Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Tiger Stadium
HOME TEAM: Detroit Tigers
VISITED: June 30, 1997
CHRONOLOGY: 19th of 34
RANKING: 3rd of 34
Across from Tiger Stadium, Mr. Smallwood stops at a liquor store owned, he says, by his brother-in-law, a little Fort Knox of steel mesh and heavy bullet-proof glass. Across the avenue the big stadium hulks up white and lifeless. A message on its marquee says simply, “Sorry Folks. Have a Good One.”
—Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
In April 1988, the Tiger Stadium Fan Club literally gathered around its ballpark to give it a 1,200-person group hug. The occasion was the stadium’s 76th birthday, but the impetus was preservation to ensure it would enjoy many more. The Tiger Stadium Fan Club existed to keep Tiger Stadium from being replaced, torn down and banished to memory.
After visiting the object of their affection nine years later, I could completely understand their mission. Had they wanted to re-enact the scene in 1997, I would not have let go of Tiger Stadium, either. I would have gladly inserted myself within a human chain to keep it alive as long as it could stand. And you might have had to have pried me away from it with a court order and then some.
I am not nor have I ever been a Detroit Tigers fan. But count me as a spiritual member of any organization dedicated to Tiger Stadium. I would have hugged her had it occurred to me as feasible. For what it’s worth, I kissed her goodbye on my way out.
Tiger Stadium. Sweet, embraceable you. I guess all we had was a one-night stand, but you still bring a smile to my face and a pang to my heart. It was all I could do to see you once, before it was decided you had to go. I’m sure glad I got there just in time.
Statistically speaking, my date with Tiger Stadium was the 203rd-to-last game in its 88-season history, so there was a little time left, but not enough. That I knew. I didn’t know all that much about Tiger Stadium otherwise, except that if I was ever going to see it before it let the cats out, I’d have to haul ass and bone up, in that order.
The hauling, as was so often the case over the course of a decade-and-a-half, was facilitated by my vocation as a beverage magazine writer. In the summer of 1997, Stephanie was a newly graduated MSW — she had taken two years from her social work career to get a degree in social work so she could be officially called a social worker (go figure). Our ballpark trips, hence, tended to be more finagled than planned during that period, and finagling ballpark trips through work had become a finely honed practice for me.
First step: Find a sanctioned reason to be in Detroit.
Had I written for a car magazine, that would have been simple, except I know little about cars and can barely stand to drive. There were, nonetheless, a couple of decent beverage prospects in the Detroit metro area, but they themselves weren’t enough to merit a full-blown professional visit. That’s where the city of Milwaukee came in.
Miller Brewing was hosting a press event on a Thursday and Friday. That was totally sanctionable. I volunteered my services to cover it and then let it be known in the office that there were some outstanding companies to visit in nearby Detroit if I stayed the weekend in the Midwest. How nearby is Detroit to Milwaukee? I have no idea, but I was operating on the New Yorker’s View of the World and knew my editor would do the same.
And, though I didn’t mention this loudly where I worked, 25 other New Yorkers were heading to Motown. This was the first year of Interleague play, and the genius schedulemakers gave the world the matchup for which it had no idea it had been panting: the Mets of the National League East versus the Tigers then of the American League East.
The agenda was set:
• Fly to Milwaukee Thursday afternoon.
• Listen attentively to Miller Thursday night and all day Friday.
• Fly rude Northwest Airlines to Detroit Saturday.
• Visit with a Troy, Mich.-based juice company Monday afternoon.
• Spend quality time with a downtown Detroit craft brewer Tuesday morning.
• Fly home right after.
And since we’re in the vicinity anyway, it would be a shame to pass up the Mets and Tigers at the legendary corner of Michigan and Trumbull Monday night, right? And since I was traveling on official editorial business, I could purchase an extra LGA-MKE-DTW-LGA ticket for Stephanie on my own dime without it being too much of a burden. I’d also pick up the Mets-Tigers tickets, sport that I am.
That, my friends, was a plan.
The Brewers were on the road during our brief Wisconsin stay (which normally I would have held against Miller, but I’d already seen County Stadium), yet suffice it to say that once my work there was done, Brewtown served its purpose as the viaduct through which we’d reach our key destination without my piling up bills or burning off precious vacation time. We arrived in Detroit on Saturday, rented a car — despite my driving hiccups, I didn’t see how I could alight in the Motor City and not handle a Ford — and set up camp in adjacent Dearborn.
