Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Tiger Stadium, Destroyed?

The Detroit News has a front page article today about the possible demolition of Tiger Stadium this summer. I wish this action won't be happening, but I suspect that nothing will be able to be done to avoid the wrecking ball.

The stadium has sat empty now since 2000, with only an event or two to stir the cobwebs. The most recent event was during this past Super Bowl week when "Bud Bowl" put on a concert.

Outside of Detroit there may only be a few cities in the world that has had a beloved ballpark that elicits such passion from its citizens. Even today there is still a Tiger Stadium fanclub. There was quite a battle for fans of the stadium when Detroit Tigers owner Mike Illitch was preparing to build another ballpark, the new place called Comerica Park. "Save the Stadium" protests were common.

I grew up with baseball as my favorite sport, the Detroit Tigers my favorite team and Tiger Stadium an awe inspiring place to visit. I can still visualize on entering the stands that first image of the seemingly glowing green of the grass field with the contrast of the golden diamond. That sight just seemed to jump out at you. As a long ago built stadium it had its interesting nooks and crannys that you'll never find in the modern corporate sponsored ball parks. Tiger Stadium also had its awful features such as the posts that supported the upper deck that caused a slew of obstructed view seating and the almost ancient urinal troughs in the mens bathrooms.

Over the years I had sat in many parts of the park. From the sometimes wild upper deck centerfield bleachers, to box seats (that were oddly similar to the defendant box in Saddam Hussein's trial), to the press box when I had the fortune of working as a TV statistician for three games, to the upper dack where every pop-up at first semmed like a homerun and to those obstructed view seats which had you tilting your head left and right to see around those posts.

I had such great memories of specific games. I got to attend the 1971 All-Star game as a young teen, that game had a record number of future hall-of-famers, an all-star record 6 home runs that included that massive homerun by Reggie Jackson that banged off the lighting stand on the right field roof.

As an older teen, I remember going with my buddies to catch a few Mark Fidyrich pitched games in 1975. The "Bird" took baseball by storm as a rookie that year, including starting that years all-star game. Fidyrich was a one-of-a-kind, he would talk to the baseball, do plenty of fancy pitching mound grooming, and had a great fastball, Detroit loved him. Sadly he hurt his leg, then arm the following season and never made an impact again. Today he is a farmer and has no regrets, a person who truely likes life and considers his one year in the sun as a blessing.

The Tigers had two magical seasons in my life, 1968 and 1984 that both ended as world championships. The first year I remember as a grade schooler. For some reason I didn't get to attend a game that season, odd as I had been taken both in 1967 and 1969. But I followed them intently as I had a paper route and got to keep the sports sections all season. I can still recite nearly the entire roster. My favorite players such as Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, Al Kaline, Gates Brown, Bill Freehan and Dick McAuliffe still give me a smile from thinking about that year.

I'll never forget how the World Series was played during the day back then and sprinting home from school to catch most of the game. The Tigers fell behind the St. Louis Cardinal 3 games to 1 and won the final three games. McLain had won 31 games in the regular season (the last pitcher to win 30 in a season), but his tired arm only gained one victory in the series. Thankfully Lolich won three games as the Tigers series hero.

1984 was awesome. The Tigers started the season with a record of 35-5, nearly unbeatable. They led the division from start to finish, swept the Kansas City Royals in three games, then flat out pummeled the San Diego Padres in the World Series. The series had memorial homeruns by Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson (which became the photo of the series with his upraised arms). My favorites included Trammell, Gibson, Lou Whitaker, Chet Lemon, Lance Parrish and Larry Herndon to name a few. I remember 1984 particularily because I had discharged from the Army that spring seemingly just in time to catch such a great season.

The Tigers had many bad seasons in my years as they used Tiger Stadium. But like most true fans I still attended games, the stadium was a part of the charm of going. Low attendance games were no problem for me, it just gave me the opportunity to move around and sit in various parts of the ballpark. I have to confess that those upper deck bleachers were my emotional favorite.

It has been claimed that "the wave" was invented in Detroit in that 1984 season, and if that's true, it probably began in those bleachers. With no assigned seat, you could move around and find people to chat with, yell with, party with. Sometimes the game was just a diversion to the clamor around you. Those bleachers were a game in itself.

I finally went to a game at Comerica Park last season. I like the place but somehow it just doesn't compare favorably to Tiger Stadium. Coamerica is new, it's colorful, has a nice open feeling, is very kid and family friendly, yet...I'm not sure, maybe it's because I didn't grow up with it. Tiger Stadium was old, it had that working class feel that IS Detroit.

I don't often wish I was old (some people might say I am!), but as to Tiger Stadium I do. I've often wondered how it would have been to go to games in the 1940's or 1950's when it was named Briggs Stadium. Or decades before when Ty Cobb played in the stadium name of Navin Field. Tiger Stadium was a park that went through major renovations. For instance at one point home plate was in a totally different corner. A second deck was added, night tower lights to update for a new innovation night games.

The Detroit News article explains that the money has run out to continue to upkeep the stadium. Also mentioned is that it is highly uncommon to find a second use for old baseball stadiums, sadly. It seems the city of Detroit plans to auction off the entire stadium in pieces if the destruction is to come. As the article explains, everything from the steel beams to the seats. I may have to get into the bidding (will it be E-Bay?) for something as a memory keepsake. Strangely I seem to be attracted to the more unsightly features, an obstructed view post or one of those putrid urine troughs. I can't explain why, except that when someone came over to my backyard (the only place to keep those items) they would immediately know where they came from.

It may also be time for a field trip. A few months prior to the destruction of the Detroit Red Wings old home, Olympia Stadium, a good friend and I went down there to take pictures. That event was a memory I'll never forget. We snapped photos of the exterior then decided to explore the inside. It was spooky, having no flashlight on hand. Using just our dim vision and a lighter, we tried to find our way around as distant unknown sounds echoed and dangling wires (we think) brushed our faces.

I wonder if I could talk that same friend (he lives halfway across the country though) into doing a rerun for Tiger Stadium, I'll promise to bring a flashlight this time. Certainly I'll have to get to the Stadium for some final photos. How times have changed. For the Olympia foray I used a manual 35mm, for this trip I'd use my digital camera, although I'd also bring a 35mm. A picture of the actual takedown might be very interesting, and I doubt I'm the only one thinking that.

Destruction of Tiger Stadium seems inevitable, America doesn't save its ancient arenas like Italy does, but for so many in Detroit like myself it will be a sad farewell.


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