Another Ballpark Bites the Dust as Detroit Loses a Legend
I often wonder what people who don't attend sporting events do for glassware. My kitchen cabinet is filled with 32-oz. plastic remnants of overpriced, undercarbonated beverages. But this embarrassment of souvenir cups is more than an homage to a Diet Coke addiction gone terribly awry. It is the only concrete evidence of a hobby of sorts -- a shrine, largely residing in my memory, that is at once a source of great pride, guilt, and frustration. Some baseball fans collect cards; I am a stadium collector. Every April through October I feel compelled to travel from city to city to visit major-league ballparks. I'll fly or drive miles and miles just to see historic rivals duke it out or witness a future Hall of Famer take the plate. And while I am there for the game, I am just as much there for the ballpark. Not the newfangled amusement-park types, with their swimming pools and car dealerships. (Though I must admit curiosity has driven me to see new "old-style" parks like Camden Yards and The Ballpark at Arlington -- basically the same park with different-colored uniforms and different climates.) But the jewels of my collection are the older parks. I walk around them, imagining I can see former players and past games, wishing I could turn into a human sponge, to soak in every sound and scent and picture, so I can keep them forever. In a desperate attempt to cement it all inside me, I grab what earthly objects I can -- tin lapel pins and plastic cups and T-shirts scammed with faulty credit card information.
It is this obsession that landed me in Detroit last month, despite a host of misgivings and the little fact that most of my belongings were on a truck somewhere between Austin, Texas, and New York City.
It was never going to be an easy trip to say goodbye to the ballpark at the corner of Michigan & Trumbull. The road leading up to that moment when the last out was made at Tiger Stadium was devastating for the Detroit fans who fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful fight to preserve one of the country's oldest ballparks -- though you wouldn't know it from the bulk of the television, magazine, and newspaper coverage during the stadium's final year. In the national press, the prevailing sentiment was, "Nothing lasts forever, time to move on." But for better or worse, I am unable to brush the dirt off my hands dismissively and say, "Oh well."
Visiting Tiger Stadium was on my radar for years, but there were other cities that came first. Chicago was last year. San Francisco the year before. San Diego and Los Angeles earlier this spring. And while those trips were priceless, I cursed my priorities. I should have gone to Detroit before now. Last year. Five years ago. Any time but this last season.
For this was the season when Tigers owners decided to milk every last dollar from baseball purists throughout the country, luring us in with a garish display of for-profit sentimentality. How could we not journey to celebrate this baseball landmark? Never mind that the team's owners relentlessly railed against the place for years while they were demanding a new home. Never mind that the media freely bought into the rap that the place was too old and uncomfortable to keep the Tigers "competitive." Now with plans and funding for a new ballpark well in hand, a whole industry was born to capitalize on this final year. Throughout the season, the ballpark's DiamondVision showed clips of various and sundry famous folk declaring their love for the stadium's cozy atmosphere and history -- cozy atmosphere and history so prized that they may soon meet the wrecking ball. Sports Illustrated published a commemorative issue that was on sale at every souvenir stand. The Detroit News enlisted local teens to hand out free "game day" copies containing such objective stories as "Neighborhood Won't Suffer From Loss of Ballpark." Pricey T-shirts emblazoned with "Tiger Stadium 1912-1999" on the front and a list of all the games the Tigers played during this so-called "farewell tour" were all the rage -- as if this were an over-the-hill rock band, not a building, forced into early retirement.
