Monday, August 07, 2006

The Detroit experience

I admit I don't get around like some other Tribe fans.
In 27 years of living, I'd never been to Detroit for a baseball game. I never enjoyed the experience of taking in a game at old Tiger Stadium. Though after seeing the exterior of the place on several occasions, I wondered how different it was from Cleveland Stadium. I could guess Tiger Stadium probably included a lot of cracked concrete, dark, musty corners and urinal troughs in the men's room.
Chances are, even if the locals in Cleveland and Detroit talked with misty eyes about the the old baseball castles that dripped with history, the actual gameday atmosphere wasn't much better than attending a sporting event in, say, an abandoned factory.
Then in 2000, Comerica Park opened, and Detroit was whisked from the dark ages to a new era of multifaceted ballparks that emphasized the total fan experience. Though the team took some time to catch up to their new surroundings.
I had my chances to get up to Detroit for a game while the Tigers were declawed and the fans were meek. I had six years to take in a game with the Indians being the superior or equal of the Tigers.
But what year did I choose to go to Comerica? That's right. The year the Tigers rule baseball, the Indians rule the outhouse and Detroit fans are taking out 20 years of pent-up frustration on any visiting fan bold enough to wear their team's cap and t-shirt to the game.
It's with that in mind that my friend Justin and I donned our Tribe caps and traveled to Motown to watch the Tigers finish a sweep of the Indians on Sunday.
The game obviously was a dud. The Indians offered no suspense outside of a bases-loaded, one-out threat in the seventh that was quickly erased by a Travis Hafner strikeout and a Victor Martinez force. When the Tigers went up 1-0, we knew it might as well have been 10-0. Just one of those days when the Indians left their bats at the hotel. There have been plenty of those days this year.
But I'm not about to let a bad game ruin an objective critique of the gameday experience at Comerica. Below is the lowdown on what you need to see and avoid if you have yet to make your first baseball pilgrimage to Detroit.

In short, it's a mess. Unlike Jacobs Field, which fits neatly into the surrounding area, Comerica was plunked down on a seam between the outskirts of downtown Detroit and the sprawling urban decay of inner city Detroit. The parking closest to Comerica is generally $20, farther away it's $10. Most of the lots are gravel and weeds. There is no rhyme or reason to how the parking is set up, it's basically find a spot and walk. Our venture into Detroit included a long traffic jam on I-75 north as game traffic all converged on one exit, followed by dodging numerous pedestrians crossing streets at random. Police do what they can to control the car and foot traffic, but it's impossible to make it a neat journey to the ballpark, certainly for a crowd of 50,000.
Justin and I parked at a bar called Harry's, which had an interesting promotion. Located several miles from the park, they allow you to park at the bar for free and give you a shuttle ride to the stadium. The catch is you have to buy a $4 beer.
If you aren't going to buy beer at the stadium, as we didn't, it's a decent deal. Anything that will let you park for less than $10 is a decent deal.

The ballpark
If you are used to compact Jacobs Field as I was, Comerica offers a mild culture shock. Jacobs Field was built upward, Comerica was built outward.
The first thing that's evident from the ballpark's exterior are various tiger statues. The full-body tigers sitting on top of the stadium's ledges and in front of the main gates are dramatic and a clever touch. The baseball-clutching tiger heads on the exterior walls are overkill. They kind of make the stadium look like a Roman bath house on steroids.
Having said that, the green steelwork and medium tone brick that comprise the stadium's main color scheme is attractive.
Comerica is all about open space and side attractions. Attached to the main concourse is a food court with a merry-go-round and a midway with a Ferris wheel. The cars resemble baseballs, of course.
Bonus points go to having the Tigers' chronological history represented on concourse displays as soon as you enter the park's main gate. At Jacobs Field, you kind of have to search for the history references unless you enter the park by the Bob Feller statue, where all the tribute banners are located.
Extra bonus points for having indoor common areas where fans can congregate. On humid nights at Jacobs Field, the respite of air conditioning is reserved for the fortunate few who can gain access to the club seat lounge or the Terrace Club, or those who want to fight the crowds in the Team Shop. At Comerica, fans can get a drink in an upstairs lounge, or find some relief in the walk-in concession shops on both levels.
But if you go during a sellout, as I did, the relief will be minimal. Unlike the Jake's Team Shop, which is spacious enough to browse through, the shops at Comerica are small and cramped and not for the claustrophobic when a large crowd is on hand.

