So Long, My Old Friend

tigers70On Wednesday, September 23th at 9:24 AM something happened that made me stop dead in my tracks.  I stopped everything I was doing, right in the middle of my work day, and poised myself for a long moment of silence and reflection.  During my moment I reached back, way back into my past and began a journey forward.  This expedition began when I was a small boy of about five years.  It continued on through my years in elementary school, junior high and high school.  I traveled forward all the way into my adult life and to this day.  On this Wednesday I realized a great sadness usually reserved for the loss of someone close to me.  On this day I realized the loss of some thing close to me – on this day the final section of Tiger Stadium in Detroit met its match and succumbed to the wrecking ball.

When you think of Tiger Stadium and its rich history you have to put it right up there with the old Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.  It’s one of those stoic places that has its own place, its own personality, its own aura that speaks to people.  It doesn’t just say, “This is a place to play baseball.”  It says, “Here is where you can hang your memories.  Here is where you can mark the time in your life.  Here is where you can take part of me as I take part of you.  Here, within my bounds, is where people share the commonness of their lives.”

Tiger Stadium was that for me.  For so many years Tiger stadium was a rock at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.  More than just a building, it meant so many things to so many people.  Yet now all that remains is the chewed-up grass that was once the field where so many greats played America’s pastime.  No longer covered during the harsh Michigan winters, that grass was once graced by all the greats, from Ruth to Gehrig, Mays to McCovey, Al Kaline, Mickey Lolich, Mel Ott, Mark Fidrych, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, Reggie Jackson and more and more, too many to even mention.

Less not forget, even the Detroit Lions played and won there, battling it out in the NFC’s Black & Blue division when it was really black and blue, playing in the mud and snow and yes, winning championships in the 50’s.  The Lions played two championship games at the old ballpark.

Did you know that Tiger stadium opened on the same day Fenway Park in Boston did?  It’s true, although baseball had been played there for years before beginning in 1896, when the park was called Nevin Field.  The site was renamed Briggs Stadium in 1938, two years after Walter Briggs took over the team.  In 1961 it was renamed Tiger Stadium.  Tiger Stadium had many features that made it unique, including, for many years, being the only ballpark that had a flagpole in play (in center field).

One of mankind’s greatest challenges was to hit one over the roof at Tiger Stadium.  It had been done 28 times by 19 players.  Other interesting stats include Babe Ruth hitting his 700th home run, playing host to the 1971, 1951 and 1941 all-star games and being the only stadium to have double-decked bleachers.  The 1971 all-star game featured Reggie Jackson’s mammoth shot that hit a transformer above the roof in right field.

Tiger Stadium is more than a handful of baseball statistics, though.  Tiger Stadium played host to the 1968 Detroit Tigers who almost single-handedly pulled the entire city of Detroit back together during the race riots in the city by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.  Besides his on-field talents, Gates Brown is remembered for walking out onto the streets of the city afterward and talking to people about togetherness and peace.  It was everything Detroit needed to be able to put the past behind them and move forward as a community.  Oh, and a guy named Denny McClain won 31 games for the Tigers that season, a feat never since matched and probably never will be.

Tiger Stadium was the home park to one of the most memorable players of my generation, Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who sadly passed away tigers60this year at his home in Massachusetts following a farming accident.  This kid came up to the Bigs in 1976 and instantly wowed the entire league.  He talked to the ball between pitches, got down on his hands and knees to groom the mound, and he shook every player’s hand after pitching a game.  He won the Rookie of the Year Award that year with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 ERA.  This kid could pitch and even more he could entertain.  He alone brought passion back to baseball.  Tiger stadium was packed with 54 thousand plus every time he pitched.

Alan Trammel and Lou Whittaker – the best shortstop and second base combination to ever play the game brought people out to the park to see precision in the field in the late 70’s through the mid 90’s.  They were the longest running double play combination in the history of the game.  Bill Freehan backstopped several Tigers teams with consistency beginning in 1961.  He spent his entire 15 year career with the team, being named an all-star 11 times.

I could go on and on about all of the great players and personalities that made Tiger Stadium such a special, remarkable place.  There is one personality that more than deserves mention.  Tiger Stadium wouldn’t be the same if Ernie Harwell would have never sat down behind the microphone to call Tigers games.  In 1960 Ernie became the voice of the Tigers and no other broadcaster had as much impact on the game and the players.  Ernie was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, receiving the Ford C. Frick Award as the fifth broadcaster to do so.

