Remembering the final weekend at Tiger Stadium

The stands are illuminated with flashes as fans take photos of what they expect to be the final pitch at Tiger Stadium.

This article originally appeared in The Freeman’s Journal in September of 1999.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Such is the genius of Shakespeare, that even now, half a millennium later, no one has said it much better. The sentence above perfectly expresses how fans of the Detroit Tigers felt last Monday when ancient Tiger Stadium, opened in 1912, hosted its last major league baseball game.

On the one hand, the Tigers, the city of Detroit, and the fans pulled out all the stops and orchestrated a fantastic farewell ceremony. On the other hand, there was no denying the mixed emotions that many fans felt upon coming to the venerable old ballpark for the last time.

Not only was Tiger Stadium opened in 1912, but the site upon which it was built has held professional baseball continuously since 1896, making it most likely the one pro sports venue in America with the longest tenure. This is the place where Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes and ran headlong into the record books and the rolls of legend. This is the place where, on May 2nd, 1939, a mystified Lou Gehrig removed himself from the lineup, unable to comprehend as yet the ravages of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the progressive neuromuscular disease which would come to bear his name, after playing in an inconceivable 2130 consecutive games for the New York Yankees. This is the place where Hank Greenberg, powerful Tiger slugger and prominent Jew, reflected that every time he hit a homer, he came to feel that he was hitting it against Hitler. Little wonder he felt that way, as throughout the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin was regularly broadcasting his anti-Semitic rhetoric across the airwaves from nearby Royal Oak.

This is the place where the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series, on October 14, 1908, and where they played in their last World Series, in 1945, losing to the Tigers. This is the place where the Tigers won the World Series in 1935, 1945, 1968, and 1984. This is the place where Denny McLain was the last pitcher to win 30 games, in 1968. Mark Fidrych took this ballpark, and the baseball world, by storm in 1976, going 19-9 as a 21-year-old rookie, wearing his emotions on his funny face and talking to the ball. This is the place where Kirk Gibson slammed two homers in the fifth and deciding game of the 1984 World Series, burying the Padres and making the venerable Sparky Anderson, baseball’s Yoda, the only manager to win the World Series in both leagues. Mark McGwire hit his first home run here on August 25, 1986.

In addition to the immortals Cobb and Greenberg, this park was the home of Hall-of-Famers like Charlie Gehringer, “The Mechanical Man ,” a master craftsman at second base and the holder of a lifetime .320 batting average. The right field corner of Tiger Stadium was christened “Kaline’s Corner,” after Al Kaline, who won ten gold gloves out there, while racking up 3, 007 career hits and being selected to the All-Star team fifteen times. The pride of Wahoo, Nebraska, Sam Crawford lit up the basepaths here, stealing 366 bases and piling up the all time lead in triples, with 311. Hometown boy Hal Newhouser won the MVP award here in 1944 and 1945, leading the league each time in wins and posting e.r.a.s of 1.81 and 1.94. Mickey Cochrane, Heinie Manush, George Kell, Harry Heilmann and many others wore the old English D on their uniforms here.

I have always been drawn to ballparks, particularly old ones. It may be that as a Cub fan, ancient Wrigley Field is my template for an ideal ballpark. Nevertheless, as the 1999 season dawned, I had never been to Tiger Stadium, two years older than Wrigley. I’d always liked the Tigers’ uniforms, with that big old English D, even though I am predominantly a National League fan. For Cub fans, it was very easy to root for the Tigers in the 1984 World Series, since the McDonald’s owned San Diego Padres had just deflated the Cubs in the NLCS, winning the final three games after the Cubs took the first two. As a matter of fact, I refused to eat at the golden arches for three full years after that debacle, until a very large Big Mac attack finally overwhelmed me. Not only Cub fans had lost something; for baseball traditionalists, the thought of a World Series involving Tiger Stadium and Wrigley Field was compelling, and many thought the Cubs would have given the powerful Tigers a better run for their money.

