Tuesday, June 29, 2010

So much more than another vacant lot in Detroit

A pre-Opening Day visit to Tiger Stadium for a story in 1991 allowed access to all kinds of places we'd never again get to -- like the visitor's bullpen.

I want to send out a quick word of thanks to two folks who linked to the post about Will and me trespassing, err, paying tribute to what remains of one of our favorite ballparks, Tiger Stadium.

Paul Lukas of the always amazing Uniwatch , who linked to us on Monday, which led to someone sending us to Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports' Hardball Talk .

Together, they absolutely obliterated the previous daily hit record for the blog, kindly introducing us to a wide audience. I'm grateful.

And it also had me thinking about that great old stadium, and some of the adventures there that were told here long ago. I wanted to share some again in case any of those new visitors come back, and I'd love to hear their stories about what happened at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.

First can only be one of my favorite baseball moments of all time, when we finally established contact with my favorite non-Met, Frank Thomas on what can only be descrbed as a magical, misty night.

I spent one of the best birthdays ever when colleague John Munson and I had the run of the entire stadium as crews prepared for Opening Day. We saw some amazing things that most fans never got to watch, and explored just about every inch of the ballpark.
I'm sure Dennis Eckerlsy was more graceful getting out of the visitor's bullpen.

Then I had one of my most memorable moments as a reporter on the field, interviewing Hall-of-Famers Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer, plus original Met Al Jackson in preparation for a story about Mickey Weston.

Andrew and I had a wonderful time in roaming around centerfield and getting tips from Tigers players and coaches.

We had some non-baseball adventures at the stadium, too. Kiss kicked off its 1996 reunion tour with a massive spectacle at Tiger Stadium that ended up being a little dangerous.

There were other memories, inclunding the first interleague game between the Mets and Tigers, and the day we met a number of Negro League stars and learned a valueable lesson.

Josh Pahigian listed Tiger Stadium as Place No. 68 in his
101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out and I used that opportunity to run some of my favorite photos of players we've seen play there over the years. The best part about Tiger Stadium was that you could get so close, especially in the bullpen area.

The James Earl Jones lines about baseball in Field of Dream were all true, especially the one about memories so thick that you practically have to swat them away. I thought about that as Will and I wandered around what to some people was a vacant lot at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull earlier this month. Truth be told, it is so much more.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

To understand the opponent, you need to know where he is from. Our evening at Comerica Park

Since the Tigers have been visiting the Mets this week, I thought it might be a good idea to show Mets fans where the Tigers spend most of their time.

And I'm talking about the ballpark, beacuse you really don't want to see too many photos of Detroit other than our adventures in trespassing at the old yard.

Comerica Park isn't the worst place to see a game, but it's far from my favorite. Like Cit Bank in Philly, it's a jumbled mess.

But there are some neat features, like giant tiger statues -- including two atop the scoreboard with glowing eyes when the team plays "Eye of the Tiger" late in the game. And it's cool that the team takes the field as "Detroit, Rock City" blares from the PA.

So Will and I went to see the Diamondbacks, and wore our sweet D-Backs batting practice jerseys. He's got the Unit, I've got Schilling.

Tigers fans are pretty mellow. I knew we'd never get abused for wearing opposition colors. In fact, I set the over/under on abuse at two people. Other than some mild ribbing from employees, we heard mostly compliments from D-Backs fans. Usually people mentioned it as a way to start a conversation.

The huge tiger statue is one of the good things about the stadium. It's a natural meeting spot and photo zone. There are several other, smaller tigers on the roof on either side.

It is well-known that I will pose with any mascot at any time. Occasionally this brings great discomfort to my friends. We neve got close to Paws, the Tigers' mascot, but we did see the Comcast remote control -- I don't know if he has a name -- and the Belle Tire guy. Will humored me by stepping into the photo.

The team has a booth full of game-worn or used items, including these bats from the Mothers Day game. Sometimes there are affordable items there. Last year I got Lloyd McClendon's locker plate for $10 and Luis Lopez's cap from a Negro Leagues tribute game for $20.

The Ferris wheel and food court were hopping areas, with a band playing. The wheel isn't all that tall, and if not for the novelty of riding in large baseballs at a stadium, it's not exciting. But it's kind of neat to watch.

Comerica has a number of stupid little mistakes, things that could have been done much better. Among those was the placement of the statues in left. They're on the concourse, but right up against the fence so they overlook the seats and playing field.

But people like to take photos of the statues, and they like to take photos of fields and themselves next to said statues. But the only way to get a person and the statue in the same shot is to stand behind them.

So here's Ty Cobb's butt, and Will's too.

The Ernie Harwell statue is near the main entrance, better situated and is a popular posing site. Harwell was probably the most popular person in Detroit, and when he passed away this spring he was brought to the stadium, with the open casket set near the statue and the line stretching around the block. People where snapping photos with their cell phone cameras, which seemed kind of odd.

The Diamondbacks had their way with the Tigers, with Mark Reynolds launching an early bomb and the team padding the lead, sending Rick Porcello all the way back to the Toledo Mud Hens. The Tigers got within striking distance, but Aaron Heilman, of all people, came in to close the door.

