Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
What’s the source of this dread I’m feeling? It’s not the fact that I left my Alphabet City apartment in the predawn dark on Tuesday and pointed the snout of my rust-bucket 1989 Mazda west toward my hometown, Detroit, 600 miles distant. It’s not even the sheer lunacy of my day’s itinerary — across the George Washington Bridge and the Garden State, then over the corduroy hump of Pennsylvania, and finally across that enormous dinner plate of a battleground state called Ohio. All of this just to go back home to see my beloved Detroit Tigers take on the Yankees on Tuesday night in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
(Wait a minute, you’re thinking, a man in the 21st century wants to get from New York to Detroit to see a baseball game, and he drives? Well, yes, because I was born and raised in Detroit, and when a Detroit guy wants to go somewhere, he gets into a car and drives there. It beats showing up at La Guardia six hours before your scheduled departure and then being treated like a criminal. I rest my case for keeping my wheels on the road.)
Most surprising of all, my dread is not coming from a feeling that the Yankees’ batters are going to wake from their collective coma and start Ping-Ponging hits all over the park.
No, my dread comes from something much simpler, a question: What if my very first visit to Comerica Park stinks? What if the successor to Tiger Stadium is a “cookie cutter,” as I’ve heard it described? What if the fans are obnoxious? What if the whole experience is just another dreary episode in The Great Overpriced American Racket of Keeping the People Entertained?
To fully understand my anxiety, you need to understand that I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s, attending baseball and football games at a glorious old pile of a stadium that hosted its first game in 1912, a few weeks after the Titanic sank. It was called Navin Field back then. When I first visited, it was known as Briggs Stadium, and the name was changed again in 1961 to Tiger Stadium. It was a great green open-air room that held about 50,000 fans but somehow felt intimate because everyone was close to the action. The stadium was enclosed, meaning you couldn’t see anything but the game that was being played before your eyes. The world went away for a few hours when you were in that place, and that was a big part of its magic.
If you loved the Tigers in the years of my youth, it was a given that you also despised the Yankees. In the first decade of my life, the Yankees won the American League all but two times — in 1954, when Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians awoke, briefly, and in 1959 when the Chicago White Sox had a rare and uncharacteristic summer of success.
Tiger Stadium played a large part in breeding an undying sense of loyalty in the team’s fans. Understandably, they howled when ownership and local politicians started talking about abandoning the old barn at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull and building a new stadium. A group called the Tiger Stadium Fan Club came together to fight the demolition. The stadium was in need of some major work, they agreed, but it was structurally sound. Coleman Young, the former mayor, disagreed, saying, “The damned thing is falling down.”
The fan club’s efforts failed. The Tigers moved into Comerica Park in 2000, and for the next nine years, a new group called the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy fought to preserve the abandoned ballyard. They met with failure, too. The wrecking crew went to work in 2009.
The next year, a native Detroiter, a postal worker named Tom Derry, went to the Corner, as it’s known locally, and was shocked by what he saw. “It looked awful — it was just weeds,” Derry says. “I called some friends, and we took our mowers down and went to work. It looks much better now.”
Derry and Company call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew. Theirs is a curiously Detroit kind of mission: caring for a treasure that was allowed to vanish. “We’re very passionate about preserving the field and the history,” Derry says.
My long trip is almost over. As I send these words through the ether to the sports desk, I’m getting ready to make the right turn at Toledo. My Mazda, with 215,000 miles and change on the odometer, is running like a sewing machine. Soon I’ll hit the Michigan state line and I’ll be able to pick up the pregame sports radio chatter coming down from Detroit. Maybe I’ll get to spend the rest of this Tuesday with Mitch Albom. Or maybe not.
Either way, I’ll soon know if my dread about my first visit to Comerica Park was well founded, or if it was just the silly fretting of a lifelong Tigers fan. Which is a delicate way of admitting that I’m an incurable pessimist.