Monday, October 27, 2008

"They Died Old"--Volume VII

"The Corner"

It was one of my favorite ballparks to watch games (both baseball and football) from on TV over the years, and it’s been a while since I did a stadium tribute, so here’s to one of the most venerable ballparks in Major League history, Detroit’s Tiger Stadium.  Located at the corner of Michigan Ave. and Trumbull St. (or just plain “The Corner” as the locals call it there) on the southwest side of downtown Motown, it opened the same day as Boston’s Fenway Park in 1912, and was originally known as Navin Field.  The stadium was expanded several times over the years, and was known for a time as Briggs Stadium before settling on the name Tiger Stadium in 1961.  With a capacity of over 50,000, it still managed to be a rather intimate ballpark, with a press box that practically hovered over home plate, and seating that made you feel right on top of the action.

My first memories of Tiger Stadium on TV are actually of the Detroit Lions playing football there in the early ‘70s, especially on their annual Thanksgiving Day games.  It seemed like whenever the Lions were on TV, it was always rainy and/or snowy, and the field was total wreck, which suited me just fine—I love watching football played in the muck!  The original opening title sequence of ABC’s “Monday Night Football” featured Tiger Stadium in Lions mode, with the massive bank of arc lights towering overhead, and whenever I see that old video, it takes me back to when I was seven and just obsessed with football in general.  I was so very disappointed to learn during their final Turkey Day game at TS in 1974 that the Lions would be moving to the sterile Silverdome in Pontiac the following year.  At least it snowed during that game—one more for the road…

Baseball, of course, was the main course at The Corner, and Detroit certainly has had its fair share of Hall of Famers and superstars on the diamond, with the likes of Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Mickey Cochrane, Mickey Lolich, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson and Jack Morris, along with the ever-wacky Mark “The Bird” Fidrych and a guy who I think had one of the coolest names in sports history, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez.  And everyone remembers Reggie Jackson’s mammoth home run that damn near left the stadium (but for the light tower on the right field roof) in the 1971 All-Star Game.  The Tigers’ 1968 championship season helped to ease at least some of the racial tension caused by the riots that summer, while their 1984 World Series victory over San Diego actually caused riots in the city!  Through it all, Tiger Stadium stood tall.

Like most old parks, TS had lots of goofy quirks, like the right field upper deck that actually hung over the warning track, causing some would-be fly-outs to be home runs. Dead center field was 440 feet from home plate, so if anyone hit a home run in that direction, they earned it.  There was the flagpole that was in-play in left center field, and I also loved the old-school scoreboard imbedded in the short left field wall.  Screw these new high-tech, multi-color video screens that nearly every stadium has in its outfield wall now, I say—they got no soul at all!  Another feature I always thought as cool was the bunker-like bullpen dugouts along the foul lines.  The players didn’t think quite so highly of them, though, as evidently they were beastly hot during the summer, so most of the pitchers sat around on folding chairs outside of the dugouts.  And then there were the gangplank-like concrete walkways that led to the upper deck.  Old Municipal Stadium here in K.C. had them too, as does Chicago’s Wrigley Field, and I loved looking down over the people downstairs while walking across.  Sadly, they don’t make ballparks like these anymore…

I paid my only visit to Tiger Stadium on a frigid May night (that’s right, frigid May night!) in 1991, and enjoyed what I saw.  While the concourses were a tad on the dirty side, I was surprised at how immaculate the seating areas were and impressed with the overall condition of the stadium for its age.  My thought is if they had acted then, they may well have been able to do a full-fledged renovation and preserve Tiger Stadium instead of building their fancy new (yet totally soulless) ballpark, even if it meant playing a season or two somehow in the putrid Silverdome in the interim.  One of Tiger Stadium’s final hurrahs came when it hosted the opening night of the Kiss Reunion Tour on June 28, 1996.  TS was an odd choice of venue, given that it hadn’t hosted a concert in ages, and that Kiss could’ve easily packed in twice as many people up in Pontiac, but it wound up being a smashing success and a great time was had by all.  TS closed down for good on September 26, 1999 as the Tigers beat the Royals, who also helped close down Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium in 1981.

Not long after it closed, Tiger Stadium even did a little acting, standing in for the original Yankee Stadium right field corner and dugouts in Billy Crystal’s fine film 61* about the late Roger Maris.  Workers went through and painted the seats green to resemble the old ones at the House That Ruth Built, then actually went back and restored them to their original orange and blue after filming was completed, even though they’d never be used again anyway.  The ball diamond at Tiger Stadium has also been continuously maintained since the park closed, even during its recent partial demolition.

There have been a few preservation efforts, including one called the Cochrane Plan back in the ‘90s that was fairly ambitious, except for when it came to actually financing it.  There was even talk of incorporating part of the Tiger Stadium stands into a new hockey arena for the Red Wings and developing the rest of the stadium into an office complex, but I think that’s about all it was—talk.  Sadly, what ultimately killed Tiger Stadium (besides its age) is the neighborhood it resides in, which is not exactly rife for development in the area surrounding the ballpark.  I don’t mean to prolong the stereotype that ALL of Detroit is a hell-hole—I’ve been there many times and it’s not as bad as people make it out to be—but it just didn’t make any sense to pour zillions of dollars into refurbishing a stadium that sits in an area similar to downtown Baghdad, thus we now have Comerica Park a mile away in a much more user-friendly entertainment district.

The stadium stood vacant and time ravaged it mercilessly (see above pic) until this past summer when demolition began on the left field stands.  Yet another last-ditch preservation attempt led by legendary Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell has resulted in a compromise of sorts, as the grandstand from first base to third base remains standing with the hope that it can be put back into use as either a museum or possibly even as minor league ballpark, thus we’re left with what you see in this pic.  I guess half a ballpark is better than none at all, but it sure looks weird to me.  Nevertheless, the “Field of Dreams” at The Corner was a true classic.

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