Monday, June 20, 2016

Safe at home

The author and his daughter, Katherine Brown, at Detroit's historic Navin Field. 

After living in California for nearly 40 years, longtime Tigers fan and Navin Field Grounds Crew member Robert Howe proves you can go home again.


BY ROBERT HOWE


Home. 

A single word that conjures up so many things. It could be the home where we grew up or that special place where we felt our most comfortable, our home away from home. 

From the late 1950s through the late 1970's, I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. 

In 1965 when I was just 7, my dad, Ernie Howe, introduced me to the game of baseball — Detroit Tigers baseball at Tiger Stadium. I knew that very day that I'd discovered my home away from home. 

Holding my dad's hand, we walked through the tunnels behind the stands, passing the concession stands, walking up the ramp, and it at was this moment that my world changed forever! Up until then, my only view of the ballpark had been in black-and-white, on TV in our living room.

Now, here I was in this cathedral of baseball. I couldn't get over how green everything was. From the wooden seats, to the facade, but most of all the emerald green of the grass. It started in front of home plate, then seemed to go on forever! I watched in amazement as a group of men ran out onto the field, each of them carrying the biggest brooms I had ever seen. Then in unison, they began to sweep the infield dirt in what can only be described as a baseball ballet. It became a goal of mine to one day groom that very infield.

Little did I know.

Built in 1895 at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, the first baseball structure on the site was called Bennett Park, named after former Tigers catcher Charlie Bennett. The initial structure was built out of wood, and the first professional game was played there on April 28, 1896 (My dad's birthday was April 28, 1919).

In 1911, because of the concern of fire, Detroit Tigers owner Frank Navin demolished the original
ballpark and erected a new concrete-and-steel structure. After Navin died in 1935, new owner Walter Briggs remodeled and expanded the ballpark into what most of us remember today. 

The stadium was completely enclosed, with the flagpole located in left-center field, the only flagpole in Major League Baseball in play. In 1961, broadcasting magnate John Fetzer bought the team from the Briggs family and changed the name to Tiger Stadium, the name it would remain until its demolition in 2009.

After that first game in 1965, my dad and I (and sometimes my mom) spent many summer days at
"The Corner." 1968 was a magical year! After losing the pennant by one game in 1967, the year Detroit was devastated by the riots, the Tigers helped to heal the city in 1968, winning their first pennant in 23 years, going on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series coming back from a three games to one deficit! 




It would be another 16 years before the Tigers would win another world championship. The 1984 Tigers roared out of the gate with a 35-5 start, eventually beating the San Diego Padres in the World Series four games to one.

The Tigers won the American League East in 1987, but were eliminated in the first round of playoffs. It would be the last time Tiger Stadium would host a postseason series. 




There's a line in the movie A League of Their Own when the manager played by Tom Hanks says, "There's no crying in baseball!"


The Tigers played their final game at The Corner to a sellout crowd on September 27, 1999. That day, there was crying in baseball. 


In 2009, after the stadium sat abandoned for nearly 10 years, the City of Detroit tore it down, tearing out the hearts of Tigers fans everywhere. 2010 saw the passing of Hall of Fame and longtime Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. 

Ernie was the voice of the baseball in Detroit, beginning in 1960, up until his retirement in 2002.

A week after Ernie's passing, a Detroit mailman named Tom Derry drove to the vacant lot where Tiger Stadium once stood to play a game of catch in Ernie's memory. What Tom found, instead of that beautiful emerald green diamond, was a neglected patch of weeds and nine acres of garbage. 

But instead of crying, Tom decided to take it upon himself, along with the help of his fiancee, Sarah, and his new friends Dave Mesrey and Joe Michnuk, to cut the weeds, mow the grass, and pick up the trash.

The Navin Field Grounds Crew was born that day. 

For the next six years, Tom and his merry band of volunteers showed up every Sunday at the site of historic Tiger Stadium, mowing, weeding, and picking up the pesky trash, bringing a diamond back from the rough.

My wife, Sheilagh, and I first heard about this dedicated group of volunteers while living in Northern
California in 2011. The memories came flooding back. 

Even though I moved from Michigan in 1978 when my dad retired after 30 years with a local building contractor, my allegiance for the Tigers never wavered. I never became a Dodgers, Angels, Athletics, or Padres fan the entire time. 

In 2009 I started to get homesick for the place where I grew up. In 2012, our youngest daughter, Katherine (born in 1984, the year of the Tigers' last world championship, she didn't stand a chance; the Tigers are in her DNA), treated her dad to a wonderful trip to Detroit, attending our first Tigers game together at Comerica Park.