During my junior high days you’d find me right next to my radio on summer nights keeping score of Tigers games while Ernie and his partner Paul Carey called the balls and strikes.  Ernie Harwell had an uncanny way of making you feel you were right there at the game.  In my mind I could picture every ball, every strike, and I could see that ball trail with every crack of the bat.  Ernie had many sayings he would use, such as, “A man from Grosse Pointe reached up and caught that foul ball!” or “He stood there like the house at the side of the road!” on a called third strike.

Ernie had a gracious way with the players that you don’t see anymore.  Players adored him and opened up to him.  Ernie never put a player on the spot and he never talked down to them.  He approached every player and every team with respect and sportsmanship – something we could use more of today.  Ernie Harwell is synonymous with baseball and all the great things that go with it to make it America’s pastime.  When Ernie bode a fond farewell to Tiger Stadium during its last game in 1999, he brought tears to the eyes of thousands of people.  He loved the old ballpark more than anyone – it was his home for so many years.

Unfortunately for us all, Ernie Harwell was diagnosed with inoperable cancer of the bile duct a few weeks ago.  He returned to Comerica Park to bid a tearful goodbye to all those who have loved and cherished him for so many years.  For someone who made his living with his voice, he is a true man of few words.  His actions defined the most loveable man in baseball and beyond.

As a boy I had the fortune of visiting Tiger Stadium many times.  I remember the game against the Chicago White Sox in 1974 when the Tigers won 6-3.  I’ll never forget sitting there with my mom and dad and thinking this was the coolest place!  All that beautiful, rich green grass right in the middle of Detroit.  It was like a sanctuary.  I can still remember my first hot dog, the smell that came out of the hot dog cart as the vendor opened the door to fish one out for me.  I can still hear the hawkers yelling out, “Popcorn, peanuts!  Get your peanuts here!”

When I was in high school and old enough to drive myself to the ballpark I did.  My last trip to Tiger Stadium was a brief one.  I went with several of my friends and we had bleacher seat tickets, way out in center field.  We each tried to get through the gate with a bottle of something alcohol in our socks.  We made it inside, all right, but once we found our seats and opened those bottles we were gently escorted out of the building.  I made sure, upon being ushered out, to look back and get one last glance, one final stare at that emerald grass, that fantastic site of the old ballpark being sold out, and I remembered the feeling under my feet of the concrete vibrating, pulsating to fans stomping their feet, trying to inspire the batter to hit one deep and over the wall.  I savored that site, that sound, all those feelings, knowing that this could be my last time in the graces of America’s greatest old ballpark.

Since the Tigers moved to Comerica Park in 2000 several organizations have tried to preserve Tiger Stadium and keep it from the tigerswrecking ball’s fate.  But as with all things, time passes and people move on.  Today the final wall of the grand old ballpark came down.  Some day there will probably be a development of some sort put there.  Maybe they’ll erect a plaque or a statue in honor of the stadium at the Corner that meant so much to so many people.

But I know this and I know it well – one cannot help but have a heavy heart on this day.  One can’t look back on their childhood and not have a vision of Tiger Stadium.  Whether you are a Tigers fan, a fan of the Oakland A’s of the early 70’s, the Boston Red Sox of the mid and late 70’s, the Cleveland Indians of the 80’s, the Toronto Blue Jays of the 90’s or the New York Yankees in this decade.  All baseball fans are fans of Tiger Stadium.  And for some of us it means a little bit more.  It means memories and lifetimes, vivid dreams of attending a game and having a hot dog, echoing voices of Ernie Harwell calling a home run by Kirk Gibson over the right field fence and the sweet smell of that grass that formed an oasis in the middle of the Detroit jungle.  It means family, friends and the Boys of Summer.

As I watched the video of the last piece of the park being torn down, the music of Pachelbel Canon in D played in the background and instantly brought a tear to my eye.  This music, so appropriate and so poignient, also played during my wedding as the parents were being seated just before Kim came down the aisle.  A new beginning and sadly, an ending, both full of emotions and hopes, memories and the bittersweet end of a place I adored for such a long time.

So long, my old friend Tiger Stadium.  I raise a toast to her legacy and to those who love her and will always remember her fondly.

_______________________________________

Go here to get more information about Tiger Stadium.

This is a nice video piece from The Freep.

Ernie Harwell says goodbye to the Detroit media.

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