HOUSEWARMINGTHRILLS OUTWEIGH CHILLS AS TIGERS WIN OPENERNEW BALLPARK IS A WORK OF ART

We would not see snow. We would not see cold. We ignored the icy water as we sloshed through city streets.

“Wind? What w-w-wind?” we said, as we marched to the gates. “We don’t feel any w-w-wind.”

Those were not parkas wrapped around our bodies. Those were not gloves, or boots, or scarves.

“Ski cap?” we said, as we moved through the turnstiles. “What ski cap? Oh, that thing?”

We refused to see winter. We refused to see gray. On this first day of baseball in the first year of the new century, in April weather better suited to January, the people of Detroit had eyes for one thing and one thing only.

The New House.

It is spectacular.

At 1:18 p.m. Tuesday, the first pitch was thrown at Comerica Park, our first new baseball stadium in 88 years, and for a blessed moment the cold seemed to halt and the sun seemed to rise and we opened our eyes to a single most impressive thing. It was not the pristine field, the massive scoreboard, the carousel, the Ferris wheel, the fountains with fireworks, or the food spots with everything from elephant ears to beef brisket.

No. The single most impressive thing inside this new stadium was …the view out. For when you look to the outfield, you see buildings, windows, rooftops, chimneys. You see the Cadillac Tower, the Detroit Opera House, the Renaissance Center, the blinking red ball atop the Penobscot Building. You see offices, hotels, corporate headquarters, standing like sentinels, peeking onto the field. It’s as if this massive structure were dropped smack into the middle of a metropolis. A tree grows in Brooklyn?

A ballpark grows in Detroit.

“This is awesome,” said Lance Parrish, the former Tigers star catcher, now a Tigers coach, as he gazed around the upper decks and the exposed steel beams and trusses, painted dark green, resembling something out of a Paris train station. “Everything you want, you got here.”

Everything you want. Anything you can think of. Wasn’t this the most common pose Tuesday: people walking, semi-dazed, their mouths slightly open, looking left, right, up, down, like country folk let into the royal castle? A sea of fans clogged in the new concourses, barely noticing that they weren’t moving, because look, there’s Ty Cobb, look, there’s a gourmet pretzel place, look, there’s a carousel, look, there’s a bat-shaped tower of Tigers history, one for the 1920s, one for the 1940s, one for the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s.

And then, the most impressive part, as fans came out into the light, the wide-open spaces, and their eyes traveled across the grassy outfield, over the large bullpen, over the orange umbrellas of the picnic porch above rightfield, and up, up, up into that skyline view, looking as if they had never seen the city before. Perhaps some of them haven’t. They are seeing it now.

A curtain lifts.

A ballpark grows in Detroit.

New park, same game

“We got it finished,” a relieved John McHale, the Tigers’ president, said just before the opening ceremonies. “There are still some cords here and there, some construction here or there. But we’re ready for baseball.”

He laughed.

“And I don’t think you have to worry about stepping on a loose board and disappearing.”

Not that anyone would have noticed. The overwhelming reaction Tuesday from the 39,168 sold-out crowd was positive, welcoming, impressed, awestruck, even giddy at the idea that we get to use this place not one day or one season but for years to come.

And here, in the year 2000, only the most traditional or cynical will complain. It feels right. It feels like progress. Sure, there is a tug of history down the street, at Michigan and Trumbull, where old Tiger Stadium stands alone as a Roman ruin. But the new ballpark celebrates history, too. There are the aforementioned bat towers of Tigers decades past and the impressive statues in left-centerfield, of Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Al Kaline.

There was, before Tuesday’s first pitch, the passing of the Tigers’ flag that flew at Tiger Stadium and will now fly at Comerica, hoisted on a centerfield flagpole, still the only one in baseball that is in the field of play.

And when they started the game, it sure looked like the old baseball. There was a called first strike for the very first pitch, there were two triples — proving the far-out fences might engender fewer home runs and more baserunning
— and there was even a stellar defensive play, when first baseman Tony Clark dived for a sinking liner, caught it, popped up, and then dived again for a tag on the retreating runner — got him — an unassisted double play.

And, oh, yes, the Tigers won, 5-2, over the Seattle Mariners, christening the place with baseball’s sweetest moisture, the sweat of victory.

Were there problems? There are always problems. Parking is a headache, traffic doesn’t yet know how to flow, and the lines at the concession stands — and the body flows through the concourses — were thick, slow and intolerable on a day-to-day basis.

But you can fix those things. You learn, you adjust.

What you can’t fix, what you couldn’t create, were little things that never existed at old Tiger Stadium. Like limousines pulling up to the different entrances, entrances you could see from inside the building as you walked around, giving the place a Hollywood opening-night feel.

Like people gathered outside the stadium outfield, peeking in through the fences, watching the game, people you could see from inside as well.

Like people standing out near the fountains that explode after home runs — running for cover when the wind blew the water streams down on them like rain. Can you imagine that in summer? Kids will have their shirts off, hoping for the city’s biggest sprinkler system.

In fact, you can imagine families coming downtown and visiting the stadium even without tickets, taking photos in front of those Tigers’ legend statues, checking out the Ferris wheel, sneak-peeking a few innings through the metal gates. You can hear them saying, “Let’s go to the city and hang around near the stadium.”

Only people who live here can appreciate what that sentence means.

A ballpark grows in Detroit.

An important investment

Now let’s be frank. There is a suggestion in some parts of the media that this new stadium is a gift from the Ilitch family. Even the Ilitches will admit this is inaccurate. For one thing, since the city contributed millions of dollars and the county contributed millions of dollars and the state took care of the roads and the value of the Ilitches’ franchise, thanks to this new stadium, just shot up a good $80 million, the word “gift” doesn’t really apply.

And if you checked out the prices for a large beer ($7.50) or an excellent seat ($75) — prices sometimes double what they were at Tiger Stadium — you realize the Ilitches are not giving anything away.

But they are not supposed to. “Gift” is the wrong word. “Investment” is the right word. They invested in a city they love and make their home, and if more of our rich citizens did the same, our downtown would be sprouting like a spring crop.

Besides, when you invest in something, it means you believe in it. And that belief is the cornerstone of any urban renewal.

A ballpark grows in Detroit. I have never been a person who says stadiums save cities. They don’t. They never have. But Tuesday was an instructive day for us. For just as we denied the winter freeze, just as we saw through the gray and the cold because we wanted to — so, too, are we capable of seeing past the ugly part of this city’s history, past the decay, past the prejudices and misconceptions that suggest Detroit can never come back.

Why not? Why St. Louis and not here? Why Cleveland and not here? We have a gem now at the new corner, Montcalm and Brush, a sports cathedral to be proud of, a site to take visiting family and friends to, and, more important, a site they will ask to visit.

And when they look out over the field, they — and maybe you — will see something that has always been there, but for some reason, was nearly invisible. They will see buildings, lights, people, traffic.

They will see a city.

A ballpark grows in Detroit. And here is the best part. You think it’s nice now?

Just wait till it stops snowing.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).

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