Tiger Stadium: What Makes a Ballpark

 

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I’ve often wondered about the emotional hitching post that is a ballpark.  And when anyone says “ballpark” we all know that it’s not referring to any other sports field besides baseball.

I only live a few miles from five little league fields that I spent five summers of my childhood praying that the ball wouldn’t be hit to me in right field.  (That, of course, was in the final two innings, when the coach decided it was safe to take me off the scorebook.)  After a brief try at second base where I smoothly fielded a grounder and sent it sailing fifteen feet over the first baseman, into the startled bleachers, I decided that the slower-paced outfield was probably my calling.  Unfortunately, with the leisure of right field came its lunar surface that could easily send the ball to the right, left, straight up, between my legs–or worse, right at my glasses or teeth.

I drive by these parks and am immediately whisked into the nostalgia of those games.  My anxieties and prayers that the game end quickly without my disastrous involvement are minor compared to the the actual thrill of catching a fly ball, getting a hit but most importantly the friends I made at practice, the jokes I heard on the bench and the feeling that I was part of a group of people that accepted me.  So when junior high began and our six elementary schools were merged into one pool, I actually knew a few guys in my English class when I walked into the strange room.

The down-time, the moments that happen when the game isn’t occupying all of your attention, seems to make a ballpark special.

There are some ancient ruins a few miles down the road from Comerica Park, an escape from the modern facility for families with restaurants, amusement park rides, museum kiosks, piped in radio broadcasts in the bathroom and flatscreens over the concession stands.

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A couple years ago, when they were finally tearing down the last sections of Tiger Stadium, I was able to get some pictures almost from the same angle that I saw the most exciting game of my life, a 1-0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on the last day of the 1987 season.  (Here’s a link to Ernie Harwell’s call of the final inning.)

TigerStadium_BleacherEntrance

For me, the magic of a ballpark is the green field when you emerge from under the stands.

I stood in a two hour line for all three games of the series to be mashed into the lower-deck bleachers, hoping Detroit would sweep the Jays and get a shot at the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs.

1987_TicketStub

It was an incredibly stressful game as I watched surrounded by hundreds of fans from Windsor, Ontario who certainly weren’t wearing the old English D.  But as Frank Tanana prevailed and held Larry Herndon’s lone solo homer in place, I realized by that ninth inning  what was perhaps the greatest part of the game was the amazing time I was having with twenty total strangers that I knew I would never see again.

Tanana_1_0

The razing of Tiger Stadium for Detroit fans was like seeing a terminally ill friend slowly leave.  It took place over a few years.  Now the bleachers are gone, but they’ve allowed the center field flagpole, the pitcher’s mound and the entrance gates to remain.

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The Samaritans who call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew (see Digging Detroit’s video) keeps the infield grass mowed and there are often pickup games where fans like me can run the same basepath as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Al Kaline, Reggie Jackson and 85% of the rest of the Hall of Fame.  The haunting memories are tangible as you slowly drive around the Michigan and Trumbull block, rewinding your vision to see the game the way you did at numerous times.

In 1999, the last season at Tiger Stadium, they offered afternoon tours.  My family was finally able to walk the field and sit in the Tigers dugout.

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Dugout_Kids

But the tour guides were more compassionate, knowing that the real pull of all the people on the tour was to walk the entire circumference of the seating area as the ghosts replayed themselves.

Bleachers

Wherever you walked, you could remember a certain game, who you were sitting with and of course key moments of the game.

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I spent $3.50 twenty different times in 1984 to sit in the upper-deck bleachers and absorb as much as I could of that magical team.

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I hopped on a train to make it to Game 4 of the World Series and was once again in those same bleachers as “Fat Bob” sang the national anthem below me.

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When the lineup was announced, I was able to zoom in through the chain link fence to capture this shot…

TeamIntroduced

But it was also who I was with.  That World Series Game, we car pooled down with our great friend and lifetime Tigers fan (and sufferer) Shirley Simmons along with my sisters Katie, Colleen and our friend Sue Fisher.  We, of course, parked in my dad’s favorite parking spot by the church.

ColleenShirleySueKatie

Alan Trammell hit two homers that afternoon and the next day, Kirk Gibson would hit his memorable home run off Goose Gossage to cement the series.

My dad told me that his father once had gone to every home game in a season of the 1930s.  Grandpa Walsh was such a fan that he would keep score as he listened to the game on the radio.  I found his scorebook a few years ago and a schedule fell out of it.

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It’s funny what you hang on to.

The last night I spent with my father, we arrived at the game late and finally used rain-checks from April on a cold September 23rd evening.  The Tigers were one-game under .500–which is as close to the World Series as we had come since that Blue Jays game 10 years earlier.  We almost didn’t go, but decided to brave the cold for a few innings and not let the tickets go to waste.

The stadium was nearly empty, so we were able to sit anywhere we wanted–and I was finally able to go to a unique spot that had intrigued me all my life–this weird overhang down the right-field line.  (I took this picture two years later, the second-to-last game ever played here.)

1999_TigersIndians_Overhang

While we walked to the seats, my dad pointed out where his father had spent the entire summer of 1938, just under the press box down the third base line.  When we got to the seats they offered  a spectacular view that made us feel like we were hovering over the action.