A year and a half or so ago, my brother, who works for General Motors, was transferred to Detroit. My first two reactions were that he and his family would be closer to me, and that perhaps I’d get to see Tiger Stadium. My first visit to their home was last Christmas, hardly a time to see a baseball game. So when my sister-in-law wrote that tickets for the last game ever in Tiger Stadium were selling fast, I got on the Internet and bought a passel of tickets for the final four-game homestand against the Kansas City Royals on September 24-27. The Wiles family would have a reunion, with my Mom and Dad, as well as my younger brother and his wife, coming in from Peoria while I drove in from Cooperstown.

Detroit is about a five hundred mile drive from here, if you go up through Canada. While you lose a few minutes sitting in customs lines twice, the traffic thins out up there, and the trip flies by quickly, especially since all the distances are posted in kilometers, giving the American traveler used to miles the illusion that he is really flying along. While I made the return trip in one sitting, the trip to Detroit needed to be punctuated by an overnight stay, and so I pulled in to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, and its wonderfully appointed Holiday Inn.

While in town for one evening, I picked up the local paper to learn that the previous day, the St. Catherine’s Stompers, a class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, had been sold to the New York Mets, who are moving the team to Brooklyn to serve as one of their farm teams. The papers were full of shock, surprise, a little anger, and a lot of resignation. It struck me as a microcosmic example of the large, difficult to understand economic forces which are shaping baseball these days.

Long established team in antiquated stadium is drawing few fans. Renovation or upgrade is either architecturally unfeasible or economically undesirable. Build a new ballpark or lose the team. It was a minor league version of what the Tigers had gone through, though the outcomes were different. The Tigers weren’t moving to a new “market,” the business euphemism for city, but rather to a new marketplace, where they could sell a more diverse product line. In addition to ballgames, hot dogs, and Tiger tradition, the Tigers would now be able to sell a new, clean and safe family atmosphere, gleaming new furnishings, and most of all, corporate luxury boxes, the high-rent bunkers which drive much of the baseball business these days. In order to compete with other clubs, the Tigers had to generate similar amounts and types of revenue. It just wasn’t possible to do so in a park with no luxury boxes, and so they were moving to Comerica Park, a new stadium named after a local bank, for the 2000 season.

It is hoped, by both the Tigers and this writer, that Detroit will embrace Comerica Park. It is a state-of-the-art baseball palace, with all the bells and whistles which have become commonplace since the Baltimore Orioles built their new, old-looking ballpark early in this decade. It is located on the edge of downtown, a mile or so closer to the action than Tiger Stadium, and planners hope that it will lead an era of urban renewal, as the parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, and elsewhere have done. It is, of course, ironic that these new parks seek to recreate the intimacy and uniqueness of the classic old parks like Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, and yes, Tiger Stadium. But the forces motivating the builders are beyond our sense of irony and loss. They feel that they are doing what must be done to save the team. We go along because we love the team and the game.

I was not long for St. Catherine’s. I clipped the articles on the Stompers demise, to be filed at the Hall of Fame Library, and headed on through Ontario. After a pleasant morning’s drive, I pulled into my brother’s home in the northern suburbs, and came in to greet the family. Within an hour, we were headed downtown to “The Corner,” the affectionate nickname for the corner of Michigan and Trumbull Streets, the address of Tiger Stadium. As we entered the ballpark, the late afternoon sun was bathing it in an autumnal glow. It was to be the 6,870th big league game the old park had hosted, and an air of sweetness hung over the place. “Here we go again,” she seemed to sigh, with a mixture of pleasure and weariness.

We were seated that evening in the upper deck in right field, just along the foul line. These are among the most unique seats in baseball, since the first four or five rows of the upper deck actually hang over the field of play. Suspended in mid-air, it is difficult to find a place in the game where one feels more a part of the action. Great seats. Well worth a five hundred mile drive for any true baseball fan. The strange configuration is the result of the fact that a street runs right behind the park, and in order to build a grandstand, some wedging was required. Today’s new ballparks all have crazy twists and angles in the outfield fences. In the 1960s, the so-called “cookie cutter” era of stadium construction, these quirks were thought to be undesirable. There was a feeling in the air that the game should be standardized. Now, the old angles are back, this time not caused by a city’s geometry, by but fans’ nostalgia. Just wanted you to know there was at one point a compelling reason for these unusual fixtures to exist.

