Baseball has always been, at its heart, a little boy’s game. So when talking about baseball — or in this case, baseball stadiums — it might help to try to think like a little boy.
As a little boy, I held my father’s hand as we walked into old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. The corridors were dark and smelled of meat grease. People pushed and bumped each other. Then we stepped outside and I caught my first glimpse of a real baseball field. It was like a 1,000 volts of magic. The grass! Lord, the grass seemed to go forever! And the basepaths, like brown velvet, enough dirt for a whole desert! The giant scoreboard, the towering foul poles, players shagging fly balls under a pie-shaped sky. It was the biggest thing I had ever seen, that stadium. I gripped my father’s hand and beamed.
So baseball stadiums are important. Because I am not the only one with this memory. Going to the ballpark is part of life in this country, like getting your first bike or dancing your first slow dance. Of course, the other thing I remember — and I didn’t understand it until years later — was parking the car on the streets outside Connie Mack, and a little kid who approached my father and said: “Watch your car for a quarter.”
“Watch my car?” my father said. “Why should I pay you to watch my car?”
“Cause if you don’t, my big brother will slash your tires while you’re gone.”
We gave him the quarter. Here’s why: Where you put the stadium is important. Fear and baseball have never gone well together.
Playing it safe
Which brings us to Detroit, where, although no one wants to admit it, fear is playing a big part in baseball’s future. The fear that some crack addict is going to jump from the shadows and take everything you’ve got has driven people — and businesses — out of our city. That is a fact. The fear that such fear will affect customers makes the Tigers want a stadium in the Briggs area, where parking can be adjacent, a quick, safe walk. The fear that Detroit will become a ghost town makes the city want a stadium downtown, in the theater district, where it could inspire more business.
And there, as Shakespeare said, is the rub.
Whose stadium is it, anyway? It is true that 1) The city — and Wayne County — will pay for the thing, even though Tom Monaghan, the Tigers owner, is worth about $1 billion and could make the downpayment by selling a few of his antiques. 2) When the city and county pay for something, you, the citizen, pay for it eventually, in the form of higher taxes. 3) The Tigers, even though someone else is paying for their stadium, are being adamant about where it goes, and 4) They can afford to be adamant, because if they’re not happy, they take their team and play someplace else, maybe Ann Arbor, maybe St. Petersburg.
This is how cities grow: if you have one area that is vibrant, you build from it, you spread out, first a theater, then a stadium, then hotels, then — dare we dream it? — an actual downtown department store.
But this is how baseball teams make money — by selling luxury boxes to rich corporate customers. If those customers must sit in downtown traffic, search for parking or be afraid to walk from car to stadium, many won’t come. The Tigers are far more worried about that than whether a dozen new restaurants open nearby. After all, they say, who anointed us the saviors of the city?
It’s still a kid’s game
Nobody. The truth is, baseball stadiums don’t save cities; they never have. The Metrodome didn’t spark Minneapolis; that town was growing already. Baltimore will not be saved by its new stadium; it’s already a well-run city. An outdoor stadium, unlike an indoor arena, can’t host concerts or conventions. So 281 days a year it could sit empty. How much local business will that boost?
On the other hand, if it doesn’t boost business, why should the city pay for it? Which leads me to an obvious conclusion: either the theater-district site (Woodward Avenue) is developed to establish easy access and lots of safe, nearby parking, or you let the Tigers go to the suburbs. It won’t mean the death of the city, not unless you consider the current Tiger Stadium the life of the city. How is the Briggs site more than a bigger version of what exists now? You still wouldn’t go there for dinner.
The thing is, I believe a downtown site could be worked out, if both sides wanted to do it. But instead, we get politicians making speeches, and Tigers brass pounding their fists. Threats. Ultimatums. Why? Shouldn’t they be putting their brains together, figuring how to save each other, how to create new memories of your first trip to the ballpark?
Ah. But there I go, thinking like a little boy when it comes to baseball. And sadly, with the Tigers interested first in making money, and the city desperate to save itself from itself, this thing, in the end, may have very little to do with baseball. Very little indeed.