Stealing Home

A Group of Detroiters Works to Maintain the Former Site of Tiger Stadium

Known locally as “The Corner,” the field at Michigan and Trumball was the address of professional baseball in Detroit for about a century. From 1896, when what was originally known as Bennett Park opened, until the last game at Tiger Stadium in 1999, fans clicked through the turnstiles to witness the likes of Hank Greenberg kicking the dirt from his cleats, or Ty Cobb wringing resin into his bat.

In 2008, demolition of the steel-and-concrete castle commenced, following owner Mike Ilitch’s decision to build a new ballpark for his team. All that remains of Detroit’s “Grand Old Lady”—an entry gate, the field, the flagpole—is surrounded by a chain link fence. But as Detroiter Joe Michnuk says, “Those winds blow real hard, and the locks go flying right off those gates.”

Michnuk is a member of the Navin Field Grounds Crew, an exceptionally amiable crew of mostly middle-aged men who, every Sunday, break into the field and care for it. The group, named after the stadium’s playing field, was formed by Tom Derry two years ago.

“Ernie [Harwell] had passed away,” Derry recalls. “I heard people were gathering at ‘The Corner’ to celebrate [the longtime Tigers radio and TV announcer’s] life, but as soon as I saw the field, I wasn’t that excited to play catch.”

The city had left the nine-and-a-half-acre swath of land in neglect: A pelt of waist-high grasses covered the outfield, deep-rooted weeds sprouted in the infield, and garbage littered everything in between.
“I could barely make out where the pitcher’s mound was,” says Derry. “I thought this historic spot shouldn’t look like this. So three days later I came back with my tractor to mow the lawn and clean it up.”

Derry and some friends took to the field, but they didn’t stop with the lawn. They rebuilt the pitcher’s mound, determined where the bases once lay, and redrew the chalk lines of the batters’ boxes, foul territories, and first and third baselines (365 feet up the right-field line, and 340 feet down the left).

“And I think we’ve got it looking pretty good, considering we have limited resources and no watering system,” he says.

In the past two years, players from a nearby high school have started using the field for practices, neighborhood kids play pickup games on the lot, and others walk their dogs in the outfield. Devoted fans have even come to spread the ashes of loved ones on the restored pitcher’s mound.

“To many people, this is the most hallowed piece of ground that there is,” says Michnuk, a former Tigers locker room security guard. “I saw the way it once was, I saw the way they cut the grass and how it was meticulously maintained. And it saddens me the city doesn’t share the love that we have for this field.”

On April 20, what would have been the 100th anniversary of the stadium, neither the city of Detroit nor the Tigers celebrated the centennial, but nearly 200 Detroit fans made the pilgrimage to Navin Field that overcast Friday. They sought the spirituality one finds in a ballpark and found nourishment in the burgers and BallPark Franks that Michnuk turned on his grill. On the 125-foot center-field flagpole that used to be in fair play, flapped a 10-by-15-foot flag reading, “One Field of Dreams. Celebrating a century of memories, 1912-2012.”

Calls to the city of Detroit by Preservation were left unreturned, but past news stories report that officials are holding out for a retailer, going so far as to reject General Motors’ 2011 offer to maintain the park.

Until the city sells the field, the Navin Field Grounds Crew vows to continue trespassing in the name of caring for their Tigers’ original home, hoping the city changes its mind and preserves the park.
After all, all baseball fans believe in miracles.

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