In May 2010, nearly a year after the last grandstands of Detroit’s Tiger Stadium were finally torn down, Tom Derry hauled his riding mower to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull to begin attacking weeds six feet high on the abandoned field. Derry, a mail carrier, was suited for the task in body and spirit. Each year he hosts a raucous Babe Ruth birthday party at a nearby watering hole. Large and gregarious, with a fierce passion for baseball, Derry is a gentle giant in the Bambino mold.
Cops at first threatened to arrest Derry for trespassing, but he kept coming back. Eventually they just ignored his efforts, and soon he attracted helpers who named themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew, evoking the stadium’s original name, dating to 1912. Once the field was cleared of weeds and debris, visitors began to stop by, walk the historic base paths, and play catch on the unauthorized diamond playground. Pickup games, with players of all ages, sprung up; groups came for birthday parties and other events. People even began to spread their loved ones’ ashes on the field—Derry has witnessed at least two dozen memorial services. In August 2014, Derry himself got married there.
Fans were glad to return to the site of Tiger Stadium. After the 1999 season, when the Tigers left what is widely known as “the Corner,” many wept. Team owner Mike Ilitch worked the same scam as sports teams in other cities, claiming that public money for a new stadium would spin off economic growth (a claim that turned out to be mostly untrue). The Tigers got their public money to build Comerica Park, and the hulk of the beloved old Tiger Stadium went through a cycle typical of thousands of fabulous Detroit edifices: It sat vacant for years then stood partially demolished for many more. Trees grew through the grandstands. The city didn’t have the resources or the will to tear it down completely until 2009, and it ignored all proposals to reuse the site in any appropriate way. So Tom Derry and other fans took matters into their own hands and have maintained the grounds for the last six summers with their own sweat and limited resources.
However, last November the Detroit City Council green-lighted a controversial plan that will end the public’s free access to the historic diamond and finally build on the vacant property. This spring, groundbreaking is set to begin for a small stadium and banquet hall. The stadium will be a showcase athletic facility and training center for city youths and include a new headquarters for the Detroit Police Athletic League, which has long run sports programs for kids on fields throughout the city, many of them poorly maintained. Some fans, including Derry and his Navin Field Grounds Crew, oppose the project, and not just because they’ll lose access to the field. PAL plans to cover the historic 9-acre green space with a potentially dangerous artificial turf field. For the first time since 1999, people with power are paying attention to the Corner, but no one is listening to the people who brought it back to life.