On a warm Detroit evening this past August, I found myself standing atop the pitcher’s mound where Hal Newhouser, Schoolboy Rowe, Dizzy Trout, Mickey Lolich and Denny McLain had previously toed the rubber, looking in towards the batter’s boxes where the likes of Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Norm Cash and Willie Horton swung their sticks, and the home plate area that Mickey Cochrane and Bill Freehan once crouched behind.
Thirty-eight summers earlier, newly besotted with baseball and captivated by the sensational rise of pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, I’d fantasized about standing on this very field, where all of those legendary Tigers – and so many of their worthy opponents – had plied their trade. And now here I was, frozen as if in a dream, watching an umpire with an old-school chest protector stride officiously towards me, while a guy dressed like “The Bird” warmed up in the bullpen.
This was no dream, however. I was here on hallowed ground to take part in “Bird Bash IV,” the annual celebration of the too-short life and career of Fidrych, who died in 2009 at the age of 54. I’d been asked to speak at the party, a huge honor in itself – but the chance to actually visit the same diamond where he transformed from a gangly, goofy rookie into a full-fledged Motor City folk hero was what ultimately sealed the deal.
You see, while the ancient and storied Tiger Stadium was abandoned by the Detroit Tigers at the end of the 1999 season, and fell victim to the wrecking ball a decade later, the actual field where the Tigers played – the same nine-acre plot of land at the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull, which hosted its first professional baseball game in 1896 at the Tiger Stadium precursor known as Bennett Park – still remains.
The diamond is still located in the same spot it has occupied since the spring of 1912, when the stadium (originally known as Navin Field, then Briggs Stadium) first opened, and the 125-foot flagpole that once constituted the tallest “in play” obstacle in major league history still stands in center field. So many other classic ballparks of a similar vintage have been replaced by housing projects, office buildings and parking lots; but here, you can still attempt to turn a double play around the same keystone that Alan Trammell and Sweet Lou Whitaker traversed together for nearly two decades.
That baseball fans are able to make the pilgrimage to (and play upon) this historic site is largely due to the tireless efforts of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, an all-volunteer organization that has been tending to “The Corner” since May 2010, when Tom Derry – a 50-year-old mail carrier from the nearby suburb of Redford Township – and a handful of devoted fellow Tigers fans began slowly restoring the playing field to its current usable state. Their mission was not an easy one; nature had begun to reclaim the site during the decade that Tiger Stadium stood empty, and by 2010 the diamond and outfield had been completely overtaken by a forest of weeds upwards of six feet in height. “Those weeds were no match for our sickles and other tools,” Dave Mesrey, Bird Bash organizer and charter member of the NFGC, tells me. “We hardly put a dent in them.”
To rid the field of the massive plants, Derry had to go out and rent a “brush hog” rotary mower for ten straight weekends. Then there was the issue of the trash that had collected (Mesrey reckons that the NFGC has carted off “hundreds, if not thousands” of pounds of garbage from the site over the past five summers), along with whatever rubble remained from the stadium’s demolition… as well as the knowledge that they could be arrested at any time for trespassing.
That’s right – beneficial as it has been to the field and the Corktown neighborhood that surrounds it, the NFGC’s grass-roots urban renewal project was (and remains) technically illegal, since Navin Field is on city-owned land. The group’s efforts have also constituted something of a collective raised middle-finger to the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the local development agency that oversaw the demolition of Tiger Stadium, and which has since entertained several redevelopment proposals for the site (Condos! Office space! Big-box retail! A warehouse for parade floats!) that thankfully have yet to come to fruition.
But while the NFGC members were occasionally chased off by the police at first, no one was ever arrested; after all, there are plenty of Detroit’s finest who remember when the heart of the Motor City used to beat at this very location, and are happy to see baseball return to “The Corner.” In time, Derry and his group established something of a détente with City Hall, which wisely realized that there was little P.R. value inherent in bringing the gavel down on one of Detroit’s few feel-good stories. And as the ground was cleared and word spread of the NFGC’s labor of love – which has included the addition of bases, a pitching rubber, home plate, a backstop and some rudimentary bleachers – people began flocking to Navin Field again.
