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Ghosts of Michigan & Trumbull

This is the fifth installment of the Detroit Stories series. If you haven’t already done so, check out the background of Detroit Stories  and the the first four installments: an interns take on Detroit, Motown to Manhattan, Becoming a Detroiter and a woman who wants the Motor City.

This is a guest post by Nick Nerbonne. I met Nick through Twitter and mutual friends. Since then, we've hung out in Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Crystal Mountain and Detroit.

Nick Nerbonne is an online marketing specialist, outdoor enthusiast and Detroit sports fan living in Traverse City. Get in touch with Nick at

Before Detroit was Hockeytown. Before the Detroit Lions played the first Thanksgiving Day NFL game. Long before Detroit had an NBA basketball team. Detroit was a baseball town. Thanks to our beloved Tigers, it still is.

There’s plenty of excitement in Tiger Town—and throughout Michigan—right now, and with good reason. There’s October baseball in Downtown Detroit once again, with the Tigers in the ALCS in the midst of a tough battle for the right to play in the World Series.

Seeing the Old English ‘D’ under the lights in prime time has brought back memories of previous Octobers and of an unexpected brush with Detroit Tigers history that I experienced this summer.

Tiger Stadium as it stood in 2009.I was in downtown Detroit for an event this past July and decided to grab some lunch at Slow’s Bar-B-Q. Driving down Michigan Avenue toward Corktown, I passed Nemo’s and knew a certain intersection was approaching. “The Corner.”

I’d heard Ernie Harwell say it countless times on the radio. Any baseball fan in the state of Michigan over 20-years-old knows exactly what it means. The corner of Michigan & Trumbull. The former home of Tiger Stadium.

I drove slowly as I passed, looking at the iron fence that surrounds the now-empty lot where one of the cathedrals of the game once stood. I couldn’t help but feel the sadness at its absence while recalling so many fond memories there.

As a young boy, fortunate timing put us in the stands of a sold-out Tiger Stadium for Mark Fidrych’s return to the mound after a year off due to injury. Several years later, my dad, brother and I sat in the right field upper deck for Game 5 of the ’84 series as Sweet Lou, Trammell, Gibby, Willie Hernandez and the rest of that great ’84 team cemented their place among baseball’s best. Those and other visions of the grand, old structure surrounding a perfect green baseball field flashed by.

But there was no baseball at The Corner today. Or so I thought.

I walked into Slow’s, sat down at the bar and ordered up a beer and a combo platter with brisket, chicken and pulled pork with a side of mac n’ cheese. Seated next to me were two gentlemen about my dad’s age. We said hello and the conversation turned to baseball.

The two Grand Rapids residents regularly make the drive to Detroit to attend Tiger games at Comerica Park. On almost every trip, they have lunch at Slow’s before the game. We reminisced a bit about games we’d seen at the old ballpark and the history of one of baseball’s classic venues. The ’68 Series. The ’84 Series. All of the legends of the game that played there.

“In fact,” one of the gentlemen said, “we often see guys playing pickup baseball down at the old Tiger Stadium.” Pickup baseball? At Tiger Stadium? I was intrigued. I was told that a group of locals gathered on summer afternoons to play pickup games on the old diamond, which is still intact. “Too bad they’re not out there today,” he said.

I finished my meal and hopped back in the car to head back to northern Michigan. As I approached The Corner once again, I noticed some activity. There were several cars parked along Michigan Avenue. Inside the fence, baseballs were being tossed back and forth. I pulled a quick u-turn and parked behind the line of cars.

Next to an open gate hung a sign: “Ernie Harwell Park.” I walked through the gate and onto the field, now more of a sandlot than a manicured lawn. Walking toward the group of ballplayers playing catch and warming up, I was unprepared and a bit surprised at what happened next.

I stepped onto a mowed area that surrounded the original diamond. To a lifelong Tigers fan, this was hallowed ground.

There was the first base line where Kaline, Greenberg, Ruth and Mantle had run.

Over there was the third base line, where Cobb, Williams, Mays and Robinson rounded third on their way home.

Between them was the pitcher’s mound, where Morris, McLain and Josh Gibson had set records and wowed crowds.

Out there once stood the right field light towers, where Reggie Jackson hit a towering fly ball in the ’71 All Star Game.

In front of me was home plate, where Lance Parrish caught so many games in my childhood, and where Lou Gherig handed the lineup card to the umpire to end his legendary streak.

The memories and emotions came flooding in with every step. I was walking into history. It was a direct connection with some of my best childhood memories.

The crack of the bat and the ball flying toward us through the night sky. Jumping to our feet in the upper deck in right field as the ball landed only a few rows away. Gibby rounding second and the iconic image of his fist in the air after his second home run of the night. The look and sound of a sold-out stadium erupting with cheers. My dad lifting me up in celebration as we knew the Tigers would win the World Series. A dream come true for a kid still of Little League age.

I was talking out loud as I approached home plate, expressing my astonishment at standing where the legends that defined baseball had stood. The original home plate was gone but I stood in the batters box and took a few warm-up swings with an imaginary bat.

One of the ball players started hitting ground balls to a few others scattered around the infield while I chatted with a couple of guys nearby. They get together at what’s left of the old ballpark to keep the game alive at a place where it’s been played for over a hundred years. There were no dugouts, no bleachers, no crowds, no hot dog vendors, no ball boys. Just baseball in its purest form.

I smiled, shook a few hands and thanked them before walking back across the field and through the gate. They didn’t know it, but they—and the ghosts of Michigan & Trumbull—had provided me with another reason for this “northerner” to feel connected to this great city.

Follow Nick on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (6)

What a great moment, Nick! That's so cool that you heard about it in Slows and when you left people were playing. Hope you always feel connected to this city.

p.s. I also like that you admit your u-turn here in writing. Further proof of your not-so-law-abiding driving skills. ;)

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElena

Another fantastic life moment so capably captured by a great man and friend. You brought tears to my eyes, Nick, as well as memories of my own visits to Tiger Stadium and reminders of that fantastic '84 season. Much love and appreciation to you and your clarity of prose - always! Julie

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. J

One of my favorite childhood memories is my dad and grandpa sitting in lawnchairs in the backyard shade, each with a Carling Black Label, listening to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey. I can still here Ernie saying "... at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull". Thanks for sharing your amazing (World Series!) childhood memories.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Haha... still making excuses for your poor navigating skills, Elena? :) And, yes, I did pause as I was writing this, but I felt it had to be authentic. Plus Michigan Ave. is plenty wide for a u-turn. Appreciate the kind words.

Julie - Wow, thanks! It was hard to put into words the emotions I experienced that day. So many memories and a knowledge of the storied history passed down by my dad all contributed. Much more than a visit to an old baseball field, to be sure.

Jen - Ernie is a big part of this story, as he was as much a part of the Tigers as The Corner or Ty Cobb. He's a legend who won't be forgotten. Thanks for sharing your memories, and for your kind words.

October 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Nerbonne

I miss "the corner" and I love Detroit so much, even though I no longer live there, Detroit goes with me wherever I roam! And Go Detroit Lions!!!

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