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The future of the old Tiger Stadium site isn't just a turf vs. grass issue

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Corktown is just the latest battleground as Detroit feels out its suddenly brighter future.

The last pitch at Tiger Stadium, 1999
The last pitch at Tiger Stadium, 1999
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"Ladies and gentlemen, less than six months ago, we began a warm season of farewells, and with each passing day we came a little bit closer to this historic occasion. The Lions, Joe Louis and Nelson Mandela. Six-thousand eight-hundred and seventy-three regular-season games, 35 postseason contents and a trio of spectacular All-Star Games, Tiger Stadium has been home to this great game of baseball. But more than anything, it has been a cherished home to our memories. Will you remember that last base hit? The last out? How about that last pitch? Or maybe it’s the first time as a child when you saw that green, green grass that will forever be etched into your mind and soul. Tonight, we say good-bye. But we will not forget. Open your eyes, look around and take a mental picture. Moments like this shall live on forever. It’s been 88 moving years at Michigan and Trumbull. The tradition built here shall endure along with the permanence of the Olde English D. But tonight we must say good-bye. Farewell, old friend Tiger Stadium. We will remember." - Ernie Harwell, following the final game at Tiger Stadium, Sept. 27, 1999

★★★

DETROIT -- This is a Detroit story. And like a lot of the stories about this city, the story about the future of the baseball field at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull isn't as simple as the story tellers make it out to be.

The Detroit Police Athletic League stand to one side, partnered with the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy and a developer ready to turn "The Corner" into a mixed-use destination and showcase for the city's kids to play on. They want to restore the field to its historic dimensions, build seats for 2,500 spectators, and create "a nostalgic and education experience" about the players who used to play there. Public access will be curtailed but maintained during certain hours to allow community members onto the field. In the other hours, some of PAL's 12,000-plus kids, and possibly students at local high schools or colleges, will have the chance to play at one of baseball's most recognizable destinations.

To the other side, the Navin Field Grounds Crew, a grassroots group that rose when government and local organizations failed, comprised of dozens of volunteers who put in hundreds of hours of work a year to maintain an open field for all to come, remember, and enjoy. Rallying around the battle cry "Give grass a chance," representatives of the group question the apparent choice of artificial turf by PAL, which would cover the ground once tread by Ty Cobb, Willie Horton, Lou Whitaker, and every star the American League produced for nearly 90 years. They say it's about the grass, about the safety of children, but if it were only about grass or turf, emotions wouldn't run as strong as they do when members of the Grounds Crew speak.

In the middle lies the city's oldest neighborhood, Corktown, just one battlefield as the future of Detroit is written. This city, as its motto of more than 200 years states, is rising from the ashes as new money flows in and residents old and new pour in. Rock bottom has been hit, and the turnaround has begun. But the troubled past of the segregated region -- city vs. suburb, black vs. white -- remains ever in the background as a new city is created that might finally conquer those cancers. Residents of Corktown hope to demonstrate a better future.

"We have people that represent every ethnicity, social-economic background, and we work together really, really well. And that's one reason I really like this community." said Debra Walker of the Corktown Community Organization, which hosted a recent discussion about the future of the old Tiger Stadium site.

"I'm one of those people that lived in the city all my life," Walker added. "I don't like hearing the stories about new vs. old and progress vs. preservation, because I think in a perfect world they all meld. Every city goes through changes, otherwise it would just go away.

"So it's not a matter of new people coming in and being saviors, old people being pushed out. It's a matter of let's work together. And I think The Corner represents that. It's a corner that should be preserved, but progressively. So we can have the kids at PAL play at a wonderful site, have new development there, and that's the best of both worlds. It really is a win-win."

"We can have the kids at PAL play at a wonderful site, have new development there, and that's the best of both worlds." -- Debra Walker, Corktown Community Organization

There's another angle, too, Walker says. The Tigers were one of the last teams to integrate, not doing so until 11 years after Jackie Robinson became MLB's first black player. Ozzie Virgil became the Tigers' first person of color in June 1958. Five years later Detroit's own Willie Horton made his debut at The Corner. Thanks to the efforts of the Navin Field Grounds Crew and Detroit PAL alike, the children of Detroit today have an opportunity not available only a few generations earlier.

"If the kids understood the history ... I want them to play there -- I want them to play there the same way Willie Horton played there, because that means something," Walker said. "My grandson, when he had his birthday party there, to this day whenever he goes, it means something to him. And he's 14 now. So I think that it can be a win-win for everybody."

Even before the Tigers became a charter member of the American League in 1901, baseball was played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Corktown. In 1911, team owner Frank Navin ordered ground broken for a new stadium that would take his name and later become Tiger Stadium. Over the next 88 years, generations of fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, came to the stadium to see that grass greener than you've ever seen before. It stood through two world wars, four championships, the integration of the sport, and a race riot in 1967 that tore the city asunder. It watched as the auto industry rose and flourished, and the city grew from less than half a million residents to nearly two-million, and stood there as auto companies went bankrupt, manufacturing died, and a million residents moved away. The team called the working class neighborhood once inhabited by Irish immigrants home until 1999, before leaving for Comerica Park, downtown. Tiger Stadium lingered.

