Now's When It Really
Starts To Hurt

by David Gratt

Tiger Stadium was shut down more than three years ago. During that last season, even with the Tigers en route to their sixth straight sub-.500 season, the entire sports world was focused on Detroit. Sports Illustrated produced a special Tiger Stadium issue; ESPN dedicated a special section of its website to the ballpark; and sports writers across America waxed lachrymose all summer over the passing of a grand ballpark, shaking their heads, sadly acknowledging that "progress" often comes at a price like this. In the Final Game, which had been hyped since the beginning of the season with its own souvenir logo, then highly-touted Tiger Robert Fick hit a homer that almost cleared the right field roof. Afterwards, Tigers dating back to the 1930s came from all over the world to stand, in uniform, at their positions one last time; Ernie Harwell, the team's radio voice since 1961, sent the old ballpark off with a poem, his voice cracking as he said good-bye; Willie Horton, outfielder and heart of the 1968 World Championship team, stood in left field and wept.

Now, weeds grow in the outfield and the aluminum exterior is getting tattered and rusty, while the Tigers play in practical silence in a new stadium, named after a bank that wouldn't even float the stadium's own construction bonds. It was partially paid for by the city of Detroit, which did not have enough money to pave its own roads, after the Tigers said they needed it in order to be competitive with the other teams in the American League. The Tigers have since added three more sub.-500 years to their record, and the attention of the sports world is elsewhere.

And, in a city that is half vacant lots and half lots in the process of being rendered vacant, local officials are now convinced that Tiger Stadium must come down because there is no location more appropriate for a new Wal-Mart.

Tiger Stadium was one of the few places left in baseball where it was possible to sit surrounded unobtrusively by history. Unlike Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, which are both lovely places to watch a game, Tiger Stadium was not adorable to the point of being distracting; it was servicable, providing a backdrop that focused on the game and the players. No ivy, no overly unusual playing field characteristics, no hallowed brick walls inside or out. Just history and the closest seats in baseball.

And unlike the new ballparks that evoke the past, Tiger Stadium took part in it. Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and countless others played there. Lou Gehrig's Iron Man streak ended there. The Tigers won championships there in 1935, 1945, 1964 and 1968.

There was nothing "retro" about the place. The support columns, arranged in rhythmic verticality throughout the upper and lower decks, were hot-riveted together, like the skeleton of a jazz-age skysraper, the hull or a great ocean liner, or the columns of the New York City subway. While much maligned by Tiger management, the columns obstructed far fewer seats than claimed, and helped frame the action on the field long before anyone knew about "letterboxing." And, as everyone should know, the experience of sitting next to a post and ducking as a foul ball ricochets off it with a tocsin-like ring is highly underrated.

The building was quirky, not by design, but because it was expanded in stages over the course of 26 years, and constrained by Detroit's street grid. The original stands behind the plate and down the lines opened in 1912 (the same week that the Titanic sank); in 1923, these stands were double decked (requiring installation of the support columns). The seating capacity was expanded again in 1936, after the Tigers won the World Series; and in 1938, Cherry Street, which ran behind the stands from left field to center field, was closed, allowing the outfield grandstand to be double-decked, fully enclosing the playing field. As a result, the rake and level of the seating decks change in different parts of the ballpark; walkways narrow and widen; and "seams" are visible where the different stages of development meet.

And sure, the corridors may have been tiled with the same materials as the bathrooms, but so what?

On the one hand, as former Tiger Frank Tanana noted when asked his feelings about Tiger Stadium, "It's just a building." But buildings are important because they help shape our experiences of the world around us. And now, after three years, the reality finally starts to sink in. It isn't really noticeable at first. Other things take precedence, so it's easy not to think about it for a while. But then something will trigger the reminiscence. It could be the sizzle of sausages frying up, or the smell of freshly cut grass, or the color of the clouds at twilight. It could be a trip to a place like Shea Stadium, soulless and circular, surrounded by a sea of parking, with upper deck seats so far from the field that the action becomes almost inconsequential. It could be a winter conversation about the upcoming season, or watching kids play catch in the spring. And the memories come flooding in: sitting in the upper deck with friends on a warm summer night with the open sky above; the hiss of the ball as the relief pitchers warm up next the stands in another lost game; a beleaguered outfielder running behind the flagpole, trying unsuccessfully to corral a triple; a jam- packed park, late in the season, klieg lights reflecting off the players' helmets, crisp white uniforms contrasted against black caps and the murky chiaroscuro of the upper deck, deep in shadow.

And you want to go back. But now you can't.

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David Gratt is a recovering urban planner who has lived two of America's Finest French River Cities ... New Orleans and Detroit. He is currently living in the Bronx, hoping that he's the last white person to move in.