Once a Baseball Cathedral in Detroit, Now Neglected and Decrepit
Tiger Stadium, a historical landmark in downtown Detroit, was built in 1912. The Tigers played their final game there on Sept. 27, 1999.
By TYLER KEPNER
Published: July 10, 2005
The official hotel for Tuesday's All-Star Game is in Dearborn, Mich., and most players will take buses to Comerica Park, in downtown Detroit, for the festivities. On their way, they may pass another stadium and have the same reaction Derek Jeter did last week.
Jeter and Jorge Posada were in town with the Yankees, staying in Dearborn, and their car service took them past Tiger Stadium. Both had played there, but Jeter's memories ran deeper. He is from Kalamazoo, Mich., and attended games there as a boy, sitting in the outfield lower deck to watch the visiting Yankees. Jeter and Posada wondered why the park was still standing.
"We were saying, 'What are they going to do?' " Jeter said. "They probably should tear it down if they're going to just let it sit there and rot. Either keep it up, or tear it down and put some kind of monument there. I don't think it's fair to just let it sit there and rot."
But that is what is happening at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, a famous baseball address. With the All-Star Game - and tomorrow's home run derby - taking place less than two miles away, Tiger Stadium is closed to the public, just another abandoned building in a city full of them.
"It's like the old lady sitting in the corner with nobody paying any attention to her," Ernie Harwell, the retired Tigers broadcaster, said at Comerica Park last week. "And the young debutante here's getting all the attention."
There is a statue of Harwell at Comerica Park, a sturdy, brick-and-steel palace with a carousel, a Ferris wheel and a center-field fountain. The Tigers are eager to promote the park, which has not caught on with many fans. The team has not played host to any playoff games since moving there in 2000, and the All-Star Game is a showcase.
Tiger Stadium, built in 1912, is a sensitive topic for the team and the city. The Tigers refer most questions to the city, and the city refers reporters to a prepared statement. When a Detroit television station, WXYZ, tried to interview a city official about Tiger Stadium last week, he turned his back and walked away.
The station reported that the city had given the Tigers' owner, Mike Illitch, $2.5 million over the last five years to maintain Tiger Stadium and provide security. This year, the report said, Illitch reduced the annual maintenance fee to $200,000 from $400,000.
Michael J. Healy, the Tigers' All-Star week liaison, said in an interview last week, "We've tried to clean up around the outside of Tiger Stadium, so that the purists who want to go over there and take their picture at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull will be able to do that."
But baseball purists may be disheartened. Tiger Stadium is a ghost town. It had its last game on Sept. 27, 1999, and has been closed to the public since, except for three collegiate and semipro games in 2001. A nearby billboard advertises the All-Star Game, but there will be no events at Tiger Stadium.
"It would have been so cool if they could have the home run derby there," said C. J. Nitkowski, a former Tigers pitcher who started the last night game at Tiger Stadium. "It would have been so much more fun. Guys would be launching balls out of the stadium. That would have been a great idea."
Healy said Major League Baseball had expressed some interest in having an All-Star event at Tiger Stadium, but the team was worried about safety because "the ballpark's interior is in disrepair."
Last Saturday, at the entrance to the Tigers' old offices, potato chip bags, candy wrappers and weeds clustered at the step. The numerals for the street address - 2121 - were barely visible over the glass door. Above it were Tigers logos, a newer one painted over an older version, chipping away so badly that they blended.
Inside, a ceiling tile rested in a hanging light fixture. A guard waved off a reporter and disappeared through a side door.
A plaque designating Tiger Stadium as a historical landmark was still there, though a Ty Cobb plaque was moved to Comerica last Friday. Faded orange Tigers paws still covered the park's exterior and sidewalks, leading to nowhere.
"It's like they played the last game, locked the door and walked away," Tony DeLuca, a visitor from Philadelphia, said last week. "See ya."
Ticket windows remained - complete with the blue Will Call sign - but the blinds were drawn. The only pronouncement that the Tigers had moved was at the main box office, near a deserted food court, where four white signs were taped to the ticket windows: Tickets Now On Sale At Comerica Park.
