DETROIT – The World Series returned to the Motor City for the first time since 2006 Saturday night and the scene was Comerica Park, the 13-year-old shopping mall of a ballpark that is a source of pride in a downtown slowly coming back after decades of blight. It’s a fun place and I’ve heard from many of you who’ve made the five-hour drive here and enjoyed the trip.
It’s hard to say anything bad about Comerica. Kids love the giant tiger statues outside, the carousel in the middle of a food court that has tigers instead of horses, the ferris wheel with giant baseballs as cars and the video game stations. Concessions and souvenir stands are everywhere and, of course, so are those money-making suites and club seats.
Kudos to the Tigers for doing a great job giving a nod to their history with concourse displays paying tribute to each decade and a spectacular outfield collection of statues of former greats. The statues really give you an idea how neat the Sabres’ new Alumni Plaza could become over time.
But forgive me for being more than a little wistful. Comerica just isn’t The Corner. Not even close.
The Corner was the name legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell gave to old Tiger Stadium and refers to its address. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues is in the middle of the mostly hardscrabble Corktown neighborhood less than 2 miles from Comerica, and it’s known as the most famous intersection in Michigan. It sat quiet Saturday as Game Three brought the World Series back here for the first time since 2006.
This is the first Series in town since Tiger Stadium was knocked down in 2009 after nearly 10 years of battles with preservationists who wanted at least parts of it preserved after the team left in 1999. Even the late Harwell was involved in those discussions.
I used to check out the old lady every time I came to town. Stood outside the day of the 2005 All-Star Game and looked up at the old light tower where Reggie Jackson cranked a home run on the roof during the ’71 game. Came back again during the ’06 World Series and pondered the back of the right-field seats where Kirk Gibson deposited Goose Gossage’s fastball to clinch the ’84 Series.
There was so much talk about 2012 being the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park that lots of people forgot this would have been the 100th anniversary of Tiger Stadium as well. In fact, they opened on the same day – April 20, 1912. The site is completely fenced in now and it had reportedly become overgrown. Last week during the American League Championship Series, I took another drive over and it was a scene out of “Field of Dreams.”
The old 125-foot flagpole — which was in the field of play in deep center field — remains standing in its exact spot and the outfield grass is neatly mowed. The diamond is fully restored too with the infield dirt, baselines and home plate area (the mound is flat).
Some gates of Tiger Plaza, which was a controversial food-courty addition that changed the look of the exterior of the place in 1993, remain standing. Exposing a little secret: You can open the two rusty gates at Gate 4 and walk right in. After a quick jog, you’re standing at home plate. Where Cobb used to swing. And Kaline. And Greenberg. And Gibson and Trammell and Whitaker. Let alone all those Hall of Fame opponents (Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run here on July 13, 1934).
I came upon Tiger Stadium for the first time in 1987. A college friend and I opted for an August weekend roadie and the Tigers were in the pennant race. A Friday night game against the Yankees beckoned. There wasn’t any huge expansive parking. You snuck in where you could which, in our case, was paying five bucks to the guy and pulling behind the Firestone repair shop across the street (it’s still there).
You walked in and there were plenty of ramps to get you to the upper deck. Take the catwalk into your section and there was an explosion of blue seats and green grass that was spectacular. Tiger Stadium was that rare place where the upper deck was often preferable; you hung right over the field and that made seats behind the plate awesome (provided you weren’t stuck by a pole, of course).
Harwell’s broadcast booth was so close to the plate he sat behind a wire screen, lest he get plunked all night by foul balls. In right field, the upper deck actually hung over the warning track, so a high fly ball had less distance to travel to be a home run than a low line drive.
I had a radio and an earplug with me and all I wanted to hear was Harwell’s voice give his trademark “It’s a beautiful night at The Corner” salute. Came before the Yankees had even made three outs in the top of the first. I joked I could go home. Glad I didn’t.
The place was electric. The crowd was more than 48,000 and the Tigers won, 8-0, as somebody named Jeff Robinson pitched a shutout and first baseman Dave Bergman cranked a three-run homer into that upper deck in right. I remember the roar after that home run vividly.
Over the years, I bet I came to around 20 games. It ended, of course, in 1999. A three-game weekend set against the Blue Jays in September, about 2˝ weeks before the park closed. Oddly enough, I remember virtually nothing about the games (Retrosheet told me the Tigers posted a 7-6 win in the opener and the Blue Jays won the next two, 9-5 and 5-3).
I spent the Sunday afternoon finale sitting in about six different sections; the crowd was in the 39,000 range so there were open spots. I hit them all. Upper deck, lower deck, first base, third base, the famous right field spots. Everywhere but the center field bleachers (they were a separate part of the park and not accessible).
It was Picture Day and you were allowed on the warning track before the game. When it was over, fans were allowed to say goodbye with a “Sunday stroll” on the infield. But you were told not to touch the dirt. Yeah, right. I scooped some up in my hand and held it until I could get to the concourse and put it in an envelope I brought in. Still have it in a tiny vial in my office.
I walked that infield again last week and it was awesome. Stood right at the spot at third base where I grabbed that dirt 13 years ago. Stood on the mound where Mark Fidyrch did his groundskeeping and talked to the ball and where Denny McLain won many of his 31 games in 1968. Then I walked all the way out to the flagpole. A long way. Most of the blue paint is gone but some is still there. Center field, remember, was 440 feet from home plate! What a poke that used to take.
There’s an American flag on the pole and a flag with Tiger logos honoring the park’s old names, Navin Field and Briggs Stadium (it didn’t become Tiger Stadium until 1961).
Just last week, the famous blue neon letters that spelled “TIGER STADIUM” on the exterior marquee were being installed in the Detroit Historical Museum as part of a new exhibit that will open next month. Great thing.
The property is still owned by the city and there’s talk folks in City Hall (ex-Pistons star Dave Bing is the mayor now) want to put something like a Wal-Mart there, which is not a great thing. There’s no plaque up marking the site, which is a joke. From time to time, police escort people off the site. Technically, you’re trespassing (Forget it, Detroit. I’m not paying any ticket).
But time moves on and so does the World Series. Maybe there’s a message from the Baseball Gods: The Tigers haven’t won one since they abandoned The Corner. A big part of me wishes we were all spending this weekend there.