Sunday, July 6, 2014

Heritage Field, Ernie Harwell, and a parking lot: Baseball's Past Remembered Differently

In 1964, Roger Angell penned a small piece for The New Yorker about the razing of his beloved Polo Grounds. Citing favorite small moments from the old park ("sights and emotions so inconsequential that they will surely slide out of our recollection"), he wrote: "All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood—"
a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.
In the baseball era of excessive sports data, pitch-by-pitch recaps of obscure decades-old games, and instant replay, the reality of a demolished ballpark is surreal; it's something that really is gone for good, a finality. At many of the new ballparks in recent decades there are subtle or direct references to the parks, eras, and memories they replaced: the footprint of the old park embedded near the new one; banners celebrating franchise players, plaques commemorating celebrated plays. It's a tricky balancing act, maintaining a respectful nod to the past while looking boldly and optimistically to the future. Baseball is dangerously susceptible to nostalgia. Fans may want easier parking, better food, and luxury suites, but they also hunger for vivid ties to the past and their adolescence: it's what Angell felt in 1964 as he looked toward the inevitable Jet Age while fondly recalling Depression-era antiquities at the Polo Grounds. The death of still another neighborhood.

A year ago, I wrote about visiting the old sites of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field; on a recent trip back to New York City and then Detroit, I visited Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and old Tiger Stadium to see how the past is rendered in the present.

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The new Yankee Stadium opened in 2009, replacing "The House That Ruth Built" after nearly 80 years. I was curious to see how the team honored its illustrious history. As has been widely reported, the Yankees organization, with considerable taxpayer assistance, has bankrolled, designed, and built Heritage Field, a green, sprawling ball field-and-running track public park on the site of the old Yankee Stadium. At the cost of 50 million dollars, Heritage Field was created in part in response to the controversial dismantling of the longstanding public parks that allowed for the behemoth that is the new Stadium. It's apparently serving its purpose well: on the sunny June afternoon I visited, there were both straggly pick-up and crisply-uniformed teams of young ballplayers in the fields, playing and practicing, and the track was dotted with runners young and old, while groups of men and some lone wolves exercised nearby. There are plenty of benches, and clean public bathrooms. The vibe seemed pleasant, grateful, and relaxed. The Yanks were playing the Red Sox that night.

But where are references to the old Stadium? I wanted to stand where Babe, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Reggie stood and swung mightily. I wanted to position myself where the mound was and imagine aiming Guidry's fastball or deceiving with Catfish's change-up. The Stadium footprint is displayed, but subtly: among the ways that Yankees paid homage was to weave blue Desso GrassMaster fibers in one of the new fields to outline the old park's infield. (This was difficult for me to see and comment on, as I didn't want to trespass on occupied fields.) But I was surprised at the lack of specific markers for the old park. There are glittering plaques embedded in the walkways throughout the park commemorating famous Stadium moments, from baseball and football glories to boxing and speeches, but the feeling at Heritage is less historic than forward-looking. In civic and municipal terms, this might be fine and politically appropriate, but the baseball fan in me left disappointed.

One very cool touch: a chunk of the old Stadium frieze that famously ringed the park has been relocated behind the backstop at Heritage Field, one of the few striking reminders of the old park.
A view of the enormous new Stadium from the track and field:




A couple of views of the Stadium from one of several pleasant manicured walkways in Heritage Park:







Views of one of the newly minted ball fields. Behind the backstop is the section of the white frieze from the old Stadium. Beyond that, the elevated 4 train.


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On the 7 train to Queens and Citi Field (the new Mets ballpark that opened the same year as new Yankee Stadium) my heart sunk when I realized that the Mets were out of town, but upon arriving I was happy to learn that the team allows visitors to stroll the grounds even if the stadium is dark. As I headed to the parking lots I noticed several groups of people in Mets Plaza or circling the park with  cameras and grins. In the blinding sun I found my destination easily: in parking lot B, behind home plate and along the first base side, the team has embedded the footprint of the old Shea Stadium infield, a much more vivid and fan-friendly homage than anything up in the Bronx.




Here's home plate:



The new park looms nearby.



