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Funeral Rites and Rites of Passage
by Stephen Lehman

This summer, I took a road trip with my two sons to see two games at Tiger Stadium. They weren't important games: Detroit had been out of the pennant race for months and was vying with Kansas City and Anaheim for the worst record in baseball while their opponent, the Orioles, despite an $86 million payroll, had only Tampa Bay keeping them from the cellar of the American League Eastern Division. For this we drove 1,500 miles in four days and spent a night in the most Spartan hotel I've ever encountered, a brand-new Motel 6 by the airport; for this my oldest son, Sam, valiantly battled a flu bug that had his stomach in shambles for the first day and a half. Yet the trip was proclaimed a success, and well worth the effort, even before we'd made it home. And yet it was more complicated than that. This was a bittersweet odyssey from the start.

This impromptu marathon run was the idea of my cousin Dan from Washington, D. C. He called me one evening in early summer with a proposition.

"Ever seen a game in Tiger Stadium?" he asked.

"Yeah, three," I answered. "Why?" I'd caught a game when I was in Detroit on business in 1983 and saw a double-header there in 1984 when I went to Cooperstown with a group to see Harmon Killebrew's induction; on that trip, we ended up seeing eight games in eight days while driving 3,500 miles in a rented commuter van. But I hadn't been back since.

"Well, I haven't," said Dan. "And I think I'd like to."

"Well, my kids haven't," I replied. "And maybe they should." So the scheme was hatched.

Unspoken in that conversation was that this was it for Tiger Stadium. Last chance, pal. History is coming down in a pile of rubble after the season; the grand old lady at Michigan and Trumball would never see the new millennium.

And thus, while we had fun and some adventures on the trip, and we enjoyed visiting with Dan and seeing our third cousin, Tony Clark, belt a mammoth upper deck shot in continuation of his second-half hot hitting, always present was the reality that this was part celebration and part funeral and that along with the good times, there was grieving to be done.

As has been documented in the pages of this journal several times, most recently in vol. 16 no. 1, the Tiger Stadium Fan Club led a valiant and extended battle to save the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. As is often the case when a small band of preservationists, arguing such fine points as aesthetic and historical significance, fiscal and community responsibility, and the best interests of the game of baseball itself, the Fan Club won all the battles and lost the war. This is not, of course, an unusual result in the coarsened culture of late Twentieth Century America; when citizens promoting a broader, more refined, more long-term vision of the public good go up against the political and financial power elite whose only ultimate agenda, beyond the obfuscation, misdirection, and outright bullying that constitute their modi operandi, is making extremely rich people richer, they're going to lose more often than not. Thus, the redwoods come down so every suburban home in the country can have a deck to put the grill on, the rain forests are burned out to create pasture for cattle to feed the fast food industry, and true ballparks-Tiger Stadium, Fenway Park, and, just you wait, Wrigley Field-come down to make way for massive, consumer-oriented mallparks that are priced out of the economic range of the vast majority of the people whose taxes are used to build them. In this journal we've been railing against this for years, trying to change minds, trying to stem the tide, but the painful truth is, it may not really matter what you or I think. As a recent article by Marc Fisher in The Washington Post on the demise of Tiger Stadium put it, "In most cases, the stadium gets built no matter what local voters say."

But that doesn't explain the need to see a ballgame in the stadium one more time (or, as in the cases of Dan and my sons, for the first time). What's that all about? For one thing, it's about history and heritage, a sense of connectedness to our roots. My sons are thirteen and eleven, but they know who Ty Cobb was, what he meant to the development of the game, and how long ago he played. They know the names of Kaline and Greenberg and Cochrane (their grandfather's favorite player) and Gehringer and George Kell and Heinie Manush and what they accomplished. They understand that Ruth and Gehrig and Williams had played on that very field. They know that Twins great Harmon Killebrew, whom they have met and whose autograph they each have, hit a shot on August 3, 1962, that cleared the left field roof, and that he was the first ever to do it. They realize that in the context of Tiger Stadium, those names have meaning and life; they've been to the Metrodome, for example, and can tell intuitively that the great Killebrew has no presence there at all, not even as a ghost.

For another thing, it's about class. The new stadia are for the well-heeled only. The death of Tiger Stadium is also the death of "the belief that baseball is a pastime for everyman, and not just for the suits," as Fisher wrote in his Post article. Ticket prices in new stadia go up 35 percent on average. The better seats in the new stadium in Detroit will cost up to $75-each. On our trip to Tiger Stadium, we paid $6 to camp in the center field bleachers, where we could see everything except a double or homer to the lower deck in right, and we only lost the tail end of the ball's flight in those cases. Yes, there are several thousand obstructed view seats in Tiger Stadium, but most of them require little more than leaning left, right or forward to compensate. The trade-off is you're hanging right out over the field: you're present.

Finally, there's the question of aesthetics, and of what's to become of our cities. Yeah, I know Tiger Stadium wasn't exactly pretty. I know some people in this country prefer new and shiny to old and weathered. Lots of people do. There's something particularly American about the desire-or is it a compulsion?-to reinvent ourselves every other generation or so. So we keep putting up new strip malls and big indoor malls and megamalls. And we keep building housing development after housing development, pushing the cities out further and further from the core, trying our best to buffer ourselves from one another. Meanwhile our cities turn to part crumbling war zone, part gaudy entertainment zone, with both parts unfit for human habitation. I won't get into the problems inherent in suburban sprawl here. If you're interested in the arguments for preserving urban life, read Philip Bess's City Baseball Magic and The Old Neighborhood by NPR's Ray Suarez. I just want to go on record as saying I almost always prefer the old and weathered. It's about character-and meaning.

School started a couple of weeks ago, and one of the first homework assignments my youngest, Will, received, was to write about a special place he visited over the summer. Talk about a no-brainer. He wrote about Tiger Stadium of course, and the fun he had there, and seeing Tony Clark play, and about Cobb and Greenberg. He told about how it was going to be torn down, and he asked why that had to happen. Why, indeed? I told him that it's a long, sad story. About greed and corruption both public and private and the misuse of power. About a fundamental lack of respect for the city of Detroit (and all cities) and for the game of baseball.

He just didn't understand it. But then, neither do I. —EFQ

STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

This column first appeared in EFQ 16:4, Fall 1999

© 1999 Stephen Lehman


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