I was surprised to find that Tiger Stadium, the former home of the Detroit Tigers, was that place for me. I wasn’t really a fan when I signed on for a stint in Major League Baseball in 1996. It was the event planning and “putting on a show” that appealed to me. I was honestly shocked to learn I would be working directly with the players and staff.
It turned out to be more of a lifestyle than a job. During the season I would pretty much go home to sleep, and sometimes work weeks in a row without a day off. But it was wonderful! It was an exciting environment, different every day.
My work in the Community Relations department involved making player visits to community groups and hospitals in the city of Detroit–I was helping people—and this gave me the opportunity to really see the city, to realize what it once had been.
So believe it or not my time with the Detroit Tigers lead to a master’s degree in historic preservation. There seems to be no connection, but I always had a love of “old stuff,” and if you take a closer look…
I frequently drove up and down Woodward Avenue, where there are a variety of buildings echoing Detroit’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century.
I distinctly remember being dumbfounded by the sight of towering trees growing out of three Queen Anne mansions on Peterboro. How can this be? I wondered.
It really got me thinking about the city…it must be very difficult to prosper in the midst of so much decay; the physical surroundings must be part of the negative cycle the city had been in for the past three decades. If the citizens of Detroit had a reason to be proud of their neighborhoods and the rich history they represent, it could make all the difference.
The seed was planted.
Of course I spent the majority of my time in Tiger Stadium, learning its nooks and crannies, the shortcuts and “secret” routes from point A to point B. Every so often it would strike me:
I actually work here! I am sitting in the dugout where Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Alan Trammell sat…and they all used the trough around the corner!…and Al Kaline calls me Chris, and he is watching the National Spelling Bee with me during a rain delay…how cool is this? I am awash in history – all sorts of history!
At almost every game a fan would tell me a story of how the team factored into his/her own personal history: skipping school with Dad to see an afternoon game, the summertime hum of the game on the radio…simple, similar stories, but all meaningful to the teller…and the listener.
I worked with the historic Negro Leaguers and was responsible for coordinating the 1997 Women in Baseball event honoring the players of the famed All American Girls Professional Baseball League (remember the Tom Hanks movie, A League of their Own?)… Perhaps best of all, I got to know radio legend Ernie Harwell–talk about living history! The stories he told, and in that special “Ernie” way.
That seed was coming to life…
I had plenty of brushes with history, but I got to be part of it too through my involvement in the closing of Tiger Stadium and the opening of Comerica Park. I managed almost 900 members of the media that attended the Final Game, and I was involved in the planning of pre-Opening events and Opening Day itself.
Ironically, this series of events led to my leaving the team.
Beautiful as it is in its own right, Comerica Park was no Tiger Stadium. The smells (permanent hot dog in the concourse), sights (cracked concrete, rust and the eclectic mix of furnishings from decades past), and even sounds (the solo crack of the ball during early batting practice) are just not the same at Comerica Park. Technically the history moved with the team, but for me it lived in the walls of Tiger Stadium. Concourse museum kiosks just don’t cut it. Squeaky clean had replaced gritty tenacity, and I felt the loss.
And the seedling needed room to grow…no room in this 24/7 environment…
So I left after just three months in the new stadium.
I didn’t have a plan, I just knew that my heart belonged to Tiger Stadium and was yearning for something to fill the void. It took me six years to muster the courage to apply to the historic preservation program at Eastern Michigan University. It was perhaps the best thing I have ever done for myself.
In 2008 I witnessed part of the first round of demolition. As I rounded the corner of Michigan and Trumbull I could see into the offices where I once work-lived, the sight of it sucked the air right out of my lungs.
I walked around the site and found a safe vantage to watch. There were others there. We communed in silence, except for the tears; there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. It was eerie, sickening, but it was something I had to do. I did it for closure, as they say.
There was talk of converting a small portion of the structure into a museum, something I wanted to be involved in–I was in northern Michigan at field school for the EMU program when I learned of the decision to demolish that last remnant.
I had an immediate, prolonged (and quite embarrassing) public meltdown. That night my advisor Dr. Ligibel told me “…you have to learn to let go…” He was right of course.
Amazingly the legacy of over 100 years of the all-American game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull continues! Locals have banded together to maintain the playing field, dubbed Ernie Harwell Field, for community play.
It has been almost 14 years since I left the team, but I visit Tiger Stadium in my dreams, and I will never forget. Tiger Stadium will always be there in my heart.
I would love to hear your memories of Tiger Stadium or how another place has played a role in your history—please share in the comments below!
Also see Facebook for more on my interaction with Ernie Harwell!