First:



Second:



Third:
And the pitcher's mound:



(I couldn't resist taking a photo from this perspective: here's first, there's the imagined right field line, there's Bill Buckner, and there goes the ball. "It gets by Buckner!")



The Home Run Apple is Shea-vintage, and proudly, goofily on display in Mets Plaza:




In parking lot B I was able to picture, feet away from the original action, Mookie Wilson streaking home, Ed Kranepool battling the sun on a pop-up, Tom Seaver on the mound. (I resisted running the bases.) Even cooler: I could stand out by second, turn around, and imagine thousands of seats filled with screaming kids as the Beatles launched into "I'm Down." Yes, silly, but a lot of fun, the kind of tingly dreaming an infield footprint affords fans.

~~

A few days later, I stopped in Detroit on my way back to DeKalb. Through fellow ball enthusiasts in a facebook group I'd learned that the original Tiger Stadium infield and outfield remains in Corktown. The stadium was demolished in 2008 and '09, but various civic, cultural, and legal circumstances—a rabid and devoted fan base versus the bottom-line, a battle foregrounding the city's historically depressed financial situation—have ensured that Tiger Stadium's original field is intact, and as "Ernie Harwell Park" is free and open to the public. The "Navin Field Grounds Crew," made up of Tiger Stadium fans, preservationists, and Corktown residents, mows the field, lobbies the city, and sponsors pick-up games.

After driving past blocks of enormous empty factories and office buildings, I parked my car on Michigan Avenue across from a hopefully gleaming Firestone auto care store. At first, disappointed, I skulked around the field's perimeter, kept out by a chain link fence describing the field, until—and I was way down Trumbull Street near right field looking for a way in at this point—I noticed a woman and her two large dogs scampering around the infield. How'd they get in? I hurried back to Michigan Avenue as the woman's boyfriend was emerging from a store across the street. He let me in: the gate's always open, he casually told me. We walked in together and stood near the first base line as he told me a little about the field and its future in limbo, keeping an eye on his dogs chasing rubber balls in the same infield once patrolled by Lou Whitaker and Alan Tramell.

"Incredible," I said, looking around. "I can stand where Ty Cobb stood, where Mark Fidrych pitched...."

Yep," he said. "And my boy [Jack] Morris. Should be in the Hall of Fame. Voting's a fucking joke," he muttered behind his hangover sunglasses, shaking his head and heading over to his girlfriend and their dogs who, tongues lolling, were now imitating Kirk Gibson in right.

Remarkably, what looks and feels like a worn, townie softball field is the place where MLB Hall of Fame players and managers played, and where epic, unforgettable, and historic games took place. There's nothing quite like it. The park's sign is hand-painted, a measure of the hands-on vibe at the old field.







Another hand-painted sign, this one grateful for the '84 World Series victory. It's redolent of the long-gone era of ballpark banners and of the fan-friendly, local energy behind keeping old Tiger Stadium open to the public.



The vintage entry gates along Michigan Avenue remain:







In fact, that's how fans and dogs alike enter the field today:
The old electrical fixtures remain, disused but evocative:

Here's home plate:







The pitcher's mound. (If the traffic along Michigan is light and you listen hard you might hear "The Bird" murmuring.)







First base, looking back toward home:
Second:



Third, looking home:
The view from behind the backstop. The trashcans were overflowing, and pungent, and I had to pause taking pictures as a couple of men with bags came in, picking through the trash for recyclables to claim.



They've painted an Old English "D" out in center field:



 Viva the Corktown Revolution:
 In the real Field of Dreams:





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A few hours later as I was driving somewhere in Indiana, Marshall Crenshaw's version of Bobby Fuller's great tune "Never To Be Forgotten" came on the iPod. The irony was terrific: Crenshaw grew up near Detroit, and I remembered the banner in Corktown, and thought about the sometimes-great disparity between the past and the present. We recall baseball stadiums as loud, raucous, and joyful—or as silent, crestfallen, and heartbroken. Either way, they linger vividly in what Roger Angell elsewhere has called the "interior stadium." When a ballpark's footprint is retained, there's a bridging of memories and the place where those memories were born, and to where they've always returned. Standing there is the closest most of us will ever get to the game.

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