Spirit of Tiger Stadium lives on
Despite weeds, Detroit's old baseball home evokes passion
DETROIT -- It is a little more than an hour before first pitch at Comerica Park. The gates have opened for an afternoon game between the Tigers and Yankees, and the fans are entering this building that, aside from its enormous outfield dimensions, is the epitome of the modern "mallpark."Comerica opened in 2000, a year that always sounded so ... futuristic. Along its outer walls, 33 sculpted stone tiger heads clutch baseballs in their mouths. Inside, as you walk the wide concourse, you come across, at separate points, a carousel and a Ferris wheel. There are nods to the past, via the Tigers Walk of Fame, but everything about this place feels like the present. It is a ballpark built for the modern fan and family, and it certainly serves that purpose. But on this day, the spirit moves us to another place entirely. As the fans filter in, we shuffle out into the street and into the car. The trip back in time takes about five minutes. A left on Woodward, a right on Michigan. Just past Nemo's Bar -- still bursting with pregame energy after all these years, thanks to the school buses that transport its patrons to and from Tiger games -- we come to one of the most famous intersections in baseball history: Michigan and Trumbull. Otherwise known as "The Corner" ... and the home of Tiger Stadium. For a long while, the remains of the Tigers' old stomping grounds still stood, slowly deteriorating with time. In the years after the final out was made in 1999, the building hosted a Super Bowl party and some fantasy camps, and even served as a suitable stand-in for Yankee Stadium in the filming of the Billy Crystal movie "61*." Eventually, though, the wrecking ball hit, mercifully putting Tiger Stadium out of its misery. And on the 9.4-acre lot where the building stood, where the likes of Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Hal Newhouser, Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and so many others once made their magic was reduced to rubble and weeds. That's what you'd expect to find here. But not today. No, today we peer inside the iron gates left standing after the demolition and find that the soul of Tiger Stadium -- and baseball itself -- lives on. It lives, in this moment, with each ping off the aluminum bat of Jeff Modert as he hits ground balls to his sons, Vincent and Michael, on a recently refurbished field. The stands that once held more than 50,000 fans are long gone, but on the wooden bench sitting on the third-base side, we see Jeff's wife, Lisa, and daughter, Danielle, taking in the action, with Lisa hoisting a handycam to preserve this little practice session for the home movie archives. The family from Holland, Mich., has tickets to the Tigers game and will soon venture off to the contemporary confines of Comerica -- a place the teen-aged Vincent and Michael, fittingly, much prefer. But they stopped here to pay homage to what once was before venturing off to what is and will be. "This is where it all happened," Jeff says. "You think about the All-Star Game of '71 and Reggie Jackson hitting that towering home run that hit the lights. Ty Cobb played here. Babe Ruth played here. Mickey Mantle supposedly hit a home run that landed where that Ace Hardware store sits across the street. Jack Morris pitched here. Right here! They all stood right here!" Just one year ago, it would have been pretty difficult for this spot to engender such enthusiasm. Last Mother's Day, Tom Derry of nearby Redford Township trespassed through the iron gates and couldn't believe his eyes. "There were weeds and garbage everywhere," he says. "There were monster weeds where the stands were. Some of them were six to eight feet high. It was disgusting." Through his disgust, though, Derry saw opportunity. The next time he showed up at Michigan and Trumbull, he brought a group of friends, a bunch of rakes and garbage cans and a riding mower. They dubbed themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew, after Tiger Stadium's original name, and they went to work cutting grass, pulling weeds, removing stones and picking up litter. Through the weeds, they found the pitcher's mound and home plate areas intact, and they measured off the dimensions of the infield to ensure accuracy. This was good, hard, yard work done with a purpose and done despite a deterrent. For each time the volunteers who make up this so-called grounds crew stepped on the field, they were trespassing on city property. And the police, fearing liability issues, were and are quick to kick people off. "It happened again just a couple weeks ago," Derry says. "The officer didn't want to kick us off. He felt bad about it. He was just doing what he was told. But we've been having some meetings with the city the last few weeks to discuss the liability issue. They're concerned about somebody getting hurt on the field. We have another meeting Thursday, and we'll see what happens there. But regardless of what happens, we plan on continuing to clean up the field. There are so many people who are really passionate about this." That passion stems from the many memories that were made at this site over the course of more than a century of baseball. "The place means so much to so many people," Derry says. "The Tigers started playing there professionally [at Bennett Park] in 1896, when Detroit was in the Western League. I don't know any other spot in the state of Michigan that brought more people together than that corner." And thanks to the work of Derry and the other members of the Navin Field crew, "The Corner" still brings people together. Stop by before a Tigers game and you're liable to find pickup games, fathers and sons playing catch or folks just standing and reflecting on all the memories that were once made here. The 125-foot flag pole that once stood in play in center field might be the last physical element of the field that remains, but the spirit is alive and well. The field and the surrounding area is not what you'd call pristine. The weeds remain difficult for Derry and company to keep up with. One would hope the city will get behind the cause and help to preserve this place for families like the Moderts to keep coming back. "These guys all disagree with me," Jeff Modert says, pointing to his kids. "They like Comerica Park better. And no question, it's a beautiful stadium. But this place? This place is great."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.