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Fighting to keep the grass where old Tiger Stadium stood

Dave Mesrey needs a root canal and possibly shoulder surgery and can’t afford either one, on his very part-time job doing editing work for an alternative newspaper.

He doesn’t much care about that. His car broke down years ago and he can’t afford to fix it, but he doesn’t dwell much on that, either. What he cares about is a nine and a half acre field of dreams to which he’s devoted himself for the last five years.

Mesrey, who is 46, quit a full-time job as an editor in 2010 and led a group of buddies to chop down 7-foot-high weeds, clean up dog and goose poop, mow the grass and restore what is sacred ground to them.

Babe Ruth hit home runs here. Dizzy Dean and Cy Young and Whitey Ford pitched here. Ty Cobb played here, as did Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig.

This is, of course, Detroit’s corner of Michigan and Trumbull, where old Tiger Stadium stood, from 1912 until they knocked it down 6 years ago. Back when the ballpark was new, it was called Navin Field, and Mesrey and his buddies call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew.

Slowly, painfully, lovingly, using their own money and sweat, they restored the field to what it looked like when there was a stadium here. Without them, this site would be an eyesore.

Because of what they did, at first in defiance of developers and the police, kids play baseball here again. Couples have been married here. People’s ashes are scattered here.

A filmmaker made a wonderful movie about them called Stealing Home, a film that won top honors from the audience at the first-ever Free Press film festival last year.

Late last year, the city announced that they were going to give the site to the Police Athletic League, which intends to use the field for a variety of youth sports, including baseball. They plan to install lights and dugouts and a scoreboard and seating.

All that is fine with Dave Mesrey, except for one thing; they plan to install artificial turf. To Mesrey and his comrades, that is a sacrilege.

Except for the old flagpole, he told me yesterday, “All we have left is the natural grass upon which all the greats played. (We) feel that to keep Navin Field a natural grass surface, even if it means being re-sodded, represents meaningful historic preservation."

Athletic League officials have said artificial turf is more durable and cost-effective. Mesrey disagrees, and worries about the environment. He does social media, circulates petitions. “But I seem to be failing,” he told me. “We’re in the bottom of the ninth, and I’m not sure what the score is, but it sure feels like losing.”

The Navin Field Grounds Crew will probably disband after this year, and unless there is a sudden change of heart, they will have lost the Astroturf battle. Personally, I think that is a shame. But what Mesrey doesn’t see is that they’ve really won a greater war.

Because of them, kids will still play baseball here.

They gave this place where baseball has been played since the 1890s back to Detroit. And that’s something Dave and his grounds crew will always be able to say.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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