SHE AWAKENS today as she always has, her lid open to the sky, her grass stretching for sunlight. But this time, there is something in the autumn air, something final, something sad. Like a fading belle of the ball, she seems to sense it, yet ignores it. This will be the last morning of her baseball life. She knows it. She inhales proudly and raises her blue and white chin to the morning light.

“Are you ready?” the city seems to ask.

“Ready,” Tiger Stadium sighs.

Her walls are fading, her greasepaint chipping, her insides have indeed decayed to, as a critic once charged, “rusted girders.” Her tunnels are poorly lit, and her cramped elevators creak at a pace fitting only to something that goes back to 1896. Her narrow hallways often smell of decay, decay mixed with sausage grease and caramel corn.

“Only a few more hours now,” the city seems to say.

“Only a few more hours,” Tiger Stadium sighs.

In a few more hours, she will greet her guests for the last time. Naturally, she will try to look her finest. The sand between her bases will be smooth as a dune. Her fresh white lines will show you fair grass from foul. At the designated hour — not before, not after, her routine being, after all, her trademark — she will open her gates, her hinges will unbolt, her turnstiles will tumble, and her seats will be wiped. She will once again bear nearly 50,000 loved ones in her lap.

And she will go through these motions as if today were no different than the other 6,900 times or so she threw the city a baseball party. Never mind that the “final out” this time will really be the final out, that her glorious, workmanlike era ends around sunset — and when the lights go out, they do not come back on, not tomorrow, not next month, not next season.

Never mind. A good hostess does not burden her guests with sadness.

One last time, have a good time, she beckons.

“People will be coming soon,” the city seems to say.

“Soon,” Tiger Stadium says.

The good, beautiful and unique

All of her eccentric features will be on display this afternoon, like a school pageant or a museum exhibit. You will note them. Good and bad. The annoyances that you chalk up to age, the long concession lines, the snarling hallway traffic, the girders that completely block the view from some seats, the rusty bleachers, the trough-like urinals in the men’s bathrooms. All there. Why pretend?

“We had some laughs with those obstructed-view seats, didn’t we?” the city recalls.

“We did at that,” Tiger Stadium says.

But the good, the beautiful, the unique, that, too, will be on display one last time. The rightfield “porch” that hangs over the field, that has robbed so many outfielders of easy fly balls (they stand helplessly underneath, gloves poised, and then, thwack! — some fan catches it for a home run souvenir.)

And the radio booth, where Ernie Harwell, Paul Carey and so many others have plied their trade, behind home plate, hanging down like a pinecone, so close to the field that players have heard their name broadcast during their at-bats.

The flagpole, in dead center, which is in play if you hit it. The dugout roofs, where a crazy fan named “The Brow” used to dance. And the bleachers, at times loud, at times drunken, but still symbolic of a place where real people can see professional sports without needing to hook onto a corporate sales package.

“Do you remember all the highlights?” the city asks.

“Remember?” Tiger Stadium says. “Why, I remember everything.”

She remembers when the site was Bennett Park, then Navin Field, then Briggs Stadium. She remembers when the Tigers were no-hit in their first American League contest ever. She remembers a game when only 404 fans showed up. She remembers Babe Ruth hitting a 626-foot home run and Dizzy Dean shutting out the Tigers to win a World Series for St. Louis.

She remembers Ty Cobb getting his 4,000th hit. She remembers Hank Greenberg returning from four years in the Army and hitting a home run in his first game back. She remembers Lou Gehrig ending his Ironman streak on her field, the disease that would ultimately kill him finally, too strong to let him play the game he loved.

She remembers armed troops surrounding the stadium in 1943, after a race riot, and she remembers celebration in the streets when the Tigers won the World Series in 1968 — helping soothe the boil of yet another race riot.

She remembers Mark Fidrych talking to the ball and Kirk Gibson yelling at the skies and Frank Tanana’s bubblegum flying from his mouth after he pitched a shutout to put the Tigers in the 1987 playoffs.

She remembers everything — all the baseball, and everything else. She puts it all on display today. A million memories in the walls and seats.

“There’ll be a lot of pointing from fans,” the city says. “A lot of them saying, ‘That’s where Al Kaline hit those homers . . .’ and ‘That’s where the Joe Louis fought his heavyweight fight . . .’ and ‘That’s where the Lions had their football field . . .’ and ‘That’s where the Three Tenors sang opera
….’ “

“I don’t mind,” Tiger Stadium answers softly. “I like pointing.”

Echoes of fans

Back in the ’60s, Brian Wilson, the lead singer of the Beach Boys, wrote a poignant little song called “Keep An Eye on Summer.” It was pure California surf, about teenage lovers parting as the weather began to cool. It included this verse:

As we look to the future

Though it be through a tear

Keep an eye on summer

All year.

The idea is that you never grow cold as long as you remember warmth, that you never become a jaded adult as long as you can revel in a youthful memory.

This afternoon, in the last home game in the last year of the century, that will be the idea. Wherever fans sit today, inside, outside, the expensive seats, the cheap seats, the porch or the street, they will be looking not only at the present, but at the past. And they’ll be listening not just for the echoes of Tiger Stadium’s history but for their own.

And that is how a city intertwines with a stadium, and that is why closing a stadium is not the same as closing a bank. Those echoes — your echoes — will be in there today, somewhere, in the mix of cheers, beers, a national anthem, an American League, a scoreboard, a pennant, a hot dog, a Coke, a two-run double, a bases-loaded strikeout, a kid with a glove, an old man with a scorecard, sausage grease, caramel corn, rusted girders, peeling paint.

So one more time, we do what we do around here. We go to Michigan and Trumbull. We see a baseball game. We share a time and an experience and a place, a truly special place.

“How many people do you expect today?” the city asks.

“Expect?” Tiger Stadium says. “Why, I expect everyone.”

In some way, everyone — at least everyone who has ever sniffed her greasepaint — will be there. Keep an eye on summer. And no doubt, the grand old lady on the corner will be in your view.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

GREAT MOMENTS AT THE CORNER

June 28, 1990: South African leader Nelson Mandela thrills 49,000 listeners by retelling his life during apartheid.

THE LAST GAME

Tigers vs. Royals: 4:05 p.m. today. No tickets left.

TV : Channel 50.

Weather: Cloudy and 78; rain possible after dark.

Aftermath: An hour-long ceremony after the game.

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