Taking her out to the ballgame

Here’s an essay I wrote for the “How We Summer Now” issue of the Weekend Post.

Originally published in National Post on Saturday, June 28, 2010

By Brad Frenette, Weekend Post

Driving through Detroit on the I-75 is an emotional experience. Like the many heavyweights it’s produced, Detroit stands as it always has, thick- chested and muscular. And you can’t help but root for it, this city of industry filled with dents and broken parts, but hopeful. Gloves up, the possibility of greatness still there.

You could always feel that spirit at the corner of Michigan and Trumbell, in the city’s oldest neighbourhood, Corktown. Once, a giant stood there, a bricked white and navy blue stadium, a ballpark in the truest sense: trash-talkers and hard seats, a floor sticky with Strohs beer and cracked peanut shells. Here, vendors called and old men kept the boxscore. In the 1980s, when I would come across the border from Windsor to root, root, root for the home team (and yes, despite a thin river and a tunnel fare, Detroit was the home team), the Tigers were in full stride. This defined summer: nine innings in the hot sun, sitting in the $4 uppers. Or taking the tunnel bus into Corktown on a cool night, watching the moon rise over the stadium, this legendary former house of Ty Cobb, Hal Newhouser and Willie Horton.

Back then we ate hot dogs, the original Ball Park Franks. Some nights we would listen in on our Walkmans, watching the action as the golden oak voice of the late Ernie Harwell called the game. We watched Trammel turn two with ease, and Kirk Gibson and, later, Cecil Fielder punish fastballs to the sides of that flagpole in centre field, without having to question if it was steroids pushing that ball onwards.

If it rained, the team played harder, and if it rained hard, we went home.

It was pure. Pure summer.

A few years later came the Toronto Blue Jays. Not that they weren’t there all along (or at least since 1977). All of a sudden they were hard for a kid from Windsor to ignore. A Canadian team was winning, but beyond that, there was this new stadium. The Skydome. It was a modern marvel, the first of its kind.

If it rained there, they just closed the sky.

It was a game changer. In an upper deck filled with seats of well-shaped plastic, I sat tethered between the old and the new. Between Detroit and Toronto.

Summers suddenly got confusing, as they do during adolescence. Then 1992 came, and I was ignoring Ernie Harwell on the radio, trying to catch all the action of the pennant race in Toronto. Who to root for? My heart was with the Tigers, but then there was Tom Cheek’s World Series call for the Jays, one of the all time greats: “Touch ’em all Joe! You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life!”

The last game was played at Tiger Stadium in September 1999, just a short time after I made the move to Toronto. It had been years since I’d been to the old ballpark. Much had changed. Ernie Harwell had been fired. A new owner brought additions to the stadium: a luxury section with padded seats (the Tiger Den), and a new food court offering a bevy of alternatives to franks and peanuts.

The game had changed, too. The 1994 Major League strike resulted in the first cancellation of a World Series since 1904. And the 1998 home run race between sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire, exciting as it was for fans, now serves as the welcome mat for the steroid era.

By the turn of the new millennium, Tiger Stadium served as a sad symbol. It seemed each time you went past it, more bits had been taken out of it. The campaign to keep the stadium, championed by Ernie Harwell, worked hard to keep a piece of it there, but despite being home to baseball since the 19th century, the demolition of the stadium was completed last September.

The Tigers have a new US$300-million stadium. It’s beautiful. Tucked in between two churches in the heart of downtown, it has one of the largest scoreboards in the majors, and boasts “Monument Park” – statues of Cobb and Newhouser and Horton. But Comerica Park is filled with the new: frozen daiquiris and deli sandwiches, a working carousel, ferris wheel and a brilliant “liquid” fireworks show.

These combine to show a new Detroit. New possibilities. A new summer, if you will.

Though as Sam Shepard said, “There’s always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself.” And I think that’s what makes me long for the old stadium, because that was when the game wasn’t competing against sponsors or controversy, and it was easy to “reckon with yourself,” glove in hand, as a fan of the game.

All of that isn’t to say I’m no longer a baseball fan. I can see the Rogers Centre from my home. I can hear the bullhorns when one of the Jays hit a home run, and there’s an excitement each time. At a game recently, there was a moment of baseball past: An elderly couple watched the details, filling out the box score. A few seats over, a man barehanded a foul ball, and gave it to the closest kid he could find. Among that, though, new experiences, too, such as “Twittering Tuesdays,” in which fans can use the popular social networking service to interact with a member of the Jays brass. “Baseball is a conversation sport,” Rob Jack, the team’s manager ofpromotions and fan activation, tells me. “Twitter extends that conversation.”

I’m finding a new season in that space between the old and the new. I bring my own child to the games now, and watch the wonder on her face when the bat cracks and the ball screams toward the fences. She’s pleased to meet the Jays official, enthusiastic mascot, Ace (who has his own Twitter account). On Saturdays, before the game, she can get her face painted Blue Jay blue, and she’s just fine to wait up to an hour after the game ends for a chance to get onto the field and run the bases. Standing there, watching her, I know that this is pure. Her summer is hers, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Sure, the game has changed, but there’s still that emotional experience. Possibilities of greatness.

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