DETROIT – At just after 9 a.m. on a chilly Sunday, a 58-year-old man named Byron Steen crosses Trumbull Street and walks briskly up Michigan Avenue. He passes an empty field with overgrown grass, some litter and two wooden benches.
This is where Tiger Stadium used to be.
But it sure is hard to tell. There isn't a plaque or a statue in sight. If you didn't know where the stadium stood, you would never know it was ever there.
"You know," Steen says, "it never hit me. There's nothing out here."
Tiger Stadium opened on the same day as Fenway Park – April 20, 1912. It was 100 years ago this weekend. Ty Cobb scored the first run by stealing home. From that day until 1999, this very spot rumbled with din and greatness. Pretty much every legend that played in Fenway in the 20th century also played here. Lou Gehrig sat himself down for the first time in 2,130 games here, ending his incredible ironman streak. Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run here. Reggie Jackson hit one into the right field light tower here during the '71 All-Star game. The Tigers won World Series titles here in 1968 and again in 1984, with Kirk Gibson launching a late-inning home run off Goose Gossage that no Tigers fan alive to see it will ever forget. Fair to say this was the most exciting place in the history of Michigan.
And now there's hardly a trace. Fans committed to honoring the old stadium in some form maintain a home plate, a pitcher's mound, two chalk lines for base paths and two benches where the dugouts used to be. The 125-foot flagpole from the old center field is still standing.
That's it. Across the street, there's a Coney Island restaurant, a bar, a Chinese takeout place, and a Faygo sign. There's a large gate from the old stadium, and you can push open a door and take the field, but you have to know where it is. In fact, you have to know the history of "The Corner" to know where this cathedral once stood. The only acknowledgment of the old ball yard is a small plastic sign across the street featuring photos of Mickey Cochrane and Babe Ruth in the stadium and a blurb about plans for development of the area.
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"They should put up a plaque," Steen says.
But the city of Detroit owns this property. And there are far more severe problems around here than commemorating a demolished ballpark. The Tigers have the money, but in an interview Sunday communications director Ron Colangelo explained that it's the city's call – not the team's.
He did acknowledge, however, that there weren't even discussions to honor Tiger Stadium's 100th birthday at Comerica Park this weekend.
So the weekend went by in relative silence at a place that was once so magnificently noisy.
People still visit. A man named Myron Johnson came here from the Upper Peninsula on Sunday morning to mimic a home run swing and run the bases. Asked about why Tiger Stadium mattered to him, he welled up with tears and couldn't answer the question.
He's not alone. Tiger Stadium was old and decrepit, but just about every single memory from there is positive. Tiger Stadium is childhood, family, Ernie Harwell, summer, heroes and happiness. And for those old enough to remember, it's Detroit Lions football when the team was dominant.
And now …
"I don't go there," said former Tigers great Willie Horton, who won a high school championship in Detroit, loved the Lions, and won a World Series with the Tigers in 1968. "All my life is there."
Horton purposely avoids the entire block, driving around it rather than past the place where he was the very definition of a local boy made good.
"It's very emotional," he said.
There is a group here that lovingly keeps up the field as best as it can, led by a man from nearby Redford named Tom Derry. He and the "Navin Field Grounds Crew" – named after the stadium's original name – mow the lawn (on a John Deere tractor) and repaint the chalk about once a week. Without them, the field would probably be a collection of weeds and dog droppings in the shadow of a modern casino in the distance. In fact, the group found and restored the original home plate area, which was buried underneath a pile of dirt. Derry told the Detroit Free Press this week he considers his contribution "an honor and a privilege." An employee of the Brooks Lumber Company, located across the street, had a centennial flag made to mark 100 years since Cobb first crossed home plate.
Other than that, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places looks like any of the hundreds of other vacant lots in Detroit.
Years of skirmishes over the stadium's future followed the Tigers' move to Comerica Park in 2000. Some groups wanted the stadium preserved, or a museum built, or a recreational field for youth sports inspired by Ernie Harwell. Eventually the edifice was demolished in 2009 and the lot was left to rot. A group from Chevrolet proposed a Little League field, but the city rejected the idea late last year. There are rumors the city is waiting for a retailer such as Wal-Mart to build on the nine-acre tract.
For now, the ghost of Tiger Stadium is kind of a sore subject. Asked about the place where he spent so much time frolicking as a little boy while his father played for the Tigers, Prince Fielder said Sunday, "It is what it is" and "Me being bothered won't bring it back."
He didn't mean disrespect. It's just a tired and sad subject here now. It's another chapter in the horrible plight of a once-booming city. Even if the city agreed to budget the money for a recreation center – and it poured $4 million into keeping the stadium around for 10 years after the Tigers moved – would that really be a better use of municipal funds than paying teachers or buying computers?
But for one weekend in April, this patch of land didn't have to be an eyesore. For one weekend, it could have been celebrated for the remarkable American place it was. They could have mentioned it at Comerica Park. They could have installed a plaque. Something.
"It was the most famous address in Michigan," said Charley Marcuse, 39, who was a hot dog vendor at Tiger Stadium starting at age 18 and now works in food service at Comerica Park. "Not the number, but everyone knows the location. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull was a connection for everyone all over Michigan to the city of Detroit. Once that connection is gone, it's hard to get it back."
Asked if he felt the old stadium should be honored, Marcuse said, "I tweeted about it."
This is no offense to Comerica Park, which fans widely like. There are plenty of tributes to Tiger Stadium at the new place. But it's a modern venue, which means it's more of a facility than a park. Marcuse even misses the men's rooms at Tiger Stadium, which were basically just malodorous troughs. The whole place was ready to fall apart, which was aggravating at the time but wonderful in retrospect.
"One day, hopefully, they'll put something there," Horton said. "But I've kind of left it there in my mind."
In another 100 years, the minds where Tiger Stadium still lingers will all be gone. Some trace of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field will surely remain in Boston and Chicago.
But what will remain at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull? When a man is stopped on the street on a Sunday morning and asked if an old ballpark used to be here, what will he say?
Will he even know?
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