a shuffling of old men, the homeless in need of a place to sleep, who enjoy the idea of camping out on the benches where Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich and Lou Whitaker once sat. Hopefully Tiger Stadium will no doubt prove just as grand when empty as she was when she was functional. Although many argue that Tiger Stadium stands as a monument to baseball's hubris, the proverbial millstone that weighs down progress in Detroit, it doesn't have to be this way. We prefer to imagine the Corner's future in much the same way as Camilo José Vergara sees the Circus Park skyline, (from his book American Ruins): "What is a ruined skyscraper if not an impressive structure? Why can't the planned rebuilding take place around the ruins, as it has in Rome? In reality, they are the symbols of what led this nation into the twentieth century, and they will soon become invisible. Are these not places where we can meditate on progress?"
This is a good questionwhy not make Tiger Stadium a ruin of baseball's mighty past, an American Coliseum? No other sport is as indebted to its past as baseball, and wouldn't a ruin give us that connection to a supposedly simpler time? Someday, Fenway Park will vanish, and probably even Yankee Stadium, and the American League will have not a single monument to its heyday (Wrigley Field probably won't go anywhere). It was the Detroit Tigers and Tiger Stadium that helped to make baseball great. Consider the multitude of great players who sat in the dugout, from Ty Cobb to Turkey Stearnes of the Negro League's Detroit Stars. Their ghosts need a place to haunt.
Tiger Stadium was not meant to last forever. Nothing does. We need only visit the Yucatan peninsula to see the ruins of the eternal. As much as we hate to admit it, baseball, like all things, is fleeting. Each game is special because it exists in its moment and then vanishes into the memories between the statistics. A ballpark is only a part of those memories. Wherever the fate of Tiger Stadiumbe it condominiums, a minor league park, a ruin, or an empty lotit will live on in this way.
MORE AMERICAN RUINS
For some great books on America's crumbling old buildings, be sure to check out Camilo José Vergara's poignant American Ruins. Vergara's amazing photos are paired with equally fascinating text, especially his suggestion that the Michigan Central Railroad Station be given over to beer-brewing Monks.
To find photos of the ruined ballparks of old, look no further than out-of-print copies (circa 1983) of the Sporting News Take Me Out to the Ballpark. Written by Lowell Reidenbaugh, with Ripley's-Believe-It-Or-Not!-style drawings by a lantern-jawed German named Amadee, this is one of the definitive ballpark texts. You can keep your current crop of sparkling stadiums, we want the old, dark, cavernous fields. Take Me Out works wonders by giving us old black and whites of abandoned, weed-choked Griffith Stadium, Shibe Park and Boston's Braves Field run alongside those of well trimmed Tiger Stadium, Veterans Field, etc. And besides, since this copy is out of print, it would do you all some good to get out to the garage sales and used books stores once in awhile.
SOME FACES IN THE CROWD
In case you're wondering where you can go to find good sports writing and analysis, check out some of the blogs on the internet. As the pundits in the major press continue to bore us with their lukewarm ideas, we've found that sites like Twins Geek give us the stats and analysis that is often fresh and original (though sometimes quick to judgment).
Twins Geek (Jon Bonnes) writes with a confidence that is often lacking in his internet brethren, sticking to his own insight without having to rely on (or slam) those of the major writers. The Twins Geek is also a part of the independent scorecard Gameday, which is sold for a buck outside of the Metrodomea welcome tonic to the bland corporate programs sold inside.
Recently, the good Mr. Geek had this suggestion, which we thought was just peachy: that that the Twins open up their pocketbooks and sign some of the great Japanese players as the Yankees have. Cheaper than the big name talent here, and adding yet another spice to the "League of Nations" infield, this idea smacks of good baseball and great promotion.
Thankfully, Brad Zellar's "Yard" column is back on the City Pages website, although we have to admit disappointment that the young Nostradamus didn't share his predictions on the fate of the Twins this year. However, Brad's got a blog on the City Pages website with his witty observations, and some truly weird photos, like the Baseball/Frozen Custard/Mini Golf sign against a backdrop of some ominous thunderheads. But does Brad have to pick on the Tigers so? (The answerof course he does.)
And if you are looking for some place to lead you to the blogs, look no further than Baseball News Blog. A great resource for baseball fans, and one of the most humble sites out therethis is the work of someone who's does their job, does it well, and doesn't have to slap their name all over it. Probably it's a thankless job as well, so thanks, whoever you are.
If your dentist is wondering why you're grinding your teeth in the night, perhaps its due to some suppressed frustration. Maybe, like us, you're tired of hearing all the tripe from the Commissioner's office, from Don Fehr, from your penny-ante team owner trying to give you reasons why a) he needs you to pay for a stadium or b) now that you've built it why he can't field a good team. They all claim to be losing money, yet it just doesn't sit right when the franchise values climb faster than kudzu on a North Caroline barn. You read the sports page hoping someoneanyonewill step up and hold baseball's feet to the fire, but the writers seem like nothing more than parrots for the corporate line. You like to argue, but need the facts. Where can you find proof to the contrary?
Instead of drinking beer and moaning, pick up a copy of Andrew Zimbalist's May the Best Team Win ($24.95. The Brookings Institution Press). Zimbalist is the author of Baseball and Billions, one of the most impressive books on the subject, trumped, perhaps, only by this one. Where Bud Selig and Company would have you believe that baseball is losing millions, May the Best Team Win exposes the chicanery the bigwigs use to make their hollow claims.
The most impressive chapter in this slim volume regards the stadium issue. As Zimbalist argues, adding a stadium to a major city is not the cure-all it's advertisedsomething we could all stand to learn. In fact, Zimbalist argues that stadiums deter businesses from blossoming nearby, for most new parks are self enclosed malls that generate income only for the owner of the teamwhich is exactly the situation in Detroit, whose storefronts around the park remain empty. While not an uplifting read, May the Best Team Win is one that the critical fan needs in their arsenal.
One tasty nugget from May The Best Team Win regards an old 1939 rule used to keep the Yanks from winning their fifth straight pennant. According to Mr. Zimbalist, the American League passed a rule barring the prior year's pennant winner from "buying, selling, or trading" players within the league during the following season. We would widen this to include any playoff team, in both leagues (and include a ban on signing players internationally as well). It might just be the case, however, that baseball wants to keep the Yanks successfulfor that whipping boy helps further Selig's argument that small market teams (like his) still need all the financial help they can get.
AROUND THE HORN
Baseball in April is about as real a place as Brigadoon. Kansas City and Pittsburgh fighting it out in their respective Central Divisions, the stumbling of great pitchers Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Greg Maddox, and Pedro Martinez. Only the Yankees, shooting out of the station like a German bullet train, have any resemblance to real life. But hooray for discord! All the turmoil leaves us hopeful for a great yearquite frankly, the Twins waltzing away with the Central Division in mid-September last year was a yawner. A three-way fight with Chicago and Kansas City (yow!) would be something else. And this whole Steinbrenner-Torre mess certainly adds some zest to another Yankee cakewalk. Our hope is that the Yanks take the series in seven, and at the post-game ceremony, a beaming, champagne-soaked Torre tells the Boss exactly what he can do with his job.
We've heard that big contracts (Maddux) and cold weather (Martinez) have hurt the great pitchers, but another twist may have been addedtipping pitches. According to Paul Dickson, in his forthcoming The Hidden Language of Baseball (which we'll review in a later issue), Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson's troubles at the end of last season may have been the result of 'tipped' pitches. That is, the batters could tell from the pitchers approach what the next pitch would be. In fact, in a game on September 29 of last year, Schilling tipped so badly that Rick Sutcliffe, in the broadcast booth, correctly predicted sixteen straight pitches. After the playoffs, Johnson even admitted, "It's not the first time I've heard that I was tipping my pitches." Perhaps it was not the last time, either.
The Detroit Tigers surprising victory over the Oakland A's (and their ace Barry Zito) is one of the pleasures of rooting for a team as bad as this year's Bengals. There's hundreds of sportswriters crowing over the fact that the team as a whole is hitting less than .200, that you have half the batting order whacking a resounding .160, etc. This is music to our ears. The Tigers are bad. Guess what? Add sixty points to both those numbers, and the Tigers lose 104 instead of 130 games. If they're going to be awful, why not make them monumentally so?
We will always bang the drum for Baseball Digest, and this month, there's a nifty piece on "Baseball's Most Improbable Achievements", which includes a fellow by the name of Jim Miller, who homered in his first and last at-bats in his career, to Jim Harshman, a pitcher with 76 hits in his career, of which 21 were homers. And did ye know that Brooks Robinson hit into four triple plays in his career?
Considering the dearth of good sportswriting lately (another casualty of war?) let us know your favorite books or scribes.