Closing Down Tiger Stadium in 1999

It was September 27, 1999, when the Tigers played their last game in the 87-year history of their stadium. Janet Naylor, Darren Nichols, Ron French, Santiago Esparza, Kim Kozlowski and Mark Puls of the Detroit News reported:

Years from now, fans will remember that the mourning on the last day began before dawn.

At 7:47 a.m., a groundskeeper begins cutting grass behind second base. A flock of sea gulls loitering in center field takes flight and finds refuge in the bleachers.

Stadium worker Rich Wheeler, 33, sprays Tiger Den seats with a fire hose.

“There’s going to be a lot of sad faces come the ninth inning,” he says.

Wheeler polishes the park as if it’s opening day.

“Even if this is the last day, you got to keep it clean. Got to keep it clean,” he says. “It may be old, but it’s still Tiger Stadium.”

* * *

Throughout the morning, fans set up tailgate parties.

Rob Rios arrives around 10:30 a.m., raises a pint of Labatts in one hand, a Dominican stogie in the other.

“I’m glad to be a part of history,” he proclaims.

* * *

By 1 p.m., Steve Johnson and his seven-year-old son, Connor, are in line along Trumbull waiting for the gates to open. The father reaches through a fence, holding a camera at arm’s length to take a photo of himself and his son.

Someday, his son may remember it like the game Jim Marquand saw almost 70 years ago with his dad.

“I remember it clearly,” he says. “I’ll never forget seeing the field and the grass for the first time. It was 1930.”

Michael Timm stands on the top row of bleachers in right center field looking through a wire fence at the Detroit skyline.

“The new stadium is over there,” he says, pointing a cigarette at a low structure a mile away. At his feet, paint flecks from the stadium wall, revealed pale, pocked plaster and rusted steel.

“I guess it’s time,” he says.

Listening in left field, 75-year-old Troy Shields flashes his gold front tooth as he pops potato chips in his mouth. He is wearing a navy Tiger jersey, black dress slacks, black socks and his Sunday dress shoes.

“I usually wear overalls,” says the Ecorse man. “I thought the stadium deserved some respect today.”

Usher Al Kopytko wiggles a screw from a metal bar where an armrest was until it was stolen Sunday. Along his section of seats in right field, nine of 10 wooden armrests are missing by the beginning of Monday’s game. An hour before game time, someone used a knife to cut the old English D’s from the backs of four seats.

“Last night, someone stole a chair from my section,” Kopytko says, throwing the screw to the cement. “Someone tried to buy my usher’s name tag. What are they going to do with that stuff?”

Legendary announcer Ernie Harwell begins the pregame ceremony at 3 p.m. “This is a day.”

Fans shout “Ernie! Ernie!”

But the biggest cheers are for Al Kaline , who speaks for the 1,300 former Tiger players. He calls the park “magical.”

Ken Siddall shows off dirt from the stadium field, which he preserves in a small vial.

“I’m going to make a shrine in my house,” he says.

* * *

At 4:10, Brian Moehler serves up the first pitch of the last game at Tiger Stadium, which a Beltran hits to center field. Gabe Kapler — wearing no number to honor Ty Cobb and his era before numbers — catches it for the first out.

Luis Polonia hits a homer over the 415 foot mark to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.

* * *

It ends as it began, with a put out of the Royals Carlos Beltran.

“I want the nation to know Detroit has a lot to be proud of,” Linda Zalla of Bloomfield Hills says just before the last out at 7:07 p.m., leaning over the fence where below stand greats like Kirk Gibson. “I’m so proud to be here.”

Then the legends emerge from centerfield to take their place in the infield: 66 Tigers dating back the last 66 years, the eldest being Eldon Auker, who pitched from the Tiger Stadium mound in 1933.

The first to emerge is 1976 Rookie of the Year Mark Fidrych, who runs to the pitcher’s mound and reprises his popular ritual of talking to the dirt, as he scooped some into a plastic bag.

Not all the silver-haired gentlemen are familiar to the fans, so Milton Blanchard Osgood of Grosse Pointe Farms cheers as loud as he can for lesser known players, like ’40’s era pitcher Virgil Trucks.

“I wanted to make sure they were all appreciated,” says Osgood, 30.

Around 8:15 p.m., the stadium technician starts shutting off the lights.

“Farewell, old friend,” Ernie Harwell says. “Tiger Stadium, we will remember.”

