DETROIT -- A Tiger Stadium security guard says they hear ghosts in the old ballpark at night and I believe him. The Tigers haven't played a game here in seven years and yet I can still see all the former players clearly as I gaze down at the field.I see Ty Cobb spiking opponents and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker turning double plays in the infield. I see Al Kaline chasing down fly balls across the broad green outfield and Hank Greenberg and Cecil Fielder crashing home runs onto the rooftop. I hear Mark Fidrych whispering to baseballs, Jack Morris snarling at opponents and Ernie Harwell broadcasting the games out to the radios in the Fords and Chevrolets and Studebakers throughout the state.
Jim Caple takes you inside Tiger Stadium.
I see and hear all this and I don't know whether to cry with happiness at seeing a cherished old friend again or to cry with sorrow that this can't last.What do you do with an old ballpark after the team leaves? While the Tigers played their first World Series in 22 years over the weekend, I went to the famous corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the location for all of the Tigers' previous World Series. I'm very fortunate. So few people are allowed into Tiger Stadium that when I tell Ray Formosa, who runs the Brooks Lumber Co. across the street, that I'm taking a tour, he replies: "I figured they must have Osama bin Laden in there." What's Tiger Stadium like these days? The ramp leading from the visitors dugout to the clubhouse is underwater. Weeds sprout up between some cracks in the cement. Portions of the stadium sag. Wood is rotting in a few places. The grass, while recently mowed, needs reseeding. But for the most part, Tiger Stadium looks just as I remember it when I walked out after the final game in 1999. The scoreboards are still there. The mound is still there. The bullpen sheds that always reminded me of the prison camp in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" are still there. Even the little blue stool for the batboy is still there. Well, at least they still are for now. What do you do with an old ballpark? "It's like shooting Old Yeller," Peter Zeiler says. "Nobody wants to shoot Old Yeller. I can't shoot Old Yeller. But sometimes you have to man up and do something about Old Yeller." Zeiler is the business development representative for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and he is giving me a tour of Tiger Stadium to show the city's plans for its future. The plan sounds exciting -- if everything goes through as planned, virtually the entire field will be preserved and set aside as a park and youth baseball diamond. The stadium itself will be mostly to completely torn down and replaced with street-level retail stores and multistory condos. The way Zeiler is enthusiastically describing the project -- "The foul poles might run up the side of the building right where they are now" -- I not only can picture the condos facing the field, I can see Willie Horton walking out of my future bathroom in his underwear. To really capture the Tiger Stadium experience, Zeiler says they could mount a support post between the couch and the TV so I would have a view-obstructed seat. And if I get behind in the mortgage, I imagine Sparky Anderson will come out to the mound to give me the hook. "No, Sparky doesn't pull you," Zeiler says. "We'll ask some of the bigger players. Maybe we can get Dmitri Young." Before going any further, let me be clear: I love Tiger Stadium. It's one of my favorite ballparks. The view from the mezzanine seats in front of the radio booth was the best in baseball -- and I doubt it will ever be surpassed. I truly wish the Tigers had stayed here. The money spent building the new stadium should have been spent preserving Tiger Stadium for future generations of major league baseball. Unfortunately, the Tigers DID leave. And they aren't coming back. Which brings us back to the question: What do you do with an old ballpark? We are very possessive of our ballparks. Our own homes are just four walls with a mortgage, a shell we'll gladly sell to move to a place with extra storage and a better school district. But a ballpark? That's sacred land. Not only because of a stadium's place in our personal memories but also because of its importance to our collective memory. Ballparks are one of the last remaining places -- and perhaps the only place -- where we truly come together as a community for a shared experience. We won't exchange words with the passengers next to us during an entire cross-country flight other than to ask if they're going to eat all their pretzels. But put us in a stadium and soon we'll be hugging, slapping high-fives and orchestrating the wave with everyone in the section as if they were fraternity brothers.
Ballparks are where we connect with our parents, our children and our city.That's why people continue to stop at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull seven years after the final game at Tiger Stadium.
"Every day, all afternoon, people drive by and take a picture next to it," Formosa tells me in his office across the street. "It's to the point where I'm always being asked, 'Hey mister, can you take my picture?' There was a guy here this afternoon who lives in Washington who was literally in tears when he saw it."Despite this, almost every old stadium suffers the same fate. Whether via wrecking ball or implosion, old ballparks almost always get destroyed. Old Comiskey Park is a parking ramp. Ebbets Field is a housing complex. The old Met in Minnesota is the Mall of America (a Victoria's Secret is either on or near the site of the old Twins clubhouse). Usually, however, the demolition comes immediately after the final game. Not so with Tiger Stadium, which has been standing virtually unused since the Tigers left (most notably, the Bud Bowl was held there February). That's led to some controversy. What do you do with an old ballpark? Zeiler says the city received many proposals for the site, including someone who wanted to turn the ballpark into a bullfighting ring ("Never mind the fact that bullfighting is illegal in this country") but none had sufficient financial backing. Peter Comstock Riley of Michigan and Trumbull LLC disputes that, saying the city never really wanted to entertain other plans. Comstock Riley is so passionate about the ballpark that he took a job at the Brooks Lumber Co. in part so "I could keep an eye on that stadium." He wanted to convert it to a minor league facility (which would have been very costly) and says the stadium should have been auctioned off to private business. "The best thing that could happen right now with the way the Tigers are playing and the fever pitch of interest," Comstock Riley says, "is that this is a great opportunity for Mike Ilitch to step in and ascend to a completely different level and be a hero and do something with Tiger Stadium. Something that not only would be productive for the community, it would be great for him, too." Given that Ilitch probably won't do that, I like the city's plans for the stadium. It's something that Zeiler says has only been tried once -- at Arsenal's old Highbury Stadium in London. He and Scott Martin of the Greater Corktown Development Corporation say they hope that when done, their project will be like a faded old photograph, with enough left of Tiger Stadium so your mind can still see it and you get a sense of what it used to be like. "It will be a town square for the Corktown community [the neighborhood around Tiger Stadium]," Martin says. "It will be a historic tourism piece for the nation. A place where folks can come and relive some memories. Celebrate the history and make some real history. I hope to see my son play baseball on this field real soon." Other cities, Zeiler says, tore down their stadiums right away. "We decided not to do that because this is a sacred place." I'm almost ready to make a down payment and move in, but will saner people really buy up $400,000 and $500,000 condos in a depressed section of Detroit where the homeless limp along in the middle of Trumbull Street? Will retailers come into the neighborhood? Will funding for the development really come through? Formosa grew up across the street from Tiger Stadium -- the Tigers players used to flirt with his older sisters on their way to the ballpark -- and while he's not against the plan, he reserves the right to be skeptical. "If I don't seem too confident, it's because I've seen many, many projects proposed by the city that have never materialized," he says. "And if this does, well, I'll be very appreciative." What do you do with an old ballpark? I don't know, but I hope Zeiler's plan works out because Tiger Stadium deserves a better fate than Comiskey and so many other ballparks. I hope that the corner of Michigan and Trumbull becomes an actual address for hundreds of people. I hope I can come back here years from now and look down at this green field and still be able to picture Trammel and Whitaker turning two, Reggie slamming one into the light tower and Sparky walking out to the mound for a pitching change. It's gotta be better than turning it into a Wal-Mart, right?