The chain-link players' parking lot was locked, but empty, beside the Fisher Freeway. Around the corner, on Cochrane Street, there was graffiti on the walls, a dangling sheet of metal and exposed wires overhanging the sidewalk. A man slept against the stadium, across the street from an abandoned brick storefront.
That was a common sight. Hoot Robinson's, a bar Babe Ruth is said to have frequented, was closed for good. So was a nearby memorabilia store. "Go Away!" the sign on the door said last week. The creaky ballpark was only slightly more inviting.
"They really don't know what they want to do with it, but people still come to see it," said Keith Davis, who works at another memorabilia store. "They need to open it up and put a dome on it and make it into a shelter for the homeless. That would be a beautiful thing."
Peter C. Riley, a former Tigers employee, works at Brooks Lumber, which borders the park and was supposedly the landing place for a Kirk Gibson home run in 1983. Riley is the president of Michigan & Trumbull, the group that was host to the collegiate and semipro games, which drew about 6,000 fans.
Riley has made proposals to pay for the upkeep and maintenance of the ballpark, but the city has rejected them. He was discouraged that the city had refused to open the park for tours or for a possible minor league team.
"It's not necessarily going to be around forever," Riley said. "But in the time you've got it, why not make the best of it? It's really a complete and utter travesty, because there is no good explanation, or one that should be accepted, anyway."
Gary Glaser, who produced a documentary that Riley financed called "Stranded at the Corner," said he believed Illitch was content to leave the site undeveloped so it would not divert attention from Comerica Park.
"The city is not going to do anything Illitch doesn't sign off on," Glaser said. "It's becoming a very contentious issue."
Sylvia Crawford, supervising publicist for Detroit, said the city had listened to community groups by keeping the stadium standing.
"The reason the stadium is not torn down is because the city yielded to calls by preservationists and fan groups that wanted to see the stadium stay," she said.
Some redevelopment proposals have included preserving the field. The Detroit News reported in March that one plan would have converted the stadium into an amusement park, and another would have included a fitness center with a running track around the upper deck. Other proposals have included condominiums or a Wal-Mart store.
"We've seen a few creative ideas," Derrick Miller, chief administrative officer for the city, said in an interview last Friday. "But we want to see the ideas associated with the money in order to make it a reality."
The Detroit Free Press estimated that it could cost $3.5 million to $4 million to tear down Tiger Stadium. Instead of doing that, the city has let the building stand, theoretically to show developers.
But in the statement, the city said that no serious proposals were under consideration. The ballpark remains, a sad reminder of rich history and modern-day blight.
"You drive by it and you have a little pang every now and then, because it's standing there and it's going to fall down," Harwell said. "People have had a lot of grandiose ideas about what to do with it, but nobody's had the financial backing, so it's just sitting there. And eventually it's either going to collapse, or they're going to knock it down with a wrecking ball. That's inevitable, I think. It's just too bad."
Harwell has not been to Tiger Stadium since 2000, when Billy Crystal invited him for the filming of the television movie "61*." Alan Trammell, the Tigers' manager and the former star shortstop for the team, took visitors inside as recently as last year. When Trammell tried to do so again this year, he could not find a guard to let him in.
"It's just falling apart," Trammell said. "You see some of the wood that hangs from the upper deck. The press box was on top, and there's a big panel falling off. All the padding around the outfield has been gone for years; you can see the paint that's chipped off it.
"I went in our dugout to go into the home clubhouse. You go down a couple of steps and you make a left, and it was dark down there and I stepped in some water, because I couldn't see. And they had a gate closed so you couldn't go all the way up the tunnel. But I'm sure if I would have, the clubhouse would have been locked."
There is no comparable situation in the major leagues. Seventeen teams (not including the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals) have moved to new stadiums since 1981. Thirteen of the old parks have been torn down.
Two, in San Diego and San Francisco, are used by N.F.L. teams. Another, the Astrodome in Houston, is used for high school football and may soon house a professional soccer team. Only Tiger Stadium is shuttered.
The closest comparison - and the nightmare for many Detroit fans - is probably Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. When the Phillies moved out in 1970, the ballpark became a wasteland, overgrown with weeds, vandalized and damaged by a fire.
It was razed, finally, in June 1976. The Phillies played host to the All-Star Game the next month.