Death of a Sacred Place

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Michael Betzold

SPECIAL PLACES ARE disappearing faster than endangered species.  Places that move the heart foster messy attachments.  They’re unwieldy.  The global economy prefers its consumers to have portable affections for interchangeable environments.

Beloved places have meaning because of their particularity.  Their hold on their adherents can’t be fully appreciated by people outside the tribe.  To a developer, a sacred ancestral plot is prime real estate, a healing spring part of a septic field, a lovers’ overlook a marketable picture-window view. An old baseball stadium is a pile of rusty girders and cheap seats.

Say I’m listening to a Detroit Tigers game, and a Tiger pitcher lasts five innings with a no-hitter.  I drop everything and drive madly to Tiger Stadium.  No Tiger has thrown a no-hitter at home since 1952, and I want to be there if it happens.

Sometimes the no-hitter collapses as I drive to the park. Sometimes I walk in just in time to see the opponents get their first hit. This crazy lust is inexplicable, like the dance of a whirling dervish.  It is fanaticism; that is, the act of a fan.

Unlike many others, I don’t spread my fanaticism wide and thin. I lack the suction-cup psyche of the multi-sport junkie, who can attach and remove loyalties from various teams in various places, the kind of transferable allegiance that is useful in this era of millionaire mercenaries and grab-and-run team owners.

I’m stuck with outdated monogamy.  The Detroit Tigers are the only sports franchise I’ve followed all my life. And in leaving our home after this season for a new stadium, they are betraying me.

The rift is irreparable.  Baseball is a religion to me, but I can find other places to worship.  Painfully, I have discovered that I love the place where the Tigers have played all this century much more than I love the Tigers.

I’m not the only sports fan with such a futile and frustrating bond. As franchises and players pick up and go wherever the money is greener, cuckolded fans are left behind with embarrassing, anachronistic emotions.  Often they develop a smoldering resentment-a backlash that taints all of American professional sports.

Memories of a Lifetime

It is some solace to know that I joined with friends and fought with all my might the crime now reaching its fruition in Detroit.  Places of the heart, even impure ones, are worth the effort.  Your home, your neighborhood, your city-you have to stand and defend your piece of ground.

Manufactured, mediated experience is ubiquitous.  Battling to preserve a special place is not quaint provincialism.  It is defiance against the relentless obliteration of memory and community.

You don’t notice your heart until there’s trouble with it. The unrecognized bond that linked Detroit, its baseball team and its ballpark brought meaning and constancy and civility to a changing metropolitan area-just as Ebbets Field and the Dodgers fostered pride and community in Brooklyn.  You realize what it’s worth only when the moguls come to take it away.

When I was a kid, I went to Ladies’ Day games, where women and children under 13 could sit in the upper-deck seats behind first and third base for fifty cents.  I had no inkling I was in the best seats ever built in a major-league baseball park, right on top of the action.  I figured all cities had ballparks like ours.

The summer I graduated from high school, 1968, the Tigers won with a fun-loving, biracial team whose thrilling comeback victories united Black and white Detroiters a year after riots had sundered the city.

The Tigers were a hometown team with approachable players; if you went to the Lindell AC bar after a game, you might see native Detroiters like Willie Horton and Bill Freehan.  When they won the pennant, my friends and I were among the thousands who danced in the outfield, grabbing pieces of sacred sod because we wanted to preserve the magic of that time and place.

In 1976, I joined sell-out crowds roaring as the gangly, goofy Mark “the Bird” Fidrych talked to the ball, applauded his infielders, and confounded opposing batters.  The Tigers were a last-place team, but Birdmania was infectious.

In the mid-1980s, I would get off work at the Detroit Free Press at 11 p.m. If a game was going long, I’d slip in a gate, claim an empty seat behind home plate, and drink in some bracing late-inning tension.  One night during that era, I made a last-minute decision to go with friends to a game where a Tiger hurler named Walt Terrell came within one out of that no-hitter I so coveted.

Serendipity makes city life and baseball fun. Detroit lacks the cultural riches of some cities, but I’d always run into friends at the park, which remained a center of urban life even after much of the life had gone out of the city.

I loved the freedom of deciding impulsively to go down to the Corner-the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues downtown-where I knew I could find a seat on a backless wooden throne in the expansive upper-deck bleachers, surveying the green kingdom where players performed at our command.

It’s an incomparable perch.  Where else but the Tiger Stadium bleachers could you find a bunch of old lefties playing labor songs in an annual event called Eugene V. Debs Memorial Kazoo Night?  We had heaven.  Little did we know how lucky we were.

The Tiger Stadium Fan Club

It all changed on the evening in September 1987 when four friends and I met in a pizza joint to discuss the growing threat to Tiger Stadium.  The club owner, Tom Monaghan, and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young were talking openly about a new stadium.  We five launched a campaign to save the ballpark.

We were residents of Detroit and longtime friends, each with some experience in progressive and community issues.  The fan and the city booster in each of us converged eagerly on the cause.  We felt instinctively that Tiger Stadium was vital to Detroit.  We also had selfish reasons: We didn’t want a sterile new stadium without cheap bleacher seats.

We called our group the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, declaring ourselves fans of the ballpark, not necessarily the ball club-a distinction I’d never considered.  We were making it clear that the Tigers could not presume to transplant our patronage in a new location.

Yet our name was insufficient.  It didn’t make clear our affection for the city. That made it harder for city boosters who didn’t know or care much about baseball to join us. And it allowed our opponents to question our motives.

Our struggle lasted nine years.  Its history is rich and complex, but can be summarized simply: We won the public debate in Michigan, but not in Detroit, where it most mattered.  We helped delay the new stadium for years.  In the end, we lost to political conniving and demagoguery.

In the process, we discovered that Tiger Stadium was more than just our town’s park, a ramshackle depository of trivial sports sentiment.  In fact, it is America’s premier proletarian ballpark.

In the 1930s, owner Walter Briggs, an automobile parts manufacturer, expanded the park to maximize close, affordable seating for factory workers and their families.  With its 50,000-plus seats close to the field, nearly half of them in the outfield, and its 11,000 bleacher seats, Briggs’s stadium provided the Tigers with a loyal working-class fan base and decades of reliable profits through winning and losing seasons.

No other baseball stadium has so successfully married accessibility and intimacy.  During our fight, I came to understand that my joyful times at Michigan and Trumbull owed much to the way the place was built.

Tiger Stadium was the perfect showcase for Fidrych, for example.  Where else could so many people be close enough to witness his heart-on-his-sleeve emotions, to laugh at his inimitable mannerisms?

And it was fitting that the Tigers’ biggest heroes were lunch-bucket, workaday types like Darrell Evans, Alan Trammell and Horton.  Their home park had a functional, well-worn, unassuming feel, like a bowling alley.  Its dimensions made players recognizable heroes rather than distant superstars.  You could yell at them, and they couldn’t keep from hearing you.

Loyal fans like my friends and me long had been the Tigers’ bread-and-butter.  That changed when club owners started blackmailing cities to build them publicly funded stadiums.

Owners no longer are content with steady profits such as Tiger Stadium provided Briggs and his successors.  Now teams demand that taxpayers build them cash cows. The mechanisms of the stadium scam are well explicated by the case studies, research and incisive commentary in Field of Schemes, by Joanna Cagan and Neil deMause (Common Courage Press).

Two professional architects and Fan Club members, John and Judy Davids, designed a detailed project called the Cochrane Plan, which proved that Tiger Stadium could be inexpensively renovated to include revenue-producing luxury suites while preserving the park’s character.

But that wasn’t enough.  Like other professional sports and countless corporate endeavors, baseball is targeting upscale customers.  Owners don’t want large numbers of close, affordable seats.  They build smaller stadiums of about 40,000 seats, sell 25,000 or more of them in multigame package deals, and thereby create a scarcity of available game-day tickets, driving up demand and price even for the most distant seat.

Clubs don’t want working stiffs who come on the spur of the moment, park on the street, and buy a hot dog and a beer. They want yuppies who buy seats in advance, pay $10 or more for guarded parking, snap up team-logo merchandise, and eat catered finger food.

They market to fans who want sanitized convenience, an unthreatening entertainment package, rather than an unplanned, take-it-as-it-comes day or night at the ballpark.

As Cagan and deMause show, fighting the stadium scam is like trying to slay a many-headed dragon.  We fended off the new stadium in Detroit for nearly a decade because we were creative, well-organized and lucky.

We bedeviled Monaghan, who gave up in large part because he clashed culturally with Mayor Young.  When they were replaced by a shrewder owner with close ties to the city’s power structure (Mike Ilitch) and a smooth-talking, deal-making mayor (Dennis Archer), our mission became more desperate.