Over the last few years, the site has hosted baseball games (everything from Little League contests to 1860s-style “base-ball” games), historical re-enactments and weddings (Derry and his wife, Sarah, were married there in August), and welcomed baseball-loving tourists from around the globe who just want to take photos or play a little catch. Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain, Dave Rozema and Lou Whitaker are among the former Tigers who have stopped by to tip their caps to the NFGC and their efforts, which were the subject of Jason Roche’s award-winning documentary Stealing Home. And there have also been some visitors to Navin Field who have never actually left.
“To many people, this land really is sacred ground,” Mesrey says. “Just since we’ve been working here, we’ve seen several families come and scatter the ashes of their loved ones. The least we can do is see that their grave is kept clean.”
Still, the future of Navin Field remains unclear. The latest Detroit Economic Growth Corporation proposal calls for the Detroit Police Athletic League to build their new 10,000 square-foot headquarters on the site, which has a $3.8 million federal earmark for redevelopment. According to the proposal, the PAL plan would ostensibly maintain much of the historic playing field for youth baseball, but it would also surround it with mixed-use buildings, eventually obscuring the field from public view. There is also talk that the PAL plan would involve covering the field with artificial turf for maintenance purposes, a measure that the NFGC – which has essentially been cutting the grass at Navin Field for free since 2010 – staunchly opposes.
If the PAL plan goes through, it wouldn’t be the first time in recent years that a city has turned the site of a storied ballpark into a playing field for kids. Cleveland’s League Park, where the Indians played from 1901 to 1946, was recently refurbished and re-opened at a cost of around $6 million, and New York’s Heritage Field, where the old Yankee Stadium once stood, now offers three diamonds for public use – one for Little Leaguers, one for softball games and a major league-sized one for baseball.
But the major league diamond at Heritage Field isn’t in the same exact location where the Yankee Stadium diamond once resided, and the folks behind the League Park restoration went with the artificial turf option instead of real grass. In the eyes of Tom Derry and the NFGC, the opportunity to preserve a historic major league diamond – complete with some of the same earth and grass that’s covered it for more than a century – is something that shouldn’t be squandered just for the sake of a new municipal building. To underline the fact that the PAL development isn’t required to bring youth baseball to the site, the NFGC has already begun building a Little League diamond on the northwest corner of Navin Field.
How this will play out is anybody’s guess. But if you’re someone who loves and appreciates baseball history, you absolutely owe it to yourself to go to Navin Field and see first-hand the great work that Derry and the NFGC have done. Their efforts testify to the deep emotional connection that so many Detroiters still feel to this spot – it’s hard to imagine the sleek and corporate Comerica Park ever engendering a similar degree of affection – and by clearing away the weeds, the garbage and the rubble, the NFGC have enabled the ghosts and vibrations of the now-vanished ballpark to return.
Standing on the mound that night, I was filled with a joy that was almost indescribable. I closed my eyes and felt what it must have been like to pitch in that intimate old stadium, with its steel girders, double-decker bleachers and bizarre right field overhang. Opening them slightly, I could almost “see” the section behind home plate where my father and I sat for the first major league game I ever attended. I turned towards right field and pictured the rooftop lighting transformer that Reggie Jackson hit with his mammoth home run during the 1971 All-Star Game.
After dropping to one knee and manicuring the mound just like “The Bird” used to, I got up and asked a fellow Bird Bash reveler to take a photo of me and Katie, the bride I’d married just seven weeks earlier, standing together on my reborn field of childhood dreams.
“Are you sure you want me in this picture with you?” she asked, not wanting to crash my communion.
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“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life,” I replied.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, is now out via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras