Thursday, July 10, 2008

There used to be a ballpark

And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I'd never seen.
And the air was such a wonder
From the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used to be a ballpark, right here.

-- Frank Sinatra, "There Used to be a Ballpark Here," 1973


The gaping hole in the side of old Tiger Stadium this morning has nothing on the gaping hole in my heart.

I finally made it to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in the late summer of 1999. It was the last year for baseball at the beloved ol' stadium in Detroit. Me and a buddy from Halls, Drew Weaver, made the 8-hour trek to Motown to say good-bye.

The Tigers were awful that year, as they so often were from 1988 to 2005. But, on this magical Saturday afternoon, they beat the Baltimore Orioles. I've forgotten the score. Cal Ripken Jr. wasn't playing that day, but he brought the lineup to home plate before the game.

It was a special moment in several ways. That game marked the beginning of my enduring friendship with two special pals, Michigan native and "Magnum, p.i." guru David Romas and his wife, Jennifer Bondy. It was also my first -- and only -- visit to the grand ol' girl that was Tiger Stadium. The last home game at the Corner was played that September; the Tigers moved to big new Comerica Park downtown the following year.

We were the last fans to file out of the stadium that Saturday night. We stayed and stayed, not wanting to say good-bye.

I looked out over that green field, thinking about Cobb and Kell, Kaline and Cash, Lolich and McLain, Tram and Sweet Lou. I looked up at Ernie Harwell's broadcast booth and wondered if he'd go to the new park. (He did, finally retiring in 2002.)

I thought about Tom Selleck, who for all practical purposes introduced me to the Tigers through Thomas Magnum in the '80s. And I knew with all my heart that I'd never step into another park quite like this one.

Several groups tried to save the stadium over the last 8 years. Meanwhile, she sat and rotted, cracking at the seams -- sad, lonely, neglected. The wrecking crew tore a big hole in her side yesterday. Looking at the pictures on the internet made me want to throw up.

A group is still frantically working to save the field, the dugouts, 3,000 seats and Ernie's booth. I don't know. From what I understand, it hinges on government money, so I'm not going to hold my breath.

But generations of Michiganders -- and even a Tigers fan from Tennessee -- will forever have their memories. I'll never forget that Saturday at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for the rest of my days.

"Yes," Sinatra sang, "there used to be ballpark right here..."

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