* * *

At 8:45 p.m., ushers herd stragglers out of the upper deck. John Corrado starts to leave, turns, and returns to his seat. Section 341, row 6, seat 3. He bends and kisses it. He stands, crying.

“That’s been my seat for five years,” said Corrado of Harper Woods.

Corrado is the last to fan to leave the upper deck. He walks down the concrete ramp, his fingers exploring cracks. He peels off a chip of blue paint and tucks it in the pocket of his jeans.

“Not being married and not having children,” Corrado says, “this is the best day of my life.”

Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News added:

The Tigers beat Kansas City 8-2, with Karim Garcia, who wore legendary Al Kaline ‘s No. 6 for the game, hitting a two-run homer. Rookie Robert Fick lit the final fireworks, blasting an eighth-inning grand slam off the right field roof, and from that point on, the crowd never stopped roaring.

Everything was louder, more animated. The seventh-inning rendition of “Take me out to the ballgame” sent shivers, for everyone knew, contrary to the lyrics, they would never come back.

What better way to salute a grand old park, weathered by time, than by allowing people to remember it from its finest days? Flashbulbs lit the night as the old double-play combination, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, trotted out, stomped on second base and shook hands.

There was 1930s star Billy Rogell and 1984 World Series hero Kirk Gibson, who raced out as if he was circling the bases one more time. In all, 65 former players appeared for the 70-minute post-game ceremony, and formed a line that stretched from center field to home plate.

There was ’68 champion Willie Horton, the native Detroiter who spent 15 seasons as a Tiger, stepping onto the field and immediately sobbing. He put his arms on his head, then rubbed his face, then looked to the stands, tears streaming.

“It was pure joy for my family, for my grandchildren, and it was sadness for myself,” Horton said afterward. “It’s unreal, the feeling I got.”

He looked up at the rusty rafters beneath the stands, and he smiled.

“This building is me. This is my life.”

The words were his, but they could have been practically anybody’s in the stadium.

This building is Detroit, marking the seasons, and as much as the new Comerica Park, with its promise of rejuvenation, deserves to be embraced, the passing of Tiger Stadium deserves to be mourned. On this night, we learned the sentiments do not contradict.

“Awesome, awesome, awesome,” said Gibson, the words tumbling out. He had sat in the right field upper deck with his wife and three sons, before joining his predecessors and successors in uniform on the field.

“Because I came into this stadium as a fan, I wanted to go out as a fan,” Gibson said, explaining his choice of seats. “It’s not a time to be sad, it’s a time to reflect about growth. Everything I know, I learned in this stadium.”

After years of wrangling and debate, the end came on a late-September day that was impossibly warm and sunny. In the brilliance, 87-year-old Tiger Stadium looked young again, a cruel deception of mind and memory.

Shortly after the final out — a Todd Jones strikeout of Carlos Beltran, for the record — the police made its expected show of force, with 10 horses taking the field. It proved unnecessary, for in the end, the fans merely wanted to pay their respects.

Home plate was quickly dug up by team officials and transported to Comerica Park, where it was planted as fans watched on the Tiger Stadium scoreboard. Some booed any mention of Comerica Park, but that was to be expected, for this was solely about looking back.

And into the night, people did exactly that. Fans scrawled their names on the stadium walls as they exited. Two hours after the final out, people were still scattered throughout the stands. One man sat in the right field lower deck, hugging a railing and sobbing uncontrollably. A few feet away, a young man stood with a young woman, both staring at the field, now darkening as the lights went out.

“This is it,” the man said, turning to the woman, who held a camera. “Better take your picture now.”

Al Kaline: “Although we are saddened and nostalgic, it is time to move on. To me, Tiger Stadium’s strengths lie not in its dazzling architecture or creature comforts, but in its character and its charm.”

And on his arrival in Detroit: “Here I was, 145 pounds with pimples on my face, and the security guard wouldn’t let me in. I got in and I went through the concession area and I’m thinking this was just a big ol’ warehouse. And then I went down a concourse and saw the sun shining on the green field and I said, ‘My God, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.’ “

Published in: on August 22, 2010 at 7:15 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is the most beautiful story I have ever read. Tiger’s Stadium- My birthday buddy! =)
    Tiger’s Stadium… I will always remember ❤

  2. Gone, but never forgotten.

  3. Such a good source for projects!

  4. My wife and I sat in Sec 216 – Row G – Seats 21,22
    Does anyone have any pictures looking in that direction ?


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