Nostalgia among ruins

Aug 8, 2007 at 12:00 am

Whenever I drive into Detroit from the south I get a tiny thrill when the city skyline first comes into view. Suddenly, just over where the rainbow should be, buildings appear that spell gleaming modern metropolis. First the Renaissance Center, then the outline of the river, then the towers of the Fisher and what we all once again call the Penobscot Building, and the rest.

But as you get closer, a growing sense of unease begins when you come upon the city's signature eyesore, the hulking wreck of the Michigan Central (train) Station, Detroit's own best attempt to create the look of Berlin in 1945.

The ruin, not incidentally, is owned, not by the city, but by our own gray spook-in-the shadows, Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun. Anyone who wants to let him corner the market by building a second bridge needs to drive over and look long at that broken-glass horror.

Drive a little farther, and you see the immense, fading white hulk of the place where legends came to play for a century: Tiger Stadium. Half a century ago, new ballplayers called up from the bushes or just traded from teams like the New York Giants would arrive at that train station and take a short cab ride to the ballpark, then deeply dark green. Twenty-year-old Al Kaline thought it looked like a battleship when he first saw it. They all played there: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and one-armed Pete Gray.

Yet it wore out; it was time for major renovation or something new, and eight years ago, after two decades in which fans fought fierce, bitter battles to preserve the old stadium, the Tigers fled to Comerica Park a mile away.

The new park is wonderful, and does as much as any stadium could to honor this historic sport's storied past. In other cities, the normal pattern is to tear down the old park pretty much the moment a new one is complete. That's what happened in Chicago and Cleveland and Brooklyn.

Yet Tiger Stadium is still there, the concrete from the upper decks crumbling, the rest rooms ruined, pipes rusted beyond repair. Two weeks ago, Detroit City Council finally voted, 5-4, to tear it down, leaving the field for kids to play ball on, after the tons of concrete and plastic and steel are hauled away.

In baseball, however, it's never over till it's over. Suddenly, and at the last minute, Ernie Harwell, Detroit's most revered sports icon, stepped forward with a plan to save the stadium, or at least a large part of it, from destruction.

Here's what the world's greatest announcer and his friend and lawyer, S. Gary Spicer, have in mind: They would destroy most of the structure, including all the concrete in the cavernous outfield, leaving a few thousand seats near home plate. The stadium would be knocked back to the way it was when it opened in April 1912, the week the Titanic went down.

What would they do with it? That's a little murky. They would like to see high school and college teams train there, and maybe gospel music concerts on Sundays. That sounds lovely, but it isn't clear to me how that would pay for the upkeep, though one can imagine Wayne State and maybe the University of Detroit Mercy, even, paying to use the ballpark as their home field.

Ernie would also like to see music and sports museums as part of the complex, and maybe a community center. It might well make sense for the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame to find a new permanent home there.

That all sounds very lovely. Whatever that part of Detroit needs — and it needs a lot, economically and otherwise — it doesn't need another vacant lot.

Yet the odds seem long against any of it happening. Contrary to some published reports, Harwell told me Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick seemed receptive to the idea, and did nothing to discourage Spicer and Harwell from traveling to Wall Street to seek the $20 million or so in financing they'd need.

"He said we had a couple months," Ernie said. That cost the mayor nothing; as it is, demolition isn't slated to start till October.

The mayor is too smart to be rude to an icon. But my guess is that KK doesn't think they have much chance of getting the funding they need, and my guess is, sadly, that he is also right. Money is short and tight these days, and Detroit hasn't exactly been a magnet for investors.

There's another reason, too, which nobody talks about very much. Almost certainly, Mike Ilitch, the city's own Little Caesar, does not want a preserved and redeveloped Tiger Stadium, no matter what form that takes.

For what if some enterprising hot shot were to buy or create an independent minor league franchise and have the team play in Tiger Stadium, selling tickets for a small fraction of what they would sell for in Comerica Park?

This year, as last, the major league club is a pennant contender. But the Tigers won't always be good. In fact, for most of the time they've been in Comerica, the team has been so lousy they should have paid us to see them.

Imagine what a scrappy and affordable minor league team might have done to major league attendance in those years. Nor do I see the Ilitches as being thrilled at the thought of a potentially competitive venue for concerts and events. And the Ilitches, with their holdings and their teams and their money, most assuredly have influence in and with the city.

Would they use it to block saving the stadium? Odds are they won't have to, because Spicer and Harwell won't be able to raise that much capital.

If they do, we'll see.

But that's far from the only problem. What, I cynically wonder, is — even if they did build it, how many would come? How many of the suburbanites who want so badly to preserve the memory of Detroit as it was would really make use of this facility? Oh, a lot of them might come — once.

Now if there were some sort of shuttle from Comerica to a renovated Tiger Stadium museum-entertainment complex, that could mean a critical mass. People might come in for a game, take the nostalgia trip, and have dinner at Slows Bar B-Q, or Baile Corcaigh, two fine restaurants within walking distance.

That could work, probably would work. But is anyone really willing to make a commitment here? Part of what this is about is this: On one side, we have a gritty poor city of color, fighting hard for economic survival. On the other, legions of nostalgic whites, mostly long since fled to the suburbs, who want to preserve in amber the images of the Detroit they remember from their childhoods.

They don't really want to remember that the days of bustling prosperity were also a time when Ty Cobb beat a black man senseless in broad daylight for no reason, and got away with it, because he was white, famous and he could.

If all of us got together and agreed the past was important, but that the future is even more so — well then, Detroit might have a future, one in which the best of the past was celebrated and enjoyed, and the worst understood.

We could do that, but we probably won't. But you know what they say in baseball: You never can tell.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]