Like with the city, by then the best times were long in the past. A gilded age could only be conjured in black and white photos and stories passed down by parents and grandparents. The old stadium grew decrepit for nearly a decade, another symbol of the downfall of Detroit as neighborhoods fell fallow. It was demolished over a period of a year as groups fought and a judge made the final decision to end it all. The last of the structure fell on a Monday morning in September of 2009. In May of the following year, the Navin Field Grounds Crew began to care to the field, mowing the grass and tending the infield even while under threat of arrest for trespassing.

For five years, they cared for the field, preserving The Corner and honoring the heritage of the team. Recently, for example, the Grounds Crew held a retirement ceremony for Lou Whitaker's and Alan Trammell's numbers. The Tigers retire the numbers only of players in the Hall of Fame. The famous double-play duo may never attain that distinction. Earlier in the month, they set up a projector to show Game 5 of the 1984 World Series, the final game of that year's championship. Throughout the year vintage baseball games are played there. On a recent Saturday in September, a father and son stood between second base and third tossing a baseball while others ran the bases. On another Saturday, a wedding party gathered at home plate. These are the experiences the Grounds Crew hope to preserve.

Navin Field

Navin Field, September 2015 (Kurt Mensching photo)

To what extent that will be possible remains a question. The Police Athletic League plans to use the field for multiple sports, and expects heavy use throughout the year. PAL -- a partnership of Detroit police officers, volunteers and mentors, whose goal is to create a safe and supportive area for kids to play -- has been around since 1969. They currently support about 12,000 youth, and expect that number to grow by several thousand more over the next few years. Sports can be a transformative experience, they believe, as it teaches kids life lessons while providing them a physical activity.

The reason for using The Corner as a centerpiece of their operation is a simple one. "For generations of Detroit sports fans, there’s no place more hallowed than The Corner at Michigan and Trumbull, home of old Tiger Stadium," PAL says. "The footprint of the diamond echoes the cheers of millions of fans gathered to watch the greats play ball. Now, our city’s youth can play on this same field." PAL hopes that a prominent headquarters at the The Corner will raise its profile not just in the city, but nationally as well, which it believes will increase the amount of money it raises and allow it to do even more good throughout the city.

They plan to have some period of time available for the community to use it each week, but it's clear that Navin Field will not be as open as it is today. That is one of the controversial points.

However, the issue that has become most contentious, ostensibly, has been that of grass vs. turf. During the community meeting, and throughout prior months, that has proven to be the dividing issue. PAL believes -- rightly so -- that grass cannot stand up to the use that it has has planned. It has an expert from Michigan State University testifying that turf is a better solution. The Grounds Crew and its supporters believe that the safest surface is a grass one, and they, too, have an expert from MSU who testifies that.

We're not just a sports organization, so safety comes first. --Dewayne Jones, Police Athletic League


Tom Derry and Dave Mesry, who represented the Grounds Crew, believe that PAL plans to use the field too much and should cut back if it needs to, to keep playing on grass. Mesry would like to see The Corner preserved as a public park instead. To PAL, getting as much use out of the Navin Field site makes sense. It helps justify a large investment, but it also provides more opportunities for the children of the city to interact with volunteers. "Synthetic turf just gives us more playability," Dewayne Jones, PAL's athletic director, said. "We're not just a sports organization, so safety comes first." That safety goes beyond actual playing of the sport, to having a supportive environment for the city's youth, growing up surrounded by crime and poverty.

In addition to becoming PAL's headquarters and showcase piece, an additional plan is in place to develop the 9.5-acre area into a mixed retail and residential area, with the Larson Realty group in the lead. DEGC and the city of Detroit accepted a $33 million plan that would add 102 residential units, 24 town homes, and 30,000 square-feet of retail space.

"The decisions made today preserve the history of Tiger Stadium while at the same time providing for the future of the Corktown neighborhood, two historical sites important not only to our city but the region as well," Rodrick Miller, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, said last December. "This project is a great example of a true partnership between a developer and the community that will create opportunities for both."

The past five years have been transformational for Corktown just as they have at Navin Field. With its most notable buildings empty and tens of thousands of fans no longer filing in 81 times a year, the community suffered. By 2010 only five restaurants remained. Thanks to renewed interest in the city, incentives and planning, now there are 35. The areas along Michigan avenue attract new businesses and visitors alike. Whatever the outcome for the future of The Corner of Michigan and Trumbull, things will only continue to get better for the neighborhood.

"So that's that Detroit story," Walker said. "Progress and preservation together."

Chapters remain, yet to be written. However, for this and many other areas of the city, not everyone may be happy with how the story ends.