The last pieces of artificial turf were stitched together and glued down last week at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Ignore the weather; for the Detroit Police Athletic League, it feels like spring.
Children will cavort come March on the sainted plot of land where Ty Cobb and Al Kaline became legends. Sponsors have been found for the ballpark, the playing surface and even the flagpole, the only thing left from the glory days at Tiger Stadium beside the memories.
Walking the grounds, CEO Tim Richey can point to splendors PAL has never had in its 48 years of shaping character by shaping swings. That row of steel columns will frame a locker room with showers. Up there, offices. Down that way, a snack stand that’ll stay open 24 hours, serving coffee to cops.
“Who would have thought any of this was going to happen?” asks Russ Russell, the development director. PAL will still be migratory, offering thousands of games on more than 80 fields across the city in 11 sports. But now it has a home, and a home plate.
Millions of dollars, millions of possibilities. And OK, a bit of reasonable grumbling from the neighbors. But this is PAL and it put 13,800 youngsters in uniforms last year, so even the grumbling comes with a hug.
Dave Steinke, for instance, co-owns the Mercury Burger Bar and Ottava Via on Michigan, and he has another restaurant in the works near the ballpark. He was one of the people who wanted PAL to keep the grass field from Tiger Stadium, and like a lot of people in Corktown he’s skeptical about parking, especially on the nights 10,000 people show up for a concert.
“I want to get some of the local businesses together,” he says, “to make a donation and adopt some players.”
Russell says they’re working on parking, and concerts are a necessary part of the business plan as PAL makes the Corner a playground instead of a cathedral. Yanking out the grass infuriated some of the old ballpark’s admirers, but PAL says heavy usage makes artificial turf a necessity — $884,070 worth of it, counting drainage and installation, unspooled from 10-foot-wide rolls.
The turf might not have roots, Richey says, but PAL does.
“If you’re a Detroiter,” Richey says, “you played PAL or you knew somebody who did, or a coach lived on your street.”
The organization emerged from the smoke two years after the ’67 unrest, a way to keep youngsters active and keep cops from seeming like the enemy. There are still police involved in the Police Athletic League, about 100 of the 2,000 volunteers who make the whole thing work, but back then it was basically a subsidiary of the department.
Across two generations, a baseball program has evolved into everything from soccer, now the most popular sport, to football, tennis and cheerleading. Most sports will get some time on the turf at what’s officially the Corner Ballpark presented by Adient, featuring the Willie Horton Field of Dreams presented by Meijer, in the shadow of the flagpole presented by an as-yet-unannounced company that ponied up $500,000.
The ballfield itself hews to the dimensions of Tiger Stadium, with the center field fence 440 feet from home plate and the flagpole still in play. High school and college teams will tussle in front of grandstands that will ultimately seat 2,000.
Some hours will be given over each week to the community, Richey says — a payback for the Corktown residents who enjoyed 18 years without crowds and clamor from the site. Movies are a possibility. So is a Sunday morning farmers’ market.
Mostly, there will be children, grasping life lessons even when they’re too young to catch many fly balls. T-ball coaches, Richey says, are asked to define for themselves what winning is, with the understanding that actual victory is not a correct answer.
“All my players develop a new skill,” some say. Or all the youngsters finish the season, or they come back next year, or they build a close friendship with a teammate.
“In a way,” says Thom Linn, “it’s like scouting, but for urban children who are more interested in sports than running around in nature.”
Linn, a 69-year-old lawyer, grew up near City Airport. Now, he’s the president of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, which controlled a $3.1 million federal earmark for preserving the history and legacy of Tiger Stadium.
In 2012, PAL’s board decided the nonprofit needed a permanent home, as opposed to the former ball bearing factory in Midtown where it rents space. In summer 2013, Linn’s group called with an idea: Come to the Corner.
As PAL’s staff of 30 prepares for a late January move-in, all but $900,000 has been raised for what became a $20 million project.
As for the kids, nearly all of them too young to have seen a game at Tiger Stadium, they’re preparing to do what kids should:
Play ball, and make memories of their own.
Brick by brick
Eighteen years after the Tigers left the building, fans can leave messages at the former site of Tiger Stadium in the form of commemorative bricks.
The Detroit PAL fundraiser offers bricks in three sizes, with increasing numbers of lines for engraved messages: 4-by-8-inch with up to three lines of as many as 20 characters, $150; 8-by-8 with six lines, $250; or 12-by-12 with eight lines, $500.
To order, or for more information, visit detroitpal.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.