By Dave Wright
Although it has been nine years since I last visited my old friend, it seems it was yesterday. It was a hot, sunny Sunday in late July and the place was jumping much the way I usually remember it. When the visit was complete, I left quickly and quietly. I knew we would never see each other again and I hate long goodbyes. Besides, I wanted my last personal memory of the place to be a happy one.
Our longstanding relationship started when I was about 7. I believe my first trip was on a Saturday afternoons with my mother – just her and me on a rare solo holiday together. I took more interest in what was taking place than she did but it didn’t matter. (Later, I was her escort when she visited her passion. I learned, to my surprise, that, unlike what some of my comrades said, the theater was not for sissies. Thanks, Mom.)
This place we visited was located in a tough neighborhood. As time went on, I was not allowed to go without somebody being with me until I was 14. Although it made me like a grownup to attend by myself, this was the kind of place you like to go to with other people. It was a big joint but it also had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person around. It takes a special place to do that.
On one occasion, I stayed 9 ½ hours. During that time, I was so fascinated and excited by what was happening that I hardly moved from my seat the entire time. Another time, I roared and ranted like the child I was because Mom wouldn’t let me go on a scheduled trip. I had a fever of 102 or so and, as a nurse, she knew leaving the house was a very bad idea. She felt bad about it because this was something that had been set up well in advance and this was, after all, a special place.
It seemed that every time I came by, I saw something I had never seen before and learned something I didn’t know when I entered the place. On the day of the farewell visit, all those events seemed to be mixed together. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to sort everything out and assign them special places in my private Louvre.
The object of my visit was my hometown baseball park — Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. I spent literally hundreds of hours there before it closed down for good in 1999. This week, they knocked a hole through the lower deck in left field, the initial blow in what will probably be a painful event for the city. Granted, the town said its goodbyes long ago and the Tiger fans have moved on (and have already enjoyed a World Series) at Comerica Park. Even the diehards admit Tiger Stadium, which cost the city $300,000 a year for upkeep and wasn’t being used for anything, needed to be renovated (Former radio announcer Ernie Harwell has until August 1 to complete a deal that would save at least part of the park) or taken down altogether.
Still, a fellow who rarely visits his hometown anymore shuddered when he heard the news of the first wrecking ball crashing through a wall. On the outside, Tiger Stadium looked like the way one had always seen it – tall, white and sturdy. Inside, of course, was another matter. It was better not to see what time had wrought. One prefers the memory of his last visit.
I live in St. Paul where you can hear people speak fondly of the original Midway Stadium or Lexington Park. The same feeling was true in Minneapolis for those folks who remember Nicollet Park (which went down 50 years ago) and in an event that crossed city lines, the untimely demise of Metropolitan Stadium, struck down in the prime of life at the tender age of 25. But those same sad obits weren’t issued when Met Sports Center, a perfectly acceptable hockey facility, was leveled. And no one seemed to care when the bulldozers rolled over the St. Paul Civic Center a decade ago. You see, they were just buildings.
So what is it that endears folks to ballparks as they come to their end? Is it because the ballpark seemed like a beacon of sanity in a confusing world for a kid? Is it because one didn’t worry about homework or your job when you were at the ballpark? Is it because the ballpark really was the one place where blacks and whites, women and men put aside their differences because everybody had a cause they could agree on – cheering for the hometown team?
My guess is it is that and even more. The baseball park can be a different place is a spot where one could be a hero to your child by teaching him (or her) how to keep score. One could try to impress a date with your knowledge of the local major league team or try to teach a neophyte the finer points of a simple, yet vastly complicated game. Or one could simply go with your friends to have a few beers and let out steam. If nothing else, the local baseball park always seemed to be Switzerland, a politically neutral and happy place. In this day and age, how often can one say that?
I think back to that 9 ½ hour day now and wonder how I lasted that long. It was a Sunday doubleheader against Boston that started at 1:30 p.m. Naturally, I had to be there for batting practice and walked in the gates first opened at 11:30 a.m. The first game went 14 innings. The second game didn’t end until after 9 p.m. when the Tigers finished their sweep with a ninth inning rally. By the time I got home on the bus, it was 10 p.m. and my mother was ready to chew me out for not being home earlier. But one of my brothers came to the rescue by saying he had heard the game on the radio and, yes, I was telling the truth about how late it ended. This happened 40 years ago next month but I can tell you almost everything that happened that wondrous day at Tiger Stadium.
That is what good baseball parks seem to do to us.
Yesterday, I was in the stands for a game at the Metrodome, perhaps the most unloved major league baseball stadium in history. I found myself wondering: Will we be feeling this nostalgic in September 2009 when baseball winds down its 28-year run in this building? Certainly the place brought some great memories to baseball fans – two World Series titles as well as a slew of fascinating, terrific players. But will Minnesotans be feeling as down as many Detroiters currently are (and New Yorkers will be in a couple of months when both their MLB stadiums close down for good)? It’s too early to say for sure (the Metrodome has one more year to go after this one) but, judging from the conversation in the stands and the team’s basic attitude of "we can’t wait to get the hell out of here to our new ballpark," my gut reaction is the answer is no. The Metrodome is (soon to be was) a place where you went to watch the local major league team play the Yankees. But it was not the baseball park.
Whenever I read about Tiger Stadium in the future, my mind’s eye will see Rocky Colavito stretching before he came to the plate or Mickey Lolich sighing as he readied to throw another nasty curveball. There are literally hundreds of other memories, too – all crammed together on giant canvas. In the end, they all perform the same function – they make me smile.
A friend of mine, a native New Yorker who lives in the Twin Cities, was visiting her family this week. Like many people back home for a few days, she made several side trips to some of her favorite haunts. For one night at least, she had no worries about the bear stock market, job losses and high gas prices. The simple text message she sent described how people feel about their favorite baseball park. The message read: "Yankee Stadium is the happiest place on earth."
(Dave Wright is a senior editor at August Publications.)
A last video of Tiger Stadium before demolition
The final game at Tiger Stadium