Detroit embraces baseball’s return to The Corner

Tony Paul


Detroit — When Russ Russell first joined the Detroit Police Athletic League’s administrative staff a few years back, he was eager to tell friends and business associates all about his grand, all-consuming project: Building a new ballpark on the legendary site where Tiger Stadium once sat.

And time and again, almost without fail, as Russell bounced all over town, pitching the ambitious plans to this foundation or collecting a check from that business — as PAL’s chief advancement officer, he’s the money man — he was met with raised eyebrows and a common retort.

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Well, believe it, Detroit. The city’s newest youth-sports wonderland was officially unveiled to the public on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Corktown, where the temperatures were chilly, but the mood was decidedly warm.

The Corner Ballpark, nearly five years and $21 million in the making, held its grand opening, featuring a parade of hundreds of youth athletes and police officers, a stream of VIP speakers, a goose-bumpy rendition of the national anthem, and, of course, baseball. Lots and lots of baseball. Three games, in all — a PAL matchup to kick things off, then a pair of high-school games.

“This is a new history,” said retired U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a major powerbroker — along with the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy — behind the PAL project, which emerged after years of ideas, some big, some small, some decent, some not so much, for the future of the famed grounds, almost all the proposals fizzling out as fast as they came in. “You know, the Old Tiger Stadium, I never thought I would say that I don’t miss the Old Tiger Stadium.

“But, you know what? I don’t miss the Old Tiger Stadium. This is the future, right here.”

And that was evident all day Saturday. Among the estimated crowd of 2,000, there were kids everywhere — in the grandstands, on the field (one of the first balls hit to shortstop was scooped up so beautifully, you’d have thought Alan Trammell was back out there), high-fiving mascots, at picnic tables chowing down on, what else, hot dogs.

Detroit PAL, which boasts a youth sports roster of some 14,000, was awarded the site in 2015, and broke ground in 2016. The Corner Ballpark — whose playing surface is named the Willie Horton Field of Dreams — opened nearly 20 years after the Tigers last played there, and nearly 10 years after the last, blue bricks came tumbling down.

The stadium’s demise was a polarizing issue, but the new digs, well, how can they be?

“I’ve been to many Opening Days in Detroit, but none more exciting than this one,” said Thom Linn, of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, a non-profit which has worked, for years, to try to preserve baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues.

“When I see this green grass, the memories I have of this stadium are rekindled. PAL’s wonderful work is going to create memories for generations of young people in Detroit.”

Technically, it’s not grass. It’s a turf surface — one of the hot-button issues PAL has had to defend, and has done so with reason, citing the pure volume of sports games (including football and soccer) expected to be played on the field. And the dugout roofs are much taller, which, no doubt, would draw a “Thank God” from any former Tiger who knocked his noggin more than he cares to remember — or can remember. But other than that, the site stays remarkably true to Tiger Stadium, including the outfield dimensions (center field is 440 feet away, PAL says, just like the Tigers used to say it was, wink-wink). The flagpole is Tiger Stadium’s flag pole, and just like it was there, it’s in play here. There even were grayheads with gloves in the stands Saturday.

Seemingly, all that’s missing is the big, high stadium itself, having been replaced with exposed views of MotorCity Casino (Did Cecil Fielder’s home run land there?) and Brooks Lumber (Kirk GIbson’s home run did land there).

“I’m so excited,” said James Craig, Detroit’s police chief who, himself, was a PAL kid growing up, and who noted he has between 50 and 100 officers who volunteer their coaching services. “In 2013, we started talking about it, and look at what we have here today.”

While Saturday’s hoopla was all about present day, no doubt many curious Detroit baseball fans who popped through the wide-open, iron gates at Michigan and Cochrane on Saturday couldn’t help thinking about yesterday. You're immediately met by personalized, commemorative bricks (still available for purchase, through PAL), many serving as memorials for loved ones, others commemorating a first date, several paying tribute to that first Tigers game with dad, or mom. One favorite reads: “Trammell, Whitaker & Todd F’n Jones, I Saw It All Here. KT.”

The Tigers played at the site for more than 100 years. The Three Tenors sang there. Nelson Mandela spoke there. Joe Louis fought there. The Lions played there — and actually won three championships there, just one fewer than the Tigers.

“It was a joy for me playing here for 11 years with Detroit Lions. It was fun, I had a great time,” said Lem Barney, a Hall-of-Fame cornerback. “I gave everything I had, but now I’m seeing a lot more.”

Said Greg Landry, a Lions quarterback for 11 years, starting in 1968: “The young people from Detroit are really going to benefit from what this field can offer. I hope you guys have as much fun playing here as we did back in the old Lion days.”

Among others who spoke at the opening ceremonies: Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit PAL CEO Tim Richey, PAL youth ambassador Lea Caldwell and several representatives of PAL’s big-time corporate sponsors, including the park’s presenting sponsor, Adient, and field sponsor Meijer. Horton, the Detroit native and former Tigers outfielder, was in Lakeland, Fla., and unable to attend, but was represented by his son.

There also were ceremonial “first pitches,” eight in all, by kids ages 7 to 18, each of them a winner in The Detroit News/Detroit PAL essay contest — which asked what the future of Detroit looks like to the youth of Detroit.

The weekend of festivities continues Sunday at The Corner Ballpark with a food-tasting expo from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., put on by several Corktown businesses — businesses embracing their new neighbor, even if that new neighbor feels more like a long-lost friend.

“We didn’t always have the best,” said Duggan, noting his daughter played PAL basketball and his son currently coaches PAL soccer. “And from here on out, it’s great to know that the finest youth sports facility anywhere in the State of Michigan is the Willie Horton Field of Dreams right here in the City of Detroit.

“The children of the City of Detroit deserve the best. How does look?”

You’d have to see it to believe it.