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Tiger Stadium: The place where Detroit dies or is reborn

Jack Lessenberry

Well, the news got even worse for General Motors yesterday. Detroit’s future and the outcome of its bankruptcy remain much in doubt. I’ve talked about all these things before, and I am sure I’ll talk about them again. However, today I want to tell you a heartwarming little story of determination and resilience that you can share in.

If you are in the Lansing area tomorrow afternoon and have time, go to the Capital City Film Festival and see Stealing Home. If you are in the Detroit area, they are showing it in Ferndale Sunday afternoon at Renaissance Vineyard Church. More details are on the Stealing Home Facebook page.

My guess is that this film will blow you away. The French historian and philosopher Jacques Barzun famously said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Stealing Home pretends to be a baseball movie. But it really isn’t. It is a movie about the very best about Detroiters, and all of us. The story is a simple one, except it’s not.

Fifteen years ago, the Detroit Tigers abandoned the stadium and the neighborhood where they had played for a century. Fans fought bitterly against this, but team owner Mike Ilitch calculated he could make more money with a modern, state-of-the-art park. So he built one across town, with the help of taxpayer dollars.

Tiger Stadium then stood empty. The city owned the ballpark, but members of the Ilitch organization worried someone would put something there that might compete with them. So the city tore the stadium down five years ago, leaving instead a nine-acre lot overgrown with weeds.

But for many, this was sacred ground, a place where heroes like Babe Ruth played, where they or their parents and grandparents met. So a small group of them began coming to the place and mowing it, cutting down weeds, picking up trash.

They laid out a diamond, and kids and dads come and play where Ty Cobb and Al Kaline did. Sometimes, in the morning, they find the ashes of cremated fans scattered on the field.

The city and its tone-deaf Detroit Economic Growth Corporation repeatedly tried to drive them away. But the volunteers kept coming back. They call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew, after an earlier name for the ballpark.

This film is a story about them, about love and death and rebirth. A young producer showed it at small film festivals this winter. It won first place. They showed it at the first-ever Detroit Free Press film festival last month, against some tough competition.

The audience voted it their favorite film, and after it was shown, passed a hat for donations to the ground crew. They tell me that the economic growth bureaucrats hate the grounds crew – especially since this movie may make it harder to drive these dedicated people away.

But I was more impressed by a writer in the film who says “this is either the place where Detroit dies, or where it is reborn.” What’s clear is it is a place where, at least, people are not giving up.