The sky was beautiful as the sun started setting. Will noted that the view will be pretty neat as the lights in all the downtown Detroit buildings started flickering on. Then we remembered that we were in downtown Detroit and there would be no lights because most of the buildings are empty.

A couple was married at home plate after the game. They'd won a contest for the honor, and note that Paws, the Tigers mascot, is among the groomsmen and wearing his tux. We suspect the wedding party had been celebrating for much of the evening, because instead of saying, "I do," she yelled, "HELL YES!"

And the game ended with a pretty sweet fireworks show, with the explosions going off right there in centerfield.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Finding little but our memories on the spot where Tiger Stadium stood

These Tiger Plaza gates and the flagpole are all that remain of Tiger Stadium.

I’ve stood on the field in Tiger Stadium a number of times -- each time thrilling.

Several visits were for stories, including interviews with Jim Palmer and Frank Robinson. Another was a pre-game clinic with Andrew, where we listened to Tigers players and coaches offer tips and posed for photos in centerfield. And the most dangerous was sitting in the 27th row in right-center dodging chairs as Kiss launched its reunion tour.
Some of those adventures can be found here.

And the most memorable day at the park might have been when Will and I were present for the last game at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in 1999.

But Saturday afternoon we stood on the field where Ty Cobb and Al Kaline played, and Trammell and Whitaker turned double plays. Gone were the fans and the stands, the bustle and noise. All that remained was the flagpole in centerfield, the infield with a somewhat tamped down mound and a grassy field slowly losing a battle to weeds.

We were in Detroit to see the Diamondbacks play the Tigers, and with some time to kill before the Comerica Park gates opened we headed over to the site of the stadium where we watched so many games together in the 1990s.

Exiting I-75 to get a closer view, we noticed that the large gate in the chain-link fence surrounding most of the site was wide open.

As with the Astrodome in October, an open gate is practically an engraved invitation to a couple baseball adventurers.

The whole area was deserted, and we decided that should a security guard appear, we’d easily see him coming.

We bravely walked out along what was the third base line. Tall weeds and some construction rubble dotted where the stands once stood, but we were surprised at how intact the playing field remained 10 years after the final out.

The infield dirt looked especially good, as if a good raking from the grounds crew would make it playable again.

We took turns standing on the mound, which was lower than it should have been but still identifiable as the spot where Jack Morris and Mickey Lolich fired fastballs.

Will paid tribute to the late Mark Fidrych by tending to the mound. Tom Seaver pitched two games at Tiger Stadium as a member of the White Sox, and I believe the scene looked like this.

We moved to the spot where home plate was removed in a ceremony after that final game, and the mound seemed closer than I would have imagined. I can see how intimidating it must have been for a Tiger batter to stand there and see Randy Johnson scowling and dealing.

Research shows that Tow Seaver pitched two games in Detroit, both of them impressive performances.

He beat the Tigers 7-1 on May 5, 1985, a complete game. Then Tom and Jack Morris went toe-to-toe on July 10. Both went the distance, and Morris got the win when the Tigers scored one run in the eighth inning, with Tom Brookens doubling home Lou Whitaker.

Of course I ran the bases.

We walked out to the flagpole in center, famous for standing 125 feet tall and 440 feet from home place – and standing in fair territory.

I’m glad the city left something standing, but the pole will need some work if its going to function ever again. Some of the wires that held the flags were twisted in a pile of knots at the base. Someone scrawled a tribute to Ernie Harwell.

We explored a little more, picking up some rubble with flecks of blue paint for souvenirs, before taking a last look and heading back through the gate.

Detroit is a disaster. There have been stories lately about the city looking at things to do with the open space at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. I hope they keep the field there, even if it’s just for community games – or even for a couple fans to wander around and remember good times.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Baseball place No. 83: Mike Greenwell's go-karts, 83A: Scott Radinsky's Skatelab -- and a tough interview

We’re back on the trail after giving Josh Pahigian a break, and heading back to Comiskey Park’s final game, too.

Josh heads to Cape Coral, Fla. To Mike Greenwell’s Bat-a-Ball and Family Fun Park as place No. 83 in his “101 Baseball Places to See Before You Strike Out.”

Greenwell’s career ended in 1993 and opened the amusement park, which sounds like it has the usual assortment of go-karts and batting cages, and is a short drive from where the Red Sox spend spring training.

I’ve never met Greenwell, and have not been to Cape Coral, though we did once buy a house from a family that moved there.
But we did spend some time with Scott Radinsky, who also spends his post-baseball time running an action park. That would be:

Alternative place No. 83A: Scott Radinsky’s Skatelab, Simi Valley, Calif.

Will and I were Radinsky fans, and he was a promising rookie in 1990 when the White Sox were saying farewell to The Baseball Palace of the World.

He was finishing the season with a 6-1 record and somehow grabbed four saves in the season where teammate Bobby Thigpen obliterated the record with 57.

And he was a colorful guy, playing in a punk band when he wasn’t pitching.