As part of our non-beverage/non-baseball weekend interlude, we hit a local mall and it was there, at Waldenbooks, that I started to bone up in earnest. Other than a few bullet points, I did not consider myself adequately informed about the Tigers or Tiger Stadium, so I purchased several volumes to bring me up to speed. I don’t do this in every city, but with the team having been around so long and the park being around not much longer, I decided I owed both that much.
Beyond exploring the exploits of Tigers from Ty to Trammell, most of what I took away from my crash course of reading put me off a bit despite the trouble I went to find my way to Detroit. I had a vague idea about riots thirty years before and the urban blight accelerated in its wake, but my self-imposed homework got me a little nervous in the present day.
From Detroit Tigers: Club and Community, 1945-1995 by Patrick Harrigan:
• “Local television shows made crime their lead story, day after day, night after night. One could easily conclude that everyone in Detroit was either a criminal or victim and that anyone venturing into the city from suburban havens did so at extreme risk.”
• “Violence increased in the stands and around Tiger Stadium as well. [...] The image of Detroit was that of a violent city. Each episode seemed to confirm that imagine in the popular mind.”
• “[T]he notion of Tiger Stadium as an unsafe place to visit became part of the mythology surrounding Detroit.”
Um, I wondered, they don’t still have riots around here, do they? I needn’t have worried about being mobbed or looted my one night at Tiger Stadium (and it wasn’t like a World Series celebration was about to go awry), but the despair that had wracked the city since the 1960s was still very much in evidence. You couldn’t avoid it if you looked around even a little.
Too much sociology for one baseball fan seeking out one baseball game.
Monday, as scheduled, we showed up somewhere off 16 Mile Road in Troy, at the juice company offices, me as reporter, Stephanie, per earlier jury-rigged journeys, as photographer. (“A small outfit like us rating a reporter and a photographer? My goodness!”) The interview, the pictures and the lunch — seafood and a good bit of it — was successful enough, though just after we parted ways with our subject, it began to storm. For the first time in my life, I saw lightning strike a utility pole transformer. Damn thing was practically eviscerated on the spot.
I hoped it wasn’t an omen for Monday night.
The skies calmed and the only thing it was raining when we arrived at Tiger Stadium was a surprising dose of familiarity.
“You’re Mets fans? WE’RE Mets fans! Mets are doin’ great, right? They’re not gonna lose another game all year!”
The first people we ran into after parking in a lot across Michigan Avenue from the ballpark were, as they helpfully identified themselves, Mets fans. A couple of college-age or thereabouts kids, probably at the same stage of their lives that I was the first time I journeyed to Fenway. Their enthusiasm was understandable, as this was 1997, the year the Bobby Valentine Mets broke free of their predecessors’ stubborn misery and insinuated themselves into Wild Card contention. I was pretty pumped up about them myself, if not quite as optimistic that they’d finish 128-34.
Surely the Mets were an attraction for us on this trip. I witnessed their first-ever Interleague game, versus the Red Sox, seventeen days earlier at Shea and I was still high from taking in, on Channel 9, their rousing Subway Series victory two weeks ago — Dave Mlicki Night in the Bronx. The Interleague curiosity tour continued here.
But when I turned around and saw where the Mets would be playing…this bright, white baseball fortress that had withstood all that progress had thrown its way for generations…I have to admit that my Mets, smack in the middle of what had already developed into one of my all-time favorite Met seasons, took a back seat in my priorities. For the next several hours I’d be all about Tiger Stadium.
Figuratively and literally.
Corktown, as the neighborhood there had long been known, didn’t appear to be much of a neighborhood anymore. A Tiger game was in the offing, yet there was almost nothing going on around it. The drive in from Dearborn had revealed the same — closed stores, vacant buildings, bad times more stubborn than Bud Harrelson’s, Jeff Torborg’s and Dallas Green’s Mets combined had provided. Even the roads, which you’d intuitively figure would be among the best in the nation given the prevalence of the auto industry, were, given the depleted tax base, the worst I’d ever traversed.
But again, enough with the sociology. Focus — historic ballpark right in front of you.
