Except for the filming of 61¤, the upcoming movie about the home-run race between Yankees Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961, there was no action last summer at Tiger Stadium. The Detroit Tigers have ditched their historic home at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull and are entering their second season at their new home, Comerica Park.
Unlike Tiger Stadium, which seated over 50,000, Comerica Park seats roughly 40,000—that including the seating in 100 luxury boxes, 20 more than the franchise said it would have. The team’s new home has scarcely a downward angle in the lower deck, making it difficult to see over the heads in the next row. There is also little shade from the sun or shelter from the rain, unless you are in one of the luxury boxes.
There is a Ferris wheel at Comerica Park, visible from southbound 1-75, and a carousel with tigers instead of horses. The new ball park has the biggest scoreboard in the major leagues. There is also parking, but it costs $20, which is more expensive than the very few economy seats available.
All of this might have been easier to accept had the public not been forced into paying much of the $240 million construction cost. Detroit-area reporters have praised Tigers’ owner Mike Hitch for covering most of the cost himself, unlike franchise owners elsewhere who practice legal extortion, forcing their hometowns to pay all construction costs. The Tigers, however, were bound by lease to the old stadium. Unlike franchise owners in other cities who really meant it when they gave the taxpayers the ultimatum to build a stadium or lose the team. Hitch did not have the option to move the Tigers from Detroit.
The press hasn’t always favored a new ball park. Tom Monaghan, the previous owner of the Tigers whose staunch Catholicism made him unpopular with the media, was never able to enlist their help to rally for a new stadium. Nor was the late Coleman Young, who served five terms as mayor, and had the most hostile relationship ever between a mayor and local media. After Hitch bought the team on the eve of the 1992 season and Dennis Archer was elected mayor in 1993, however, the baseball-team owner and the big-city mayor enjoyed a free ride with the local media.
Monaghan’s nemesis was the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, whose spokesmen believed that the sale of the team would save the stadium. Hitch and Archer were both careful and clever enough to pay lip service to examining the option of preserving Tiger Stadium, and the fan club bought into this charade.
They got taken. Archer and Hitch worked immediately to get all the powers that be lined up behind what would become Comerica Park. In March 1996, Archer arranged a ballot proposal to approve $40 million in city bonds to fund the new ball park—on the same day as the Republican primary. The timing was deliberate: The press’s focus on the primary would ensure limited public debate about the ball park, and, because Republicans in Detroit are quite rare. Archer ensured a low voter turnout.
Archer made his pitch for the new ball park in a television ad which aired the weekend before the vote. Singing the praises of a new park, Archer insisted that the best aspect of the plan was that the city would own the new facility. He failed to mention that the city already owned Tiger Stadium.
This was the same Dennis Archer who had refused to take a position the previous August on a ballot proposal to allow casino gaming in Detroit. During that campaign, the mayor had insisted that his position dictated that he not campaign for or against a ballot proposal.
Archer proved to be selective in applying this principle. And why had he made the bizarre assertion in the first place? Because he had pretended to be against casino gaming during the mayoral race in 1993, lest he incur the wrath of the city’s religious leaders, whose crucial endorsements only Coleman Young could garner while publicly supporting casino gaming. But it was clear that Archer was giving a wink to the gambling interests, especially when it was revealed during the campaign that he had patronized casinos in Canada.
As a candidate, Archer opposed gambling, hi his first term as mayor, he took no position but insisted, most cleverly, that he would fight for Detroit’s right to gamble should the proposal pass. After it passed, he vowed to keep casinos off Detroit’s scenic and residential riverfront. And now—you guessed it—Archer wants to put casinos on the riverfront.
The interests who pushed for a new stadium were largely those who had also pushed for casinos. Although Archer had admonished the Tiger Stadium Fan Club for haying non-resident members, instrumental in the drive for a new park was the Coalition for Jobs and Economic Development, an almost entirely suburban group of wealthy campaign contributors, many of whom supported casino gambling.
Restaurants in Detroit’s Greektown had posted campaign signs for both the casino and ball-park initiatives bearing the same slogan, “Detroit Needs Jobs.” Leading restaurant owners had bid on one of the gaming licenses with support from both Archer and Council President Gil Hill, despite the fact that these same investors were also delinquent in paying their city taxes. Much to Hill’s chagrin, their bid was finally denied due to more serious legal problems back in Greece.
Another interesting connection between the two initiatives is Marian Hitch, a casino investor and wife of the Tigers’ owner. When asked at the 1997 tri-county summit on Mackinac Island about the obvious conflict between ownership in both a casino and a sports franchise. Mayor Archer played the sex card, insisting that the questioner simply disliked the fact that Mrs. Hitch was a successful woman.
The annual summit is a planning session involving the mayor and executives of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara was quite helpful in promoting the new ball park. But no one was more helpful than Gov. John Engler—even though he is a Republican and Archer, a Democrat. Engler funneled $55 million to the project from state funds without voter or legislative approval. The measure got more bipartisan cover when Ingham County Circuit Judge James Giddings (a liberal who had clashed previously with Engler) ruled the governor’s action legal.
But there was another glitch yet to be to overcome. Hitch needed $145 million to complete the project. Although Comerica Bank subsequently bought the right to name the ball park, it could not come to terms with Hitch over financing his share of the costs, and Hitch was forced to turn to a Japanese bank. In other words, Comerica pays to advertise at the new ball park, but doubts its worth as an investment. Comerica chief economist David Littman has stated publicly that new sports facilities are of doubtful benefit to the community.
Alas, Comerica Park is the new home of the Detroit Tigers. As the city celebrates its tricentennial this year, it will lack the closest thing to a tourist attraction. It is impossible to overstate Tiger Stadium’s history. Having opened as Bennett Park in 1896, it was the oldest home in all of professional sports and the model on which Yankee Stadium was built. Tiger Stadium (called Briggs Stadium at the time) is where Lou Gehrig removed himself from the lineup in 1939, ending his record of consecutive games played. It is also where Denny McLain won his 30th game in 1968, and where Reggie Jackson thrilled the nation with a monster home run into the right-field lights during the 1971 All Star Game.
Meanwhile, a new stadium under construction for the Detroit Lions is being financed by a hotel-and-motel tax, making Detroit even less attractive to visit. (The city did have visitors besides the opposing team when Tiger Stadium was alive and well.) But the demise of Tiger Stadium is more than just a slap in the face to real baseball fans. Comerica Park, albeit a beautiful brick structure, is a breach of public trust.