The seating bowl
Two words if you attend a day game: bring sunscreen. If it's hot, prepare to sweat.
At least 90 percent of the seats at Comerica are in broad sunlight. A 1:05 start Sunday brought pounding sunlight to our seats in the upper deck along the third base line. By the end of the first inning, I could already feel the sweat rolling down my neck.
Comerica's outward design makes it feel far more vast than Jacobs Field. If you're looking for intimacy with the action, you will find less of it here than in Cleveland. Having said that, the park is designed smartly and even from our high vantage point, I never felt totally removed from the action on the field.

The crowd
If you want submissive Tiger fans who leave you alone, you missed your chance. The Tigers are on top of the world and Detroit is enjoying every minute of it. If you want to represent the visiting team in peace, Comerica isn't for you.
My first run-in with the Detroit wrath was cute. A little boy ran past me with a giant foam Tiger claw growling and making scratching gestures. His father playfully encouraged him.
"Yeah. That's a Cleveland guy. Grrr!" he told the boy.
If only it was all that innocent. Unfortunately, drunk slobs have to get in on the act.
Upon returning from a restroom break in the late innings, an obviously-hammered shirtless guy with a huge tattoo on his back began heckling me from his seat, about four rows below mine.
"Hey, Indians suck!" he yelled at me several times before I responded, "Yeah, this year. Maybe next year they won't."
To which he responded, with the razor-sharp wit that only extensive beer consumption can provide, "Yeah. Uh, well, Indians suck. Go home!"
My drunk friend wasn't done yet, however. As I returned to my seat, he craned around and began harassing me again.
"So your team sucks! They suck! How does it FEEL? How does it FEEL?"
After half a minute of this, I finally responded. "It's only 1-0. You guys aren't out of the woods yet." I then proceeded to ignore him as he continued to shout at me for the next half-inning before finally removing myself from the area in an attempt to take away the fuel for his fire.
As we were leaving, another guy came up to me on the exit ramp and gave me a mock high-five.
"Hey Cleveland guy! Go Tigers!" he said. He continued to talk and started to whip the people around him into an anti-Cleveland frenzy as I walked away, thrusting my thumb in the air in a disdainful "yep, you rule" gesture. (Yes, I wanted to thrust another digit in the air, but I knew what was good for me.)
However, most Tiger fans were respectful, willing to talk baseball and not just rip the Indians. In a bar before the game, Justin and I discussed the intricacies of Fausto Carmona's gas-can debut as a closer with a couple of Detroiters. After my encounter on the ramp, another Detroit fan eased my pain by telling me, "We know what you're going through with a bad team. Look at how long it's been for us."

Hockeytown, where we went after the game is a favorite hangout for Detroit fans. The restaurant, about a block from Comerica, is a shrine to the Red Wings, with a dash of Detroit's other three teams thrown in. It's a unique shrine to Detroit sports, and made me wish Cleveland had something similar. But if you go after the game, don't lose track of time. Detroit fans know the area around Comerica and neighboring Ford Field is not a place to linger once the crowds thin out.
After dinner, we walked back to the car of Justin's cousin, who drove us back to our car. During the mile-long, 10-minute walk, we were panhandled three times, and nearly a fourth. Food. Bus fare. Booze. Who knows what else.
The walk took us across the I-75 bridge to what I will euphemistically call "the other side of the tracks." The imposing buildings of downtown Detroit were replaced by weeds, graffiti, boarded-up storefronts and guys hanging out in front of liquor stores.
As we were entering the car of Justin's cousin, a man started walking up to us very quickly. When we (just as quickly) got into the car and closed the doors, he turned around and walked away.
The moral of the story: if at all possible, leave the area around Comerica when everyone else is leaving. If you don't, walk back to your car in groups. If you are part of an all-female group, I suggest a minimum of four people. Walking with one woman and two other guys, I didn't feel totally safe. And this was during daylight hours.

Overall impressions
It's nice to see Detroit baseball alive again. It's a good baseball town with a rich history. Comerica itself is worthy of a winning club, but I just wonder what type of gridlock nightmare is going to occur in October when baseball fever reaches its climax in Detroit.
Something tells me officials from the Tigers and Detroit are going to have to revise some of their practices after the Tigers' playoff run.


Sussman said...

With you on the parking.

Jamie Walker got such a huge couple of outs that game, I'm suprised more credit hasn't been given to him, the longest tenured pitcher on the Tiger staff.

Vince said...

You should have gone to the Town Pump Tavern (
Tiger Stadium really was a lot like Municipal Stadium, which was part of its appeal to me, anyway. That neighborhood was a little scarier than the one abutting Comerica Park.
I was really fortunate last time I went to Comerica...found a meter spot right by the Opera House and walked there. It cost 25 cents to park (I must lead a good life)