We left early, it was freezing, we both had to work the next day and my dad was fighting a bad head cold.  But we stayed long enough to see some good hits and one player reach 100 RBI.  More importantly, we talked about both of our rough days at work and compared notes.  By the fourth innning, we weren’t thinking about work anymore but instead were laughing with the fellows sitting in front of us.  One guy looked just like the golfer, Tom Kite.  I remember Dad laughing about that when I mentioned it.

Three days later, my father was killed in a car accident.  But one dear friend actually gave me the videotape of the game and on a foul ball, the camera actually caught us and I was able to get a screen-shot of it.  (It’s a little Zapruder-like, but I’m very glad I’ve got this last shot of us together.)

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When we were walking around the stadium on that tour in 1999, I was able to return to our final night together simply by looking up at our seats.

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And I guess that’s what makes a ballpark different than an arena, a stadium or a field.  It’s the leisure time that you have between pitches when the outfielders are playing catch before the batter steps up.  In a way, it’s a break in your life where you spend time with folks you care about and it doesn’t even really matter who won the game.

Updated April 2015:  Kevin Walsh is also co-producer of the web-series Digging Detroit.  In the following episode, they explore the team of volunteers who rescued the field from ruin–the Navin Field Grounds Crew with a special interview with Jason Roche whose documentary “Stealing Home” was a winner at the 2014 Freep Film Festival.

About Kevin Walsh

Before creating MyMediaDiary.com, Kevin taught high school video productions and language arts for 25 years. He is the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His text, "Video Direct," is used in 40 states. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two teenagers. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher
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13 Responses to Tiger Stadium: What Makes a Ballpark

  1. John Prusak says:

    Hey Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing that touching story about the “Ballpark”. I have many fond memories of the old ballpark. It’s still a special place for me. Your story about you and your dad attending your last game together was very special. I never attended a sporting event with my dad or mom. My dad died in an auto accident in 1954 when I was 6 years old. Mom raised my brother and I by herself. She was legally blind and we were very poor so the experience of going to a ball game with a parent never happened. You were lucky to have had that opportunity to watch a ball game and talk and look and laugh.

    About 3 decades ago when I first moved to Corktown, I interviewed an elderly woman who grew up on Vermont St. just north of the ballpark. She told me that when she was a young girl her dad would send her down to the ballpark to get the score of the game. I found that peculiar until it dawned on me that she was checking on the score before there was radio! It was before the First World War. The only way you could find out the score was to walk over to the ballpark. That was a different world back then with a pace much slower.

    Thanks Kevin!

    John Prusak

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      That’s a great story, John. Thanks for re-posting it to this blog so that others could see. I think that’s the amazing aspect of an historic place–all the lives that intersected right on that little corner. You drive by the lot now and it doesn’t look much bigger than any city park–but add the bleachers, the lights, the roaring crowd and the smells and it’s magical!

  2. Kevin T says:

    Great essay, Kevin (though “The Bobber” is still my favorite). Many writers have captured the ghosts that patrol the diamond, but you do a great job paying tribute to those ghosts that fill the stands, especially in a grand old cathedral like Tiger Stadium. While reading, I couldn’t help but think back to another field, old Comiskey Park, when you and I watched Jack Morris pitch a no-hitter almost 30 years ago. Time flies! I can still remember the shadows chasing us around the park, trying to find the sun on a cold and windy April afternoon. It was a fairly sloppy day for Morris (lots of walks early on, I recall), but by the 7th inning, you could feel him take control, not just of the plate, but the stands as well. By the 9th inning, every Sox fan in the park was rooting for history. I’ve been to other great ball games, but that no hitter will always be special. Thanks, Kevin

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Kevin, you’ll always be intertwined in my memory with the ’84 Tigers. Thanks for hopping on the South Shore that freezing cold day to see a team you didn’t even root for. Later in May, on your way home to New York, we saw another great game against the Mariners. Funny how I can remember where I sat for that one, as well–upper-deck, third base line! Dave Rozema pitched!

  3. Caelie says:

    Loved this, Kevin. As a friend of your sister, the poignancy of you spending this last game with your dad made this touch my heart even more, but even if I did not know your family, I still would have related to your experience. The stadium of my youth is in a different city and no longer stands, but I, too, hold dear memories of days spent there with loved ones who are no longer in this world. People talk often now of how “boring” baseball is, but the best thing about baseball is that it’s not always about just the game. I have the privilege now of working a block away from our town’s “new” (20-year old) ballpark, and I often spend lunchtimes wandering through there, basking in the memories I have of this place and of sharing the great tradition of baseball with the younger members of my family, the way my elders shared it with me,

    • Kevin Walsh says:

      Thanks, Caelie. Baseball’s an odd kind of glue for families and friends, isn’t it? I remember football, basketball and hockey games, too–but never to the same depth that I remember most baseball games! Thanks for the input.

  4. Dick Rockwell says:

    Kevin, I remember my dad taking me to my first Tiger game when I was around 8 years old.. We sat in the upper deck just to the right of home plate. It was a double header and my dad asked, “Son, who do you want to win?” I answered, “I would like each team to win one game.” My dad said, “You’re supposed to root for the home team to win both.” And that’s just what Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Bill Tuttle, Frank Lary, and the rest of the Tigers did thanks to my cheering.

  5. Eli Zaret says:

    Good stuff, Kevin. Baseball is timeless because it’s woven into our lives and marks our personal history – game by game, season by season. You’re not alone in recognizing the special link of fathers passing the love of the game down to their sons, generation after generation.

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