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Horton christens ‘Field of Dreams’

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s 1961, and a young man, all of 18, is riding in the backseat of something old but drivable along Trumbull Avenue in downtown Detroit.

His father, James, is at the wheel. On the passenger side is a man who served as something akin to a second father, Damon Keith, an attorney who would become a federal judge and one of Michigan’s all-time shining judicial stars.

The teenager in the backseat has a decision to make. The Yankees have been following him for years. So have the Tigers. Each wants to be steward of his powerful bat and baseball future.

His father, and the future Judge Keith, speak almost in unison:

“You are signing with the Detroit Tigers.”

This was said that day within sight of a place whose baseball history Willie Horton would help enrich: Tiger Stadium.

On that same site, now a great square of grass and hallowed baseball history, Horton again stood Wednesday. He was the true guest of honor at the christening of a radiant recreation complex and athletic field that will include Police Athletic League headquarters.

The new field, which at last will consecrate ground on which 100-plus years of Detroit baseball lore was crafted, will have a name: “The Willie Horton Field of Dreams.”

The Tigers slugger grew up in Detroit’s Jeffries Projects and went on to hit 325 home runs, most of which came during his 15 seasons with the Tigers.

Many of those homers crashed into seats and against balconies and light towers at a wondrous, mystical place of intimacy and baseball sanctity, Tiger Stadium.

The team departed after the 1999 season, ahead of its later demolition, all while ideas and arguments about the site’s future swirled, giving way finally to agreement on the PAL project.

Horton seemed Wednesday to bind all emotions and realities together: past and present, hope and revival, promise and protection for a sacred tract designed to offer kids a sense of what he experienced in Detroit so many decades ago.

“I’m so grateful,” said Horton, who, even today, makes one wonder how a man no more than 5-foot-8 could have generated such astonishing power during his big-league years. “They could have chosen so many other people.”

But they, the organizers and planners (Tim Richey, Ron Hall, Thom Linn, etc.), the civic and political heads (Sen. Carl Levin, Mayor Mike Duggan, Police Chief James Craig, etc.) chose Horton as a man emblematic of the people and the stories and the fabric they hope to replicate at the new facility.

Horton was dressed in jeans and a brilliant leather jacket adorned with the word “PLAYERS.” He stood at a microphone, speaking minus notes, words gushing from his heart as much as from his lips, addressing a crowd seated on folding chairs and standing beneath a party tent.

He talked continually of “family” and how the PAL project, through athletics and direction, would offer one more connecting thread by which families, intact or challenged, might find hope and stability.

“You didn’t have to accept me,” he said, a clear reference to past racial gulfs, which saw him sign a contract only 14 years after Jackie Robinson crashed baseball’s color wall and only six years ahead of the devastating Detroit riots.

“But you made me part of your family.”

He spoke of the fans, who he and his father had agreed should never be subordinated to the game of baseball, or to the most basic aspects of “responsibility to my job” as a Tigers player.

He spoke of a city he helped heal, as much as one man and one Tigers team could achieve, in 1968 when the Tigers won a storybook World Series against the Cardinals.

As does his old teammate, Al Kaline, Horton now works as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila. He works as much for youth sports and for military veterans.

He has seen decades of Detroit’s evolution and devolution. He thinks of it today, with exhilaration, as he drives about the city, seeing the steel and new construction, the budding restaurants and businesses, the new dynamism.

“My dad always said,” Horton continued, “don’t worry about Old Man River. It’ll come around. “And you see life coming into this town. We’re all growing back together. This is such a great honor to be part of this (PAL project) and to be part of the people in this great city and great state.

“But that’s what they’re all about. And that’s what I’m all about.” @Lynn_Henning