Monday, July 14, 2008

And the walls came tumbling down

A couple of days after this nation celebrated its annual independence, my childhood officially ended. That might sound like an odd thing for a man who approaches 56 to say, but all that I remember from my youth, all that I found happy and desirable, is being torn down.
With each punch of the wrecking ball, my memories crumble away with the brick, mortar and wood.
In my hometown of Detroit, workers have been the dismantling of venerable old Tiger Stadium – the former home to my beloved Tigers, the Lions and countless other events, such as championship prize fights. From my first visit in 1959 to a Tiger game against Baltimore, until my last game just days before I boarded a Greyhound bus for Texas in 1976, my favorite place in the whole world was at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell Avenues.
It was a wonderful place to see a game; you sat SO close you could hear whispers in the dugout and see the seams on a curveball spin towards the plate. Bleachers seats cost $1 and great seats, right next to the bullpens along each foul line, still meant just a $2 output.
Tiger Stadium meant a distinctive smell, between perfectly steamed hot dogs and kielbasa and beer and roasted peanuts; they were combined with the must and age that only can be appreciated by people who frequent old-fashioned barbecue joints in Texas. You know what I mean; where the walls ooze with the sentiment and sediment of days gone past.
And then there were the game and the stars. For the locals, it was the 1968 World Champions (and 1984 winners although I was already in Texas), following the likes of Al Kaline, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Willie Horton and Norm Cash. But it was an equal thrill to have seen men like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Hoyt Wilhelm, Richie Allen, a young Nolan Ryan and an aging Ted Williams, and the swinging A’s with Reggie, Catfish and Rollie.
My last game was the breakout game for a Tiger rookie named Mark Fidrych, when more than 38,000 demanded a rare (at that time) post-game curtain call for this phenomenon. It was the birth of the “Bird” and it swept the city, and the stadium, as I rode away.
I would walk, ride a bus or commute with friends in order to sit in the bleachers any day or night. Doubleheaders were like dying and going to heaven because you got to see as much baseball as you could stand for one low, low price. In the summertime, a trip to Tiger Stadium from college, plus a late-night pancake breakfast at The Egg and I (or two dogs, some pie, a bowl of chili and a Stroh's at Lafayette Coney Island) was matchless in the minds of young men all over Michigan.
I turned sweet 16 in Tiger Stadium watching the wonderful Gates Brown beat Boston with hits in a doubleheader that lasted SO long, we missed dinner reservations and I really didn’t care. That day, I also met one of the greatest players of all time, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg, in the most unlikely place – the men’s room behind the first base dugout. Needless to say, it was a bad place to ask for an autograph.
The Tigers’ new home is located in a part of downtown Detroit which I only remember as Grand Circus Park, filled with large movie palaces. In fact, when I left for Texas, there was no Renaissance Center, no Pontiac Silverdome, or Joe Louis Arena. One cannot possess memories of what one does not remember; I only remember baseball as it was played in a facility that opened the same year as Fenway Park in Boston.
Following the departure of the Tigers for Comerica Park in 1999, the city of Detroit tried in its ineptitude to renovate the old lady, spending $4 million, but it just kept crumbling while city leaders and other interested debated the inevitable – its closure and eventual destruction. There remains a concerted effort to save the actual diamond part of the stadium, roughly from dugout to dugout, with some 3,000 of the seats as a place to house the extensive memorabilia of former legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who in his early 90s remains one of the most popular men in the Motor City.
However, it is going to require one of the dreaded “earmarks” to the tune of $15 million to save what little can be salvaged. Meanwhile, the city of Detroit has no plans, and no clue, as to what to do with the rest of the area.
In Pittsburgh, a small part of the left field wall of old Forbes Field (where Bill Mazeroski lofted his 1960 World Series winning home run against the Yankees) can be seen at the original site. In someone’s field outside of Cincinnati, many original parts and seats from old Crosley Field have been reassembled.
But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, the managerial poet laureate of baseball, “When it’s over, it’s over. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
And my youth is gone. My sadness is profound. The last reason ever to visit Detroit has been knocked down and trashed.
So long, old friend. In my dreams, I’ll be there for a doubleheader of memories.

No comments: