Detroit turns back on Tiger Stadium lot

Some 6,873 baseball games were played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull streets. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

This story appears in the Oct. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Normally, it's a good thing when people are moved by what you write. This past spring, I returned to my hometown of Detroit to help clean the abandoned lot that, for nearly a century, had been home to Tiger Stadium.

Despite the ongoing incredible work of volunteers, I was saddened and angered by the way one of baseball's grandest fields -- a monument to Motown's very soul -- had become part of Detroit's apocalyptic collection of 90,000 vacant lots. In a column for ESPN The Magazine, I challenged General Motors, headquartered down the street, to prove that "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" was more than just a jingle. I proposed that GM step up to the plate and save the lot where Tiger Stadium once stood.

To my shock and amazement, GM listened. "Sometimes the best ideas are sitting right in front of you, and all you need is a nudge," says Mike Albano, a Chevy spokesman. "Most of our employees grew up going to Tiger Stadium, so when your story got passed around our office, it seemed like a no-brainer."

It also seemed as if the Motor City was getting back on a roll. The resurgent Tigers ran away with the AL Central, the long-moribund Lions are no longer the NFL's doormat, and in August, Chevy presented the city with a formal proposal to fix up the old diamond. GM would provide volunteers to restore the field, which would allow youth baseball teams to play on the same patch of earth once roamed by Ty Cobb, all free of charge and without obligation. It was a dream deal, one that had me envisioning the name tag for my next high school reunion. Hello, My Name Is: The dude who saved Tiger Stadium.

But in mid-September, the city basically told Chevrolet to drop dead. Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the quasi-public group in charge of the lot, rejected the offer. Even though little interest from developers has been shown since the Tigers left for Comerica Park in 1999, DEGC wants to save the prime 9.5-acre parcel for a major builder. "The site is one of the few large pieces of property in Detroit ready to develop and close to the freeways and downtown," says DEGC president George W. Jackson. "It does not make sense to develop that site for a youth ball field when there are other sites that would benefit from Chevy's offer."

Unless there's an untapped oil reserve under third base or secret plans to build an arena for the Red Wings, the DEGC's response is laughable.

Detroit, abandoned by 25 percent of its population since 2000, has more than 40 square miles of available vacant land, some of it within walking distance of the old field. Shocked by the city's response, GM hastily agreed to refurbish another field, although the site is as yet undetermined.

For a dozen years, the DEGC sought out the demands of the market, the voice of the citizenry and the opinion of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Then the organization rejected the chance to accomplish what everyone wants. It's impossible to imagine Boston desecrating Fenway Park, which opened on the same day as Tiger Stadium, in such a way. The site of Milwaukee's old County Stadium is now a Little League field. Under tight space constraints, New York City was somehow able to preserve 10 acres for youth baseball fields in the footprint of old Yankee Stadium. But Detroit can't find a way to accept a gift from its most powerful corporate citizen to preserve a historic and shared symbol of hope and civic pride -- one it bulldozed and abandoned -- in a way that benefits kids and is in line with the stated vision of Mayor Dave Bing.

That explains a lot about how Detroit rotted into its current state. If the city does die, it won't be from the economy but from the bankruptcy of vision, political will and dynamic leadership currently on full display at the once-famous corner of Michigan and Trumbull. "Yet again, Detroit comes off playing its usual part," says Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of
Detroit Mercy. "Looking lost and foolish, standing at home plate blindfolded, taking strike three."

We all know what that means in baseball parlance -- for Tiger Stadium, for Detroit and for the last wisp of hope I held for my hometown: You're out.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow ESPN The Magazine on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.