Sports Nut

Tiger Stadium Must Go!

Why it’s time for Detroit to tear down its classic ballpark.

Fans walk to Tiger Stadium

On Sept. 27, 1999, the Detroit Tigers beat the Kansas City Royals 8-2. The game was entirely inconsequential, except for the fact that the host stadium was to be retired at the game’s conclusion, capping a run that dated back to 1896, when a Midwestern hay market was turned into a 6,000-seat ballpark. “The game is over,” play-by-play man Ernie Harwell announced at contest’s end. “Tiger Stadium is no more.”

Harwell was only partly right. While professional baseball has not been played at Tiger Stadium since that day—franchise owner and pizza baron Mike Ilitch moved the team to shiny new Comerica Park in 2000—the city-owned stadium still stands at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, a deserted ruin of concrete and steel. Instead of being demolished immediately, Tiger Stadium has become the most prominent symbol of Detroit’s post-industrial urban decay. Even now, as there’s finally a firm deadline to demolish the stadium to make way for new homes and stores, a persistent group of wannabe do-gooders is making a last-ditch push to save the old ballpark. While their hearts are in the right place, in this instance logic must win out over nostalgia. It’s time to tear the damn thing to the ground so that we can all get on with our lives.

The Tiger Stadium that exists in the popular consciousness was born in 1938, when then-owner Walter Briggs Sr. expanded the existing park into a two-tiered monster that could hold more than 50,000 fans. This reconfiguration gave rise to what became the stadium’s signature features: obstructed views, a center-field wall 440 feet from home plate, and a rowdy upper-deck bleacher section that hung over the field of play. Like the assembly-line town it represented, the ballpark was more workmanlike than elegant—full of imperfections but entirely lacking in pretense.

The desire to preserve the great ballpark—the home of Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, and Kirk Gibson, the place where the Tigers won the 1968 and 1984 World Series—is perfectly understandable. I was guilty of the same sentiment until recently. My earliest memories involve toddling down to the stadium with my father to watch the Tigers and the Lions, who played at Michigan and Trumbull until their regrettable move to the Silverdome in 1975. While Al Kaline was still in uniform during my initial years of inculcation, the sure-fielding Aurelio Rodriguez—the original “A-Rod”—was my first hero.

But stripped of these golden-hued memories, Tiger Stadium as it stands today is a sad relic. It is literally falling apart, despite the fact that the city of Detroit has spent several million dollars in maintenance since 1999. Various efforts to open the stadium to the public for one final walkthrough have been canceled because the premises pose a safety risk. Some of the prized memorabilia—signage and locker room miscellany, mainly—that the city wants to auction off to raise money to offset demolition costs has already been hauled away by vandals. What remains is a hollow, neglected shell that serves only to tarnish both the club’s legacy and its legends.

In my case, the initial desire to save this vacant cathedral is completely selfish. Like many white families, mine fled Detroit for the greener environs north of 8 Mile Road in the late 1960s. (Detroit has lost more than 900,000 residents since 1950.) I took it one step further, abandoning the state altogether. For me, downtown Detroit is now an occasional entertainment destination, not a daily reality. I suspect the same is true for many who want to save the ballpark. Since I don’t live in the rundown area that surrounds the stadium, I have no business proselytizing for its salvation. Apparently, not everybody agrees.

One of the leading proposals to save the stadium comes from Ernie Harwell himself. The great Tiger broadcaster has proposed creating a scaled-back, 10,000-seat ballpark for youth teams that would also serve as a sports museum, concert venue, and the home to the legendary but defunct Kronk Gym. Harwell pled his case directly to the Detroit City Council at the late July meeting where it voted 5-4 in favor of tearing down the stadium. The demolition is now tentatively scheduled for September 2008, but the council can still change its mind—Harwell is trying to raise some $20 million to fund his vision and claims that his plan is “picking up speed.”

This plan to save the ballpark is a warm and fuzzy sentiment. The reality is that another sports-based development is the last thing Detroit needs, especially one that seems to depend in large measure on wishful thinking. Does anyone think it’s realistic to transform a hulking, rusted-out battleship like Tiger Stadium into a sleek, modern racing ketch?

It’s a shame that any of the grand old American ballparks have had to face the wrecking ball. But as the demolitions of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium and Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field have shown, a stadium teardown can be done sensibly. Tearing down a historic stadium is like a painful breakup—the quicker it’s done, the better you’ll feel in the long run. The case that’s most comparable to what’s happening in Detroit is the fate of Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium, which closed in 1970 but wasn’t razed for six years. In the meantime, it caught on fire, got overgrown with weeds, was raided by vandals, and stood as a festering symbol of domestic incompetence.

Will yet another vacant lot in the middle of Detroit’s oldest neighborhood be any sort of improvement? Yes, though the recovery will be hard to see at first. One third of Detroit’s population lives below the poverty line and unemployment hovers near 14 percent.  Even the best plans for a salvaged stadium offer little in the way of long-term solutions to these problems. While demolition alone won’t cure all the ills that plague Detroit, it’s at least better than doing nothing. Tearing down Tiger Stadium will send the message that the city is striving to carve a new path rather than sitting back idly and waiting for the good old days to return.