Detroit Baseball Fans Clean Up Site Of Tiger Stadium

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Detroit tore down the old Tiger Stadium in 2009 because it was "blight." But since then, the city has done little to maintain the site. So about a year ago, a few guys brought in some heavy-duty landscaping equipment, and mowed and cleaned it up. And it's evolved into a loosely knit group that comes down every other week to clean up and play baseball with their kids. But the city disapproves. It has fenced off the place and put locks on the gates, but people keep cutting them off and going in anyway.

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Imagine watching a place you love and that your family has loved for generations fall into disrepair. Well, that's how it's been for many Detroit baseball fans, who think of the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Avenues as sacred ground.

It's the site of the old Tiger Stadium, which was torn down in 2009. One group of fans decided to take care of the lot that remained, but while they may think they're being helpful, the city of Detroit sees it differently.

Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.

Mr. DAVE MESREY: I'm at Michigan and Trumbull right now...

SARAH CWIEK: It's early on a Sunday afternoon, and 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.

Mr. MESREY: We couldn't stand the sight of six and seven-foot-tall weeds all around the perimeter. So we got together. I organized something last summer called the great Tiger Stadium weed-out.

CWIEK: 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.

Mr. TOM DERRY: Tiger Stadium's gone, unfortunately. It's never coming back. 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 is still here, and all the history is still here.

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

Mr. DERRY: It's a very special place here. There's probably no place in the state of Michigan that's brought more people together than this corner has.

CWIEK: 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. Somer Woods is with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's office.

Ms. SOMER WOODS: It's not a special events space. It is not a park. It is a piece of land that we understand that has a lot of connections to people, but it cannot be set up, nor is it zoned to be as such.

CWIEK: 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.

Ms. WOODS: But it cannot be a space for playing baseball. That space is not meant for that.

CWIEK: 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.

Mr. DERRY: Eventually, something's going to happen here. I would like to see it remain, you know, first and foremost, a baseball field, where anybody can go out and play.

CWIEK: In the meantime, Tom 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.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.

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