By Jim Bloch
It’s been 20 years since the Detroit Tigers played their last game at Tiger Stadium, an 8-2 win against the Kansas City Royals on Sept. 27, 1999.
The shuttering of the oldest stadium in the major leagues — it opened on April 12, 1912, the same day as Fenway Park — was the highlight of a season that saw the team go 69-92 and finish third in the American League Central Division, a few games ahead of the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Digging through the scrapbook of my brain, one of my most memorable recollections of the Corner — the stadium sat at the intersection of Trumbull and Michigan Avenue — came in 1983, not at a game, but at a tour of park for a writing project, led by Dan Ewald, the former Tiger beat writer for the Detroit News, who was then in charge of PR and media for the team.
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The first thing Ewald did was lead me up a ladder to the right-field roof to show me where Kirk Gibson’s homerun of two days earlier had hit the roof and bounded into Brooks Lumber across the street. Gibson’s homer had been reputed to have cleared the roof and landed at the lumber company, more than 600 feet on the fly.
The clubhouse turned out to be so small that it was hard to imagine the heroes of our lifetimes striding through it — players like Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Denny McLain and Bill Freehan.
White-tiled walls. Blue indoor-outdoor carpeting. A vertical bat box. One TV. A table crowded with jugs of orange juice, cases of Pepsi, a Mr. Coffee Pot and a stack of complimentary cigarettes in packs of five.
Along two walls ran doorless, wire mesh lockers with metal folding chairs in front of them, uniforms on hangers, mitts, skin products — ointments, creams, oils, jellies, bracers, eye black — and shoes. A lot of shoes. And lots of caps.
The office of manager Sparky Anderson, with whom Ewald would write three books, was about the size of a pickup truck.
The coaching staff did not have offices; like the players, they worked out of lockers.
The tunnel from the locker room to the dugout was low and claustrophobic, barely 6’3″ in height, illuminated by fluorescent lights strung along the white block walls, interwoven with pipes and wires, heading to the home dugout along the third base line.
A cleat-pocked bench ran the length of the dugout, wood-slats for the backrest. A giant plastic bucket of Bazooka bubblegum sat on the ledge behind the bench.
Relief pitchers warmed up along the outfield lines and had their own little dugouts carved into the turf along the walls far out into each field. Wire screening protected them from errant foul drives. The mowed stripes of lawn ran from centerfield to the infield.
The flagpole rose in centerfield — in play.
However quotidian the facilities, when you walked out of the grim corridors in the bowels of the stadium and into the bright light of the diamond, blinking at the most stunning green grass you ever saw, you knew your dreams could come true.
We didn’t know in 1983 how close those dreams were to becoming real, but Tiger fans were witnessing the coalescing of one of the greatest teams ever. The core of the 1984 Tigers had terrific years in 1983. The team finished 92-70, six games behind eventual World Series champs, the Baltimore Orioles. Lou Whitaker hit .320, Alan Trammel .319, Larry Herndon .302 with 20 homeruns and 92 RBI; catcher Lance Parish clubbed 27 HR and 114 RBI. Jack Morris won 20 games. Dan Petry won 19. Together, they formed the heart of the team that broke out of spring training with an all-time best 35-5 start and followed it up with World Series trophy in October.
Baseball, the axiom goes, is handed down from father to son or, in a less sexist formulation, from parents to children, and experienced in ways that build family bonds.
That puts me in a vulnerable position.
Everyone with whom I attended the last three games of 1984 World Series is gone now. My mom died on my birthday in 2006; my dad on his mom’s birthday in 2008; my sister Barb in May.
Ewald died in 2018 of a form of dementia, the same disease that had claimed Anderson in 2010.
All that is left is baseball and its promise of summer eternal.
Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.