Mobs of people spilling out of corner hamburger joints, noisy pubs, open-doored restaurants. Lines for souvenirs. Lines for bathrooms. Taxi cabs stopping, passengers stepping out.
A traffic cop directing streams of pedestrians, whistles between his teeth, grinning when a passing teenager offers him his hot dog.
Motown music blasting over loudspeakers, Martha & the Vandellas, “Calling out around the world . . .,” people sitting at sidewalk tables in the Tiger Plaza, drinking beers, wiping foam from their mouths and laughing at some private joke.
A city. Opening day in Detroit is all about this now. Becoming a city. Acting like a city. It is more than just the first local baseball game of the year, it is now the one day — some say the only day — we grab the props on our urban stage and actually put on a show. The one day when we need all those parking lots that otherwise sit empty, when we fill all those restaurants that otherwise beg for business, when we require a traffic cop to hold off one group and wave on another, instead of a neon “don’t walk” sign blinking silently to nobody and nothing.
What is the city but the people? I didn’t say that. Shakespeare did. And if Willie were around Monday afternoon, outside Tiger Stadium, seeing the bubbling cauldron of traffic, music, ice cream and souvenir buying, he would say, “Wherefore art thou . . . the rest of the year?”
Or, in baseball talk, let’s play two.
Or three. Or four. Or 50. What Detroit needs is not another opening day, but many more of them, throughout the year, days when this metropolis — laid low by so many problems — can shake off its dust, straighten the shoulders on its skyscrapers, and behave the way it should behave. Like a city, busy and bustling.
We need this city.
And to help it live, we should have a new stadium. Sentiment is not enough
Now, I tend to stay out of the stadium debate, because I think too much hot air has been blown on it already. I also respect those who want to save Tiger Stadium, because their passion is sincere.
But many a wrong path has been taken by passion. Consider one of the strongest arguments by these people: nostalgia. They talk about the time their father took them to the game at Michigan and Trumbull, and when their father’s father took him. They talk about connecting the dots of baseball tradition, like popcorn on a Christmas string, and how we should guard this with care.
Moving sentiment — and in an ideal world, maybe reason enough to leave the stadium untouched. But we do not have an ideal world. And the truth is, most children — no matter how well-raised — don’t really appreciate when you tell them, “Son, on this field, I saw Al Kaline hit a homer.” What the kid wants is to see Cecil Fielder hit a homer. And the ice cream man. And a big screen full of replays.
Memories are for parents. What the child gets is the thrill of a journey with someone he or she loves, eating hot dogs, watching the game, stopping somewhere on the way home. A future memory. And it seems to me the more of these you create, the better you’ve done — whether you do it where Al Kaline played or not.
How do you do it if you only go once a year? Monday was a wonderful splash of life at Michigan and Trumbull, but the truth is, after opening day, going to Tigers games ceases to be special, or, in many cases, even desirable — especially if the team is in a down year.
And one reason is simple: Going to a game here is nothing but going to a game. Not like other cities
In New York, you hear people say, “We went into the city, did some shopping, saw the Knicks play the Bulls.” In Boston, you hear people say, “We ate Regina’s pizza in the North End, saw the Celtics, hung out at Faneuil Hall.”
In Baltimore, they say, “We spent the day in town, went to Camden Yards, had a blast.” In Cleveland, they are saying it now about Jacobs Field.
And in Detroit, you go to see the Tigers, park as close as you can, watch the game, and get the hell out. What is there nearby to attract you? Besides a few small shops and food places, the surrounding area is a critic’s vision of Detroit — empty lots, old buildings and people looking over their shoulders.
Now, I know the proposed new stadium in the theater district is not perfect — but it is a start. Cities build like caterpillars stretch. One section pushes out the next. There are at least some support businesses there, restaurants, clubs, things to do that could make a Tigers game part of a whole day or evening.
People should have this option. There may be a night when a visiting star pitcher is on the mound, and someone just wants to buy a quick ticket and see a few innings, then walk out and do some late shopping. Why not?
There may be corporate types who want to take their clients to a luxury suite, stay a few innings and take off. Why not? It’s their money. And if they’re leaving to go to a nearby restaurant or club, all the better. These people may make lousy sports fans, but they pay for their entertainment.
These people — and many more — can be the nucleus of some life in downtown. Provided it’s safe and convenient. What gets people to urban areas is not theories but little things: Do they have to drive from the stadium to the next stop? Do the streets have potholes? Is it well lit? Do they hear music playing? Are there good restaurants within walking distance? Does it feel secure? Are fashionable people there? Is it “cool” ?
Michigan and Trumbull, for all its tradition, does not pass the checklist on all these counts.
So, on Monday, the new mayor, Dennis Archer, threw out one of the first pitches. And it was a fresh face. But if he’s back doing it again next year and the year after, with no promise of a new stadium — or worse, the possibility of a stadium outside of Detroit — it won’t only be old, it’ll be depressing.
I know baseball stadiums don’t save cities. The never have. But we’re not talking ultimate salvation here. We’re talking first stages of rehab. A start. Hope.
A city. People. Commerce. The perpetual whirl. When the game got out of hand Monday, before 4 p.m., the stadium emptied, and from the upper ramp you could see streams of people crossing the streets. Most were not stopping in next-door pubs, or doing some shopping; most were heading to their cars to go home.
In another era, we might have the luxury of picking our landmarks. But this city is in a terrible downward spiral, and when that happens, you worry first about survival, nothing more. If putting a stadium in a downtown site like the theater district, where it can ignite other businesses, create noise, create music, if it can create the magic of opening day even a dozen times a year — well, that’s 11 more than we’re getting right now. And we’ll have done something to keep the lungs of this city breathing.
That is every bit as worthwhile as nostalgia. And right now, more important.