Backers of new stadiums often employ political triangulation.  Owners hold addicted fans hostage to their whims.  Politicians blackmail desperate cities.  The media help by marginalizing anyone who dares question the mantra that clubs must be subsidized in order to maximize their profits.  Newspapers and television and radio stations depend heavily on consumers’ interest in pro sports and usually promote team owners’ agendas.

There is no natural constituency for opposing stadium-building.  Many ardent fans get swamped by their beloved club’s self-serving arguments.  Staunch baseball traditionalists get marginalized as nostalgic dreamers.  Anti-government conservatives, enraged by any proposal that includes tax hikes, will bow to other deals that favor business.

We found ourselves with strange bedfellows and bereft of the level of support we needed from progressives.  We argued social priorities incessantly: Why spend millions on a playground for millionaires when the city can’t afford to fix playgrounds for children?

The message went largely unheeded.  Too many on the left, dismissing sports as meaningless, failed to see the stadium battle as a high priority.

Why-and What-We Lost

In the end, our defeat had to do largely with race. Briggs was a notorious racist, and the Tigers were the second-to-last major league team to integrate.  Generations of Black Detroiters passed down stories of mistreatment at the ballpark.  For too many, the stadium was more a shameful symbol of the bad old days than a source of pride.

The Fan Club’s ranks became top-heavy with ex-Detroiters-including, finally, myself-for whom Tiger Stadium memories were indelible links to a city they had left behind.

With our help, the idea of public funding for a new stadium grew so unpopular among Michigan residents outside Detroit that state legislators wouldn’t touch it. So mayor Archer and right-wing Republican governor John Engler brokered a closed-door deal that involved raiding a state slush fund, bypassing a legislative vote, and taking on the Fan Club in a Detroit-only funding referendum.  In that arena, Archer was free to mischaracterize and marginalize us as meddling white suburbanites, and we were routed.

Despite our inglorious end, we can be proud of our effort.  Not only did we delay the deal for years; we also made total public funding impossible, so Ilitch had to borrow $145 million to build the new stadium.  Of course, it will be named after the bank providing the loan, Comerica.

Taxpayers, the city and baseball fans still got fleeced.  The replacement of Tiger Stadium is malicious destruction of public property accomplished through extortion and corporate welfare.  It’s an assault on history and community.

In short, it is business as usual in modern America.  The people who run major league baseball have little use for the heart and soul and memory that have sustained the game for more than a century.  Instead of opening their doors to loyal fans, they shut out all but the most affluent.

In place of continuity, they offer merchandising of nostalgia.  Marketing rules, and planned obsolescence dominates.  Like team merchandise with its ever-changing insignia, lineups constantly mutate, offering new product lines of players.  And every few decades, owners expect the public to pay to build them a new stadium.

Still, except for a few Cubans, the world’s best baseball players perform in the majors, and the quality of the game is, debatably, as good as ever. The moguls and the ludicrous contracts can limit access to the sport, but they can’t ruin its inherent beauty and grace.

After years of strikes and stadium scams and ticket inflation, there has grown among fans a hunger for the lost soul of the game. Witness last year’s McGwire-Sosa lovefest, in which fans and the media treated common decency as a rare commodity.  That same longing for the good old days is evident in the faux retro touches on the newest stadiums-as if you can invoke a sport’s lost innocence with a little bit of brickwork.

You can’t.  The new stadiums are soulless emporiums of shameless commerce.  A friend of mine, recently treated by the Tigers to a “virtual tour” of Comerica Park via computer models, told me it looked like a bordello.  How appropriate.

What will be missed after Tiger Stadium has been replaced by yet another copycat sports entertainment complex?  Gone will be the place where Ty Cobb raged and Lou Gehrig benched himself, where fans threw garbage at Ducky Medwick (1934) and Goose Gossage threw garbage to Kirk Gibson (1984), where Norm Cash brought a table leg up to bat against Nolan Ryan.

Lost will be a magical arena of waking dreams and dreary wakes, of exhilaration and anguish, of childish delight and dying hopes-a place open to the embrace of a fanatic pursuing a hometown no-hitter.  What’s being discarded is a rare, authentic piece of common ground, where memories were constantly renewed by fresh seasons.

This essay was originally published by the online culture and sports magazines Blue Ear and SportsJones and is reprinted here with their permission.  Mike Betzold is a locked-out Detroit Free Press writer, whose work appears frequently in the locked-out newspaper workers’ Detroit Sunday Journal.  He is the author, with Ethan Casey, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1991; second edition 1997).

ATC 81, July-August 1999