Tiger Stadium was built in 1912 as Navin Field. It became Briggs Stadium in 1935 and wasn’t Tiger Stadium until 1961. It was still here, still where the Tigers played baseball. This was 1997…stunning to consider there was a straight line that led back to 1912. For that matter, they’d been playing baseball at this corner since 1896, at Bennett Park…even more stunning. There was a plaque down Trumbull Avenue hailing Ty Cobb — Greatest Tiger of All; A Genius in Spikes. Ty Cobb doesn’t get such good PR these days, but he did hit .368 as a Tiger from 1905 to 1926 (before finishing up as a Philadelphia Athletic and lowering his lifetime average a couple of points after a couple of years). The Cobb plaque was installed in 1963. Just the plaque had been up longer than all of Shea Stadium.
Ty Cobb played here. Hank Greenberg, of whom Ralph Kiner always spoke so fondly, played here. Hundreds and hundreds of Tigers I’d never heard of, and hundreds more I had, played here. The Tigers would play here tonight. They’d play the Mets.
As I comprehended those realities, there appeared every likelihood Ty Cobb’s old ballpark would hit .400 for me.
There is a recurring if fleeting slight note of discord in my marriage concerning starting times of baseball games we are to attend together. Let’s say there’s one for which we hold tickets and the first pitch is scheduled for a little past 7 o’clock. I’ll be asked by my wife when we’re going to leave for the ballpark. Well, I’ll say, I’d like to get there around six…
“Six? Why so early?”
“Because I want to get there.”
Sound logic, right?
For Tiger Stadium, this undercurrent of patience-testing was suspended from the marital conversation. Stephanie got why we were in Detroit, and it wasn’t for juice in the afternoon and beer the next morning. Arriving early was endorsed heartily. Part of it was forged by a mutual desire to not get lost on the way to the middle of this particular city (though tooling straight east on Michigan Avenue from Dearborn made that impossible), but most of it was an understanding that if you only get one night inside Tiger Stadium, you make it count.
I saw a game at Tiger Stadium, but it was secondary to what I saw at Tiger Stadium before the game began. I saw Tiger Stadium, as much of it as I could. Every pregame minute was precious to me, so I wrapped myself up in every one of them. I was so very antsy to explore, Stephanie didn’t even try to keep up. She suggested I take the camera and go off into the Tiger wilds, as it were.
This must have been what was on the other side of Ray Kinsella’s corn in Field of Dreams. Not an ideal analogy, since Ray had a letter-perfect baseball diamond in full view of his house, but the deeper I delved into Tiger Stadium — strolling from our lower-level seats on the third base side all the way around toward right — the more I felt I was onto something that only a few lucky spirits could see.
This wasn’t Detroit. This was heaven. This really was. This was a 1912 ballpark coming to life for a 1997 ballgame. This was green grass and blue paint and blue seats and orange seats (though not as many as the blue and not as orange as Shea’s) coalescing beneath a milky white sky. It wasn’t raining but it never fully cleared up, which was all right. Late-day, late-June sun was unnecessary. Tiger Stadium deserved the majesty an unthreatening overcast sky lent it.
We stayed dry, but we were drenched in mood. In those precious minutes before the game, Tiger Stadium was solemn and dignified. Its posts and girders had seen it all, even if they blocked who knows how many fans from seeing everything. Nobody would ever build a ballpark with precisely these kinds of obstructions today, but they made perfect sense here. The posts held up the upper deck, and the upper deck was right on top of the lower deck. Everybody was leaning into the field.
Nothing about Tiger Stadium needed to be a rumor. That famous porch in right field loomed near enough to pat you on the back. Those light towers…I remembered Reggie Jackson smashing a ball off one of the transformers in the ’71 All-Star Game — the National League was practically eviscerated on the spot. The retired number signs may have been recent, but two of the three honorees were ancient. Kaline, 6, I remember from my childhood (I was quite proud of myself at eleven years old for noticing Al Kaline was both a Detroit Tiger and a battery type); Gehringer (2) and Greenberg (5) were names from Baseball Digest mostly. This is where they played. Later in the summer of 1997, the Tigers were going to get around to retiring 16 for Hal Newhouser, a.k.a. Prince Hal.