As you know from the Ken Griffey Jr. conversation, the scene before the final game at Comiskey was surreal. There were all kinds of people roaming around foul territory; some of them even had legitimate reasons to be there.

Will and I were out there, fighting our way through the people with disc cameras and sprayed on gray hair, and were taking in the scene for our Flint Journal story. We saw Ozzie Guillen with his uniform number shaved into his hair, and Ron Karkovice holding one of his kids, and we were looking for someone to interview.

Ideally, that would have been Frank Thomas, our new hero. But Frank must have known what awaited, because he remained in the safety of the clubhouse, which was off-limits. Usually reporters are allowed in the clubhouse, but the White Sox were wise enough to limit access on this day given the “media” in attendance.

But Scott Radinsky was brave enough to enter the fray.

I caught him as he stepped into the dugout. I must have looked pretty goofy, pad in hand and laptop case slung over my shoulder. We called the computers “portables” at the time and I didn’t dare let it out of sight given the suspicious-looking crowd.

Soaking in flopsweat, I started to ask “Rads” some questions. And he was being, well, really difficult.

Granted, I was star struck, nervous and probably stammering. And my questions were not especially insightful, stuff like, “What’s it like in the clubhouse with all this going on?”

And Rads offered up stuff like, “What do you think it’s like?”

After several rounds of this, I was crushed, thanked him and turned away.

I guess Rads sensed my dejection and called me back, “I’m just messing with you. What do you want to know?”

And he was perfect after that.

“He was just making you work for it,” said Will, who snapped photos from a distance throughout the interview.

Rads went on to have an 11-year career in baseball, also pitching for the Dodgers, Cardinals and Indians. He compiled a 42-25 record with 52 saves.

This year he’s the Indians’ pitching coach, though he probably doesn’t brag about that, especially after the Mets sweep.

He had a second job even while pitching, working as lead singer for the band Ten Foot Pole and then Pulley.

Being a true California skater dude, Rads also runs Skatelab , a massive complex dedicated to all things skateboarding. Aside from courses for grinding and other stunts, Rads has a skateboarding hall of fame and museum.

And, hopefully, when a young, starstruck reporter shows up to ask the owner some questions, Rads supplies the answers – after making him work for it a little.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Our Comiskey conversation with Ken Griffey Jr.

My mental picture of Ken Griffey Jr. isn’t the oft-injured Red or aging Mariner missing pitches he used to crush.

No. Griffey, who retired this week, will always be the 20-year-old kid shouting to Will and me in the Comiskey Park outfield.

Our time in Chicago for the ballpark’s final two games produced an unimaginable stream of baseball adventures, and Griffey starred in one.

You have to understand the scene. It was the time before the final game, and the assembled media was allowed to wander the field, at least the part in foul territory.

That’s not usual. Go to a game and you’ll see a handful reporters and lensmen among the players taking batting practice.

The White Sox, it seems, didn’t deny a single media request. Ours were shaky, but still legit since I was in fact a reporter and Will was in fact a sports editor. It was not the first time – nor the last – that we would have credentials.

But there were people walking around that field with media credentials around their necks snapping photos with disc cameras, which no semi-serious photog, much less a professional, would be caught dead holding.

It was a surreal scene. Ron Karkovice walked around with his toddler daughter, Ozzie Guillen signed autographs with his uniform number shaved into the back of his head. Infamous DJ Steve Dahl of Disco Demolition Night fame held court by a dugout. Our favorite was a television guy wearing a mobster suit, and up close we noticed that the gray in his hair was sprayed on.

So Will and I walked around, taking this all in. Then we spotted Griffey and two others walk out to a spot in the outfield on the first base side, down the line a little.

Griffey was in his second year and already dominating, and this was in that short period when the Mariners also had his father on the roster. We were able to see father and son, playing side by side in the outfield.

So we scurried near the spot where Griffey was standing. One of the people with him was a photographer, but we didn’t know who the other guy was.

We walked right up to the foul line as Will started snapping away.

Then it happened. Our conversation with Junior.

“Hey! Who you work for?”

We looked around. Ken Griffey Jr. was talking to us.

“Who you work for?”

“The Flint Journal,” I sheepishly replied.

“You’re all right.”

Then Junior, bat in hand, looked at Will, .

“Who you work for?”

“The Flint Journal,” Will also replied.
“Not a card company?”

“It’s a newspaper.”

“You’re all right.”

Given Junior’s blessing, Will started snapping away. This drew the attention of the third guy.

“Fellas, this is a private shoot,” he said, holding up his hand like a traffic cop. “A private shoot.”

We looked at each other and smiled. The idea that there could be anything private about that afternoon was comical, much less the hottest player in the game posing in centerfield.

Aside from all the people in the stands, there was an army of legitimate and illegitimate photographers ready to snap photos of anything and everything. And they all had already documented Ozzie’s hair and Karko’s kid.

We kept clicking away.

Later that year, Will came across a baseball card of Griffey distributed only on the West Coast, distributed by a cookie company called Mother’s.

There was Griffey, in his Mariners road uniform and the unmistakable arches of old Comiskey Park in the background. It also explained why Griffey asked if we were shooting for one of the card companies.