An Old Ballpark and 35 Years of Tigers

By Mike Ball

A couple of weeks ago my family made our first trip to Comerica Park to see a Detroit Tigers game. I have to admit that while we’re all long-time Tiger fans, I have not been in a big hurry to go down there – and only partly because I resent having to apply for a home equity loan to pay for a couple of plastic cups full of lukewarm beer.

My biggest issue with Comerica Park is that I really loved the old Tiger Stadium, a place where you could save a few dollars and buy “obstructed view” seats. This meant sitting directly behind a steel I-beam support, so pretty much all you would see of the game was that beam and the hot dog vendor.

Even so, there was always a lot of noise in that old park, the hot dogs were pretty good, and on your way in and out you got to feast your eyes on the greenest green you’ll find anywhere in the world – Tiger Stadium grass.

I think part of the attraction was the history of the place. The first ballpark built at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull was Bennett Park, carved in 1895 out of an old-growth forest. The management at the time was way out ahead of the curve on that whole idea of obstructed view seating, since they decided to leave eight of the biggest elm and oak trees in the outfield.

In 1912, when they remodeled the park for the new century and named it Navin Field, they took out the trees and installed a 125-foot flag pole in center field that set a record as the tallest obstacle ever built in fair territory in a major league ball park. For years the charm of watching a game from the bleachers was made even better by the occasional thud of a center fielder smashing into that flag pole.

I should point out that I did not become a Tiger fan until I moved to Michigan in the mid-1970s and fell in love with the old ball park. Back then the Tigers themselves were pretty much an acquired taste, like drinking Irish whiskey or having a mule kick you repeatedly in the side of the head. You see, the Tigers had won a World Series in 1968, and something in that experience apparently convinced them that they would better off if they were to almost completely avoid winning for about the next 15 years.

By the mid-‘70s, Detroit’s success-oriented fans were staying away from the Tigers in droves, which in turn meant that my wife and I could usually wander down to Tiger Stadium on the just about any day and drop a few dollars on great seats to a game featuring the strange and wonderful assortment of lunatics that made up the Tigers’ roster.

When I first got to Detroit, the Tigers had a first baseman named Norm Cash, who once came to bat against Nolan Ryan swinging a table leg. They also had a third baseman named Aurelio Rodriguez, who could throw a ball over to first about as hard as anyone on the planet, but who might as well have been swinging Cash’s table leg at the plate. He was from Mexico, and in interviews he sounded exactly like the old Saturday Night Live parody of the Latin ball player; “Baseball ‘been ‘berry, ‘berry good to me.”

Al Kaline, one of the greatest right fielders of all time, retired in 1974 and become a broadcaster. In 1971 Kaline had turned down a raise that would have given him the first $100,000 salary in Tigers history, saying that he didn’t feel that he had played well enough that year to earn it. In 1972 he played a little better and took the dough.

Does anybody besides me think Mr. Kaline could have done the Detroit Pistons a favor and had a little mid-season chat with Allen Iverson?

There was a pitcher named John Hiller, who once showed up sporting a nasty-looking Fu Manchu and a shaved head just to psych out batters, and another one named Dave Rozema who messed up his knee and probably his career trying to execute a flying kung-fu kick during a bench-clearing brawl.

And then there was Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. My wife and I happened to be sitting behind third base on the evening Fidrych made his first home start, crawling around on his knees to groom the mound, talking to the ball and bounding around the infield to congratulate teammates for making nice plays. He also threw the liveliest fastball I’ve ever seen, and a diabolical slider.

After one loony but brilliant season, The Bird tore his rotator cuff trying to pitch on a bad knee, and never made it back to major league form. The gentle grace and good humor he used to deal with his too-short career made his accidental death earlier this year seem all the more tragic.

Over the years I got to see a lot of baseball and even another World Series victory in Tiger Stadium. Some of the players were great, some just greatly interesting: Alan Trammell, John B. Wockenfuss, Lou Whitaker, Rusty Staub, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris, Lance Parrish, Cecil Fielder, Todd Jones and many others. Now, the Stadium and all those guys are gone from the game.

OK, I’ll admit it – Comerica Park is really nice. There are good restaurants, real bathrooms, a Ferris wheel and no obstructed view seats. The Tigers of today are all fine professional athletes who seem to know quite a bit more about winning than the guys in the ‘70s did.

And the grass in Comerica is pretty green, too. Maybe it’s not the greenest possible green that it was all those years ago at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull – but I guess I can try to get used to it.


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