Hal Newhouser was from the war years and just after. My baseball-averse father (who probably asked “why so early?”) was dragged by his father (who probably answered “because I want to get there”) to Yankee Stadium on Memorial Day 1945 for a doubleheader between the Yankees and the Tigers and saw Hal Newhouser pitch the second game. My father sat shvitzing and presumably unimpressed among 70,906 that day and drank, he told me, more sarsaparilla than he would ultimately care for in an effort to keep cool. That became, by choice, his last baseball game at Yankee Stadium.
Yankee Stadium from 1945 was barely the same Yankee Stadium when Dave Mlicki held forth in 1997, yet the Briggs Stadium to which Prince Hal Newhouser came home after the Tigers’ extended eastern swing that May and June was still exactly where Prince Hal Newhouser’s old club played ball five-plus decades later. And I was inside it, slurping up its muted ambiance, its twilight dignity and its reassuring blues like it was ice-cold sarsaparilla on the hottest Memorial Day in memory.
Oh, and then there were the Mets in their blue NEW YORK warmup jerseys. I was so busy and happy snapping pictures of the roof and the beams and all that cobalt shading that the Mets wandering around for batting practice almost escaped my notice. But at Tiger Stadium, everything is in reach…even your favorite team wandering far from home.
First Met I see: pitching coach Bob Apodaca, schlepping an equipment bag. I click. Next: red hot ace Bobby Jones, 12-4 and due at next week’s All-Star game in Cleveland. He’s one of the few recognizable Mets on our stealth contenders, so he draws a cluster of autograph-seekers. I click anyway. Not a great shot.
Backing off from Jonesmania, I wander a little more and another Met trudges down the right field line toward the diamond undisturbed. I recognize him. He’s Cory Lidle, dependable rookie reliever and emergency spot starter. I saw him start eight days ago at Shea against the Pirates. He wasn’t good at it, but the Mets won, so I think nothing but good thoughts of Cory Lidle.
There’s him and there’s me and there’s nobody else within thirty yards of us (at least nobody else who’s interested in a rookie reliever with a low profile). So I hustle down through the grandstand and disturb him near the railing in short right.
“Cory! Cory! Can I get a picture?”
Cory Lidle shrugged. Looked like he could have done without it, but he stopped and stood in place. I wouldn’t say he posed. I snapped.
“Thanks! Thanks! Great pitching, man! Great pitching!”
He seemed slightly but sincerely appreciative. It was all I could have asked for.
Cory Lidle returned to his trudging. I floated just a little higher.
When I got back to our seats, I couldn’t shut up about what I saw. I got such great pictures! I got the right field porch! And the retired numbers! And those poles! And Bob Apodaca! And Bobby Jones, though not so good! AND I TALKED TO CORY LIDLE!
I was, for the record, 34 years old, but I had never approached a Met prior to a Mets game before, let alone gotten an up-close and personal portrait.
Ohmigod, this place is great! Isn’t it great?!
Stephanie liked it plenty. She did a little looking around while I was gone and was glad I liked it so much, but what she’d really like right about now, as BP was ending and the grounds crew was manicuring and what crowd there would be — barely 15,000 (Interleague fever mysteriously subsiding) — was filling in, was something to eat. I volunteered to get it. It was a chance to see more of the place.
I stood in a concession line in the relatively new Tiger Plaza that aligned with Michigan Avenue while the national anthem played, which made me a little self-conscious. Instinctively, I took off my cap. Nobody else did, so I put it back on. Seems if you can’t see the flagpole in center filed, you’re not really obligated to acknowledge the bombs bursting in air, et al. Once I ordered and paid for our dinner (I opted for pizza given my gastrointestinal issues with hot dogs in those days…and given that you couldn’t miss Little Caesars at Tiger Stadium since the Little Caesars mogul owned the team), I hustled back to our seats. I didn’t want to miss a minute more of staring at that field.
My rush was so pronounced, that I accidentally kicked a neighbor’s frozen rum punch concoction out of its cup and onto the ground. I was profusely apologetic — more so than necessary, probably, because I was wearing a Mets cap and I didn’t want to draw too much ire from those violent home team fans. No violence occurred, but I did race back to the concourse to buy the man a fresh punch.
