DETROIT — Leaning against a chain link fence, Detroit cab driver Jose Santana stares across a largely empty lot at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues. There is a cluster of picnic tables, a ruggedly etched baseball diamond with net backstop, a set of arched metal plaza entrance gates, and a towering flagpole. In a steady breeze, an American flag atop a Detroit Tigers flag waves in the direction of the downtown business district.
Santana says that all sorts of amateur players take the field during the summer. Then, he takes a tug at the old Al Kaline jersey he’s wearing and says, “But not guys like this. I like the old times.”
The days when Tiger Stadium stood at the site, when the 125-foot-tall flagpole memorably stood in fair territory, when fans flooded through the plaza gates, when Kaline and Ty Cobb patrolled the outfield, when Hank Greenberg racked up RBIs, when Mark Fidrych tidied up the mound on his hands and knees, when Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell turned double plays, are long gone. Now, the old Tiger Stadium site stands as another symbol of decayed, bankrupt Detroit.
Former Detroit pitcher Jack Morris acknowledged before Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Thursday night that he “was the guy that wanted to push the plunger” for demolition. But Morris also understood why fans may have been enthralled by the same historic charm and unique configuration that sometimes proved problematic as a player.
“They built the dugout for Ty Cobb and he’s about 4-6, every time I went in there I hit my head, and I’ve been a wreck ever since,” said Morris.
After praising Comerica Park as more enjoyable for everyone, Morris added: “Tiger Stadium was unique. The first time I walked into it I thought it was pretty cool because of what it was. It was a historical ballpark where some of the greatest players of all time played. And that in itself is kind of cool, because I think as we get older as players we appreciate history more than we did as current players.”
Morris noted he had to learn how to pitch at Tiger Stadium, and it wasn’t easy.
“Center field was the only place you could survive with fly balls,” said Morris. “That’s why Sparky [Anderson, the manager] let the grass grow 6 inches longer, because we needed ground balls to get outs.”
The Tigers played their final game at Tiger Stadium on Sept. 27, 1999. After the local team moved about a mile and a half away to Comerica the next season, there was no shortage of ideas about what to do with the historic, abandoned stadium. Some thought a minor league team could take up residence. A developer reportedly proposed that the stadium be converted into condominiums. Another suggestion was a multi-use facility with condos, stores, and a smaller diamond. Ultimately, the city didn’t see any feasible option except demolition.
Ballparks, particularly a historic ballpark like Tiger Stadium that opened in 1912, present all kinds of challenges. The quirkiness of special features such as the right-field overhang make conversion to other uses tricky and costly. Even maintaining the stadium’s facade after the Tigers left was expensive. Detroit news reports put the total cost of Tiger Stadium upkeep from 2000-06 at around $2.5 million. To this day, the demolition of Tiger Stadium in September 2009 still upsets longtime Tigers fans. And they are particularly disappointed that nothing has been done with the site.
“The stadium was history,” said Bill Harrison of Grass Lake as he shopped for Tigers souvenirs at Comerica Park. “It was part of Detroit, just like Fenway Park is part of Boston. To tear Fenway down, you might as well tear down the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. or the Lincoln monument. Why not? At what point do we save our history for the generations coming up?”
Danny Worley, who grew up in Detroit but traveled from his current home in Oak Ridge, Tenn., for the ALCS, added: “It doesn’t matter what they do with the site, as long as they do something. I love the thought of taking a percentage of it and turning it into some kids fields. But I don’t have a preference, just do something.”
Recounting Tiger Stadium memories, fans often remark on the intimate field and the sightlines. Worley remembered that fans sat so close to the field “it seemed like you could almost reach out and touch the players” and that “for a 10-year-old boy you were in heaven.” Dawn Marlow of Livonia recalled that “there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.”
“I miss the fact that there were a lot of memories there as a kid, great memories,” said Mike Tuttle of Kalamazoo, who attended the 1968 and ’84 World Series at Tiger Stadium. “We used to go to free bat day every year. It’s a shame that the site isn’t enshrined better or there isn’t a better memorial there.”
Some former Tigers miss the historic field a little less than the fans.
“I always say change is good,” said Whitaker. “[But] there’s a lot of memories and history in Tiger Stadium. Some of the best players before my time played the game there . . . People like Ty Cobb and [Charlie] Gehringer, just a lot of history. I’m sure a lot of people in Detroit feel really bad to see it the way it is today. But hopefully they can do something and make it a beautiful site there and keep the memories going.”
Now, the Tigers play in Comerica Park, a place that some fans say has a decidedly corporate feel. With giant tigers statues and tiger heads gripping baseballs in their mouths adorning the exterior, and a carousel spinning just off a concourse, Comerica can feel a little Disney-esque at times. That said, Morris will take Comerica Park and its bells and whistles and revisit Tiger Stadium on film.
“There’s video of players playing [at Tiger Stadium] and baseball games being played there,” said Morris. “I would say the beautiful things in the world are created by God. Man-made things come and go . . . It was time.”Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.