"Grounds crew" keeps up old Tiger Stadium site

Jul 22, 2011

Imagine watching a place you love—and that your family has loved, for generations—fall into disrepair.

That’s what it’s been like for many Detroit baseball fans, who consider the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues to be sacred ground. That’s the site of the old Tiger Stadium, which was demolished in 2009.

One group of fans decided to do something about that. The only problem: the land isn’t theirs to maintain. And while they may see themselves as being helpful, the city of Detroit sees it differently.

Early on a Sunday afternoon, Dave Mesrey has just started picking up trash around the perimeter of a fenced-off vacant lot--not just any vacant lot. It was home to pro baseball in Detroit for over a century—for the first time in 1895, when it was called Bennett Park. It then became Navin Field, then Briggs Stadium—and hosted its last baseball game as Tiger Stadium in 1999.

Tiger Stadium is gone now—only the infield, dating from the corner’s 1912 incarnation as Navin Field, remains intact. But for Mesrey and some other die-hard Tigers fans, this place hasn’t lost its magic. And it bothers them that soon after Tiger Stadium’s demolition, the site was fenced in and then neglected. So around the start of baseball season last year, Mesrey decided to do something about it.“We couldn’t stand the sight of six and seven foot tall weeds, all around the perimeter,” he says. “So I organized something called the great Tiger Stadium weed-out.”

About 30 people showed up, and the clean-up effort evolved into a regular thing. The group even developed an unofficial name: the Navin Field grounds crew. Their informal leader is Tom Derry, who leads the grass-cutting on his riding lawnmower. Derry says he never meant for the group to become quite so “official,” but he does like the name.

“Tiger Stadium’s gone, unfortunately, it’s never coming back,” Derry says. “But we have our original Navin Field from 1912, and all the history from when it was Navin Field, Briggs Field, Tiger Stadium. The field’s still here, all the history’s still here.”

As Derry talks, he eyes an extended family—grandparents, parents, and a little boy—playing a game of pick-up baseball. Derry “gets a kick” out of watching games like this here.

“It’s a very special place here,” he says. “There’s probably no place in the state of Michigan that’s brought more people together than this corner has.”

But just because “the corner” is a special place doesn’t mean it’s a public place—at least, not in the sense that some want it to be. Technically, the Navin field grounds crew and pick-up baseball players are trespassing on city property. They’ve been escorted off the field by police more than once, but keep finding ways to get back in. That’s frustrating to city officials, who have long eyed the land as prime space to attract a major development project.

“It’s not a special events space,” says Sommer Woods, an official with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office. “It’s not a park. It’s a piece of land that we understand has a lot of connections to people-- but it cannot be set up[as a special events space],  nor is it zoned to be as such.”

But Woods also acknowledges that the city doesn’t really have the resources to maintain this site. The two sides are trying to work out an agreement that would give the Navin field grounds crew permission to maintain it, while indemnifying the city against liability claims.

But Woods is firm that the site can only be used on the city’s terms: “It cannot be a space for playing baseball. That space is not meant for that.”

Not meant for baseball? Needless to say, that’s not quite how Tom Derry and his grounds crew see it. Derry says he knows things won’t go on like this forever. But he hopes whatever comes along leaves the historic infield alone—and accessible to baseball fans.

“Eventually something’s gonna happen here,” he says. “I would like to see it remain, first and foremost, a baseball field. Where anybody can go out and play.”

In the meantime, Derry and his crew continue to negotiate with the city, and to comply when they’re told to leave the field. But they also keep coming back.