The game was not a good one from the perspective of Mets fans who traveled from New York through Milwaukee to attend. The Tigers scored two off Mark Clark in the first and never looked back. Tiger starter Justin Thompson toyed with the suddenly tame Mets. Detroit’s lead stretched to 5-0 by the fifth and was blown open with five more in the sixth.
I can’t say I didn’t mind or didn’t care. The Mets had entered the night two behind the Marlins for the Wild Card lead and we were about to lose ground. Yet let’s just say if you’re going to watch your team go down in flames, doing so at a gorgeous 85-year-old ballpark against an opponent for whom you hold absolutely no animus — and from whose fans none flows toward you and your cap — this is the ideal situation for it.
So we were losing 10-0. So what? There’d be other Mets games. This was it for us and Tiger Stadium. This place…it was a place. It was of Detroit, of course, yet it could have been in its own city on the map. Tiger Stadium was too substantial to be so close to defunctitude. It was bigger than its generational peers, surely more hulking than darling Wrigley and lyric Fenway, but it was no less precious.
How could this place where we were watching a baseball game as fans had watched baseball games for 85 seasons previous to this one not be that place any longer?
With the score out of hand, we decided to do a bit of mutual exploring upstairs. Let’s see what it looks like from there. It looked great as night fell on the upper deck. It seemed more exciting up there, too. Probably had something to do with the home run that was launched off Joe Crawford during our cameo. A standing ovation ensued, which struck me as a pretty intense reaction for taking the game from 10-0 to 12-0. I was so not paying attention to the events on the field that I hadn’t noticed the home run was hit by Bobby Higginson, and that it was his third of the night. Higginson would score four runs in all and collect seven RBI, including a grand slam that also somehow evaded my scorn. The Tigers would roar to a 14-0 victory over the Mets.
Like I said, so what?
We ducked out a little ahead of the crowd, in the eighth, not because of the Mets’ deficit and not because we were bored with the ballpark. Driving at night is even worse for me than driving in daylight, and the idea of having to navigate a rental car in a jumble of exiting vehicles made me even more tense than usual, so I wanted to beat the traffic not for convenience sake, but for my own easily rattled nerves.
I walked out of Tiger Stadium for the last time. We had just met and now I’d be leaving. Talk about a whirlwind romance — three hours and then I’m hitting the pavement…wham, bam, thank you Bobby Higginson. I had been a stranger in these parts at six o’clock. It wasn’t much after nine now, yet I was already signed up, at least mentally, as a lifelong member of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club.
Sweet, embraceable Tiger Stadium…I could have hugged her, I really could have, but I was about 1,199 spiritual brethren shy of executing it effectively, thus I opted for the next best display of affection: my lips to my three middle right fingers, my three middle right fingers to her regal ivory exterior. Goodbye, old girl, I told her in tones low enough so as not to be heard by anyone, not even Stephanie. I’m glad we got to meet.
The Tigers swept the Mets that week, finished out 1997, 1998 and 1999 at Tiger Stadium and then put the building and 6,873 regular-season games played there behind them. They moved to one of those modern retro palaces that’s attractive enough on television but broke my heart every time I saw video of it for its first five years. The Tiger organization made noises about how it needed what became known as Comerica Park to be competitive. In their fourth season there, the Tigers lost 119 games.
I shouldn’t tell other teams or towns their business, but how do you just walk away from Tiger Stadium? Whatever its antiquities, whatever challenges its location presented, it survived 88 seasons, and it thrived whenever its ballclub provided a show worthy of its setting. I still can’t get over how something so beautiful became so abandoned. Tiger Stadium stood unoccupied for a decade before they got around to tearing it down. Now and again there’d be a picture of it all by its lonesome — no game today, no game tonight, no game tomorrow — and I wondered what the hell was wrong with everybody.
What does it say about a country that as a matter of course turns its back on its Tiger Stadiums? How is it that you have something so perfect for baseball, yet baseball people couldn’t figure out how to brand it like it was Fenway or Wrigley, so they just moved out and took up residence in a structure that, whatever its bells, whistles and whatnot, might as well have been called Generica Park?
One of these years we’ll get out there again and check out Comerica and I imagine it’ll be lovely. Yet I’ll never go to Tiger Stadium again. Nobody will.
I still can’t get over that.
Another irreplaceable Michigan treasure, Dave Murray, presents another installment of the Topps 60 Greatest Cards of All Time, Nos. 20-11, here.