We watched the Tigers sweep a four-game series against the Cleveland Indians. We both wanted to
visit Navin Field, site of historic Tiger Stadium, so I could show her where I watched games growing up. We walked from our hotel to "The Corner" bringing our gloves, a couple of balls, and my Al Kaline bat. One of the best days of my life. (Katherine would later gift me with an amazing book of memories from our trip.) I knew then, standing on that field, that I needed to come home.

My wife, (the best in the world) didn't hesitate when I asked her if she would move to Michigan.
July 27, 2013, two moving trucks, three dogs, a house we had purchased sight unseen (albeit for a
few online photos and an inspection by my childhood friend Fred Makowski), we came home!

After a month of working on the house, my honey and I took the weekend off because I wanted to
take Sheilagh down to the old ballpark. Several members of NFGC were there. We introduced
ourselves, and we were immediately welcomed by Tom Derry himself as if we'd known each other for years. (That's the way Tom is with everyone he meets.)

I asked Tom if I could grab a broom and help out, fulfilling that almost 50-year-old memory, to sweep the infield at Tiger Stadium. Tom said, "Of course!" 

I don't know who had the biggest smile that day, myself or my sweet wife, who knows how much I love baseball. My wife had become a Tigers fan (how could she not?), amazing me every day with her growing knowledge of not only the game but the history of the Detroit Tigers. We both knew that day that coming home was the right decision. 

This field was our "refuge" from the rest of the world, to quote Ernie Harwell. It was not only the energy of the field, fueled by the memories of all of the baseball heroes who had played on her, it was combined with the energy of this magnificent group of unselfish people, who took care of her on their own dime, never asking for donations.

To paraphrase the James Earl Jones speech in Field of Dreams, "People will come, Tom. They'll come to Michigan for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past."

"Of course, we won't mind if you have a look around," you'll say. "It's only twenty dollars per person." They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack."



But unlike the movie, Tom has never asked for a dime. The crew's budget has largely come out of Tom's pocket, expecting nothing in return. Yet, people have offered money to pay for gas or a broom or a rake, because this very special place means so much to them. 


2013 saw the premiere of Stealing Home the award-winning documentary about the NFGC.

Director Jason Roche spent over two years, nearly every weekend, shooting footage of not only the grounds crew, but also filming memories of the hundreds of visitors who make the weekly trek to a very special place in their hearts and minds. 

Jason's film brought so much attention to the field and the Grounds Crew, that the hundreds of weekly visitors turned into thousands from all over the world! 

Jason, we cannot thank you enough for your huge contribution of love.

In 2014, Sheilagh and I were honored to attend the wedding of Tom and Sarah Derry on the very field Tom brought back to life. Vintage baseball returned to the corner, playing by the original rules laid out for the game, and officiated by Michael “Preacher” Copado. 

So very fitting for a place with its rich history of the game. Then there were all the pickup games that occurred at a moment's notice when groups of people arrived at the field. Total strangers with a common bond, getting together to "have a catch" because of their love of this wonderful, magical place. People taking pictures on the mound, or at home plate, or from their baseball hero's position. 

Others have brought their loved ones' ashes, scattering them on the field because it was either the request of that loved one, or the field meant so much to the person who was scattering the ashes, because this was where they and their loved one spent so much time together, at their home away from home.

For the last two and a half years (which has seemed like mere minutes), my honey and I have made
the one-hour trip south to the Motor City, bringing our love and affection to not only that beautiful
nine acres of hallowed ground, but to that wonderful family called the Navin Field Grounds Crew, and that love and affection has been returned to us a thousand fold. 

To Tom and Sarah Derry, words cannot express how much your friendship means to us. 

To Joe, Andorra, Rick, Mickey, John, Adam, Angemala, Bill, Baseline Bob, Bart, Dave, Laura, Donald, and Erik ... thank you for accepting us into the family. 

We don't know what the future holds for us at "The Corner," but no matter where we go and what we do to preserve and save another baseball legend in the Detroit area, we'll always have our memories of this wonderful place and, most importantly, we'll always be the Navin Field Ground Crew.

Thanks to Tom Derry, the people have come. 
They've all come home.


Left to right: NFGC's Rick DeLorme, Sheilagh Howe, and Robert Howe.

6 comments:

  1. I lived in Michigan the year the Tigers one (68)...the state went crazy....People in the streets dancing shouting and just enjoying the win..... I didn't grow up in Michigan but I sure do miss it....!!! Rob love your story and love following your experiences.....thank you for sharing....I close my eyes sometimes and pretend "I'm in your gang"....thanks...

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