As if my misgivings about the team's hypocritical marketing ploys were not enough, right around the All-Star break, I decided to move halfway across the country, a decision that turned my life upside down, kept me in hotels for almost three weeks, and now placed in jeopardy a long-planned weekend excursion to say goodbye to one of our country's baseball gems. Moving just added a new wrinkle to the question "Should I go?" Change itself is traumatic, but the process of changing -- the transition time when you can't find the dog's leash or your checkbook and you realize that you haven't eaten a green vegetable in two weeks or done laundry in three is positively maddening. I like my chaos controlled. The normal stuff of life is nuts enough without just about everything you own on a truck driven by a total stranger, ETA unknown. I basked in some truly Sybil moments. One second I'd be cheery and excited about Detroit (and craving ballpark pretzels), the next dark and depressed and unable to fathom leaving my room. I couldn't bear the idea of getting on an airplane again or staying in yet another hotel. I wondered if the moving hell was some sort of sign that I should avoid going to Detroit. Maybe it would just be too painful. Or maybe the baseball gods were testing my resolve, trying to see how good a fan I could be.
Ultimately, I decided I had to be there.
It wasn't until I actually landed in Detroit that I fully came to realize how angry I was. From the moment we left the airport and headed into the city, we were bombarded with nostalgia. From team billboards to newspaper headlines, passersby were reminded that we needed only to spend a little money at the ballpark to help say goodbye. The irony was too much to bear. These same greedy owners who couldn't say enough horrible things about the stadium when they were plotting to build a new one had the gall to use its history to appeal to nostalgia-hungry sports fans. It was so confusing. If everyone loves this place so much, why are we closing it down, anyway? And was I just playing into this little game of greedy professional sports owners and spineless cities? Was my stadium collecting helping to contribute to this stadium-building boom that I complain about?
During the two days I was in Detroit, my delight with the old stadium was interrupted by my sense of injustice. I thought about how in the new ballpark the folks sitting in the first rows would be about as far away as the old ballpark's upper deck. I thought about how thousands of cheap seats would be eliminated, how the new place is going to be named Comerica Park, an homage to a bank, not a ballclub. Then, I would overhear snatches of conversation that made me grind my teeth. I heard a father tell his daughter he bought her a brick in the new, "better" stadium. I heard two frat boys talking about how great next season would be when they could go to a state-of-the-art sports palace "like Atlanta's." Even Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Tigers, someone who I thought might have an ounce of respect for the stadium's place in history, claims to be ready to "move on." "We've got to keep the memories and treasure them in out hearts and souls and minds and let it go at that," he told The New York Times.
Throughout the two games, I was distracted. I wanted to rush to the announcer's booth, commandeer the microphone, and scream, "Where's your outrage? Don't you know what you're losing?" There were some fans who clearly did know. After the game, the thousands in attendance were invited to stroll around the field, to stand where greats like Cobb and Greenberg once played, and say farewell. Everyone had to clear the stadium and re-enter the park, something that most of the crowd moaned about, but seemed compelled to do anyway. The procession completely wrapped around the outside of the stadium in a festive little parade. But as we walked back into the stadium and onto the field, the joking and complaining stopped. The crowd was eerily silent as they wandered over the pitcher's mound and around the bases, as if it had suddenly occurred to us that we had stumbled into a wake. Three women carried a sign reading, "Michigan & Trumbull: the only place for Tigers Baseball." It was a stunning sight, a reminder that I was by no means alone in my frustration -- my sadness was not even a fraction of the pain many real Tigers fans were dealing with. I wanted them to know I was on their side, but could not seem to find the right words. I did all you can do for a stranger who loses a loved one. I offered my condolences for their loss, and said goodbye. As I left the field, my eyes began to sting with tears.
Baseball season has a way of seeming thousands of miles long in May. I think I can miss a game here and there because, heck, there are just so darn many of them. But then suddenly I blink my eyes and I can't believe it's October. I begin to pine away for no-hitters missed. I get misty thinking about grand slams that took place without me. But it's too late. I can't get the season back. I can't help but worry that that is how baseball fans will feel one day when they realize what has happened to their ballparks, when these once unique and dazzling playing fields all have a cookie-cutter symmetry to them, or when fans can't afford to visit them anymore. Will there be a kind of "seen one, you've seen 'em all" quality to attending a game in another city? If so, I don't think I have the stomach to continue my collection. I guess I'll have to start buying glassware.