A Detroit diehards group of fan keep sacred ground alive for a new generation of baseball fans

86

Years after Tiger Stadium was demolished in Detroit, a group of fans came together and maintained the playing field. To this day, they still cut the grass and fertilize the field at their own expense. They now have little league games where the Detroit Tigers played for more than 100 years.

Since baseball will still be played at the same corner that it has been since 1896. It kinda sucks that they’re using artificial turf, but I understand their logic behind that decision.

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.