The game on the field was interesting, though the Tigers eventually lost by several runs. My brother Jim and his son Joe shared an entire Little Caesar’s pepperoni pizza with me, while reflecting on the odd coincidence that the Tigers two most recent owners had been the men who owned the Little Caesar’s, and before that, Domino’s pizza companies. After the game we watched in amazement as the grounds crew set up a massive fireworks display on four trailers in center field. The fireworks spectacular lasted for a good thirty minutes following the game, and was a great way to usher in a weekend-long celebration of the old ballpark. The next day, we were astonished to find nary a mark on the centerfield grass from the night before.

The next sporting venue I visited, on Saturday morning, was Borden Park, where my eight-year-old niece Alison and her younger brother Joe had back-to-back soccer games. The large suburban program was impressive for several reasons, notably the skill and knowledge level of the young players. Soccer, which once seemed like a boring game of following the fastest guy with the ball to me, can be a beautiful and exciting game when played and coached well. Alison scored a goal as her team won, while that morning Joe’s team went down to defeat. But the next day, Joe and his team came back, with two goals by my nephew. It was exciting stuff, and the perfect prelude to an evening trip to Tiger Stadium for a four p.m. start with ten members of the family present.

Each day of the final series featured unique tributes, and this evening’s was that former Tiger players were stationed at the entrances to greet fans. It was a nice touch, though difficult because of today’s autograph mania. Moving forty thousand people into an antiquated ballpark is difficult enough without each one stopping to ask why they can’t have an autograph. Luckily, there was an autograph booth inside the main concourse, staffed by recent Tiger greats Bill Freehan and Mickey Lolich. My favorite of the running tributes was the “Tiger Names Project.” Each of the 1,316 players in Detroit Tiger history was acknowledged on a video on the centerfield scoreboard, which ran before each game. Both celebrities and average fans had been drafted to read out a player’s name, position, and years of Tiger service. It seems to this reporter that this sort of massive name project began to be fashionable after the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, which lists the names of all the service men and women who gave their lives in that war. I really like these sorts of things, both because they are all inclusive, and because they give to the average viewer a sense of the vastness of that which is being honored.

For our family, as we nestled into lower deck seats in the left field corner, it was not a Tiger player who came to mind, but one of the many thousands to have visited Tiger Stadium in a visitor’s uniform. My great-grandfather, Ben Caffyn, played twelve seasons in the minor leagues, and thirty games for the Cleveland Naps of the American League in 1906. Injuries to the Cleveland roster brought Ben up from Des Moines of the Western League during the last week of August. By mid-September, the Naps were in Detroit for a three game series against the Tigers, who featured future Hall-of-Famers Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford. The Cleveland roster featured three Hall-of-Famers-to-be, Addie Joss, Elmer Flick, and their eponymous player-manager, Nap Lajoie.

Bennett Park, the earlier park which stood where Tiger Stadium would be built, was oriented slightly differently than Tiger Stadium. What had been home plate in Bennett Park would become the right field corner in Tiger Stadium. So, our seats in the left field corner of Tiger Stadium were bathed in the same late-summer sun which Ben Caffyn patrolled in September, 1906, as he played left field for all three games. If a ball was hit into the left center gap, our great grandfather would have been after it, right about where we were now sitting. The second-division Tigers won the first two games in exciting, one-run fashion, with the 3rd-place Naps coming back to win the finale. For the record, Caffyn got one single and scored one run in the grand old park, and caught four fly balls out in left.

As the sun set gently, the slight chance of rain held off Saturday night, and the family enjoyed a Tiger victory as the three young children behaved beautifully and enjoyed themselves. Nephew Joe continued to show an intelligent aptitude for the game at age six, following the game with great attention, and learning to keep a scorecard as well. The ballpark was packed again, and the festive mood of Tiger fans continued.

The next day, Sunday, featured a one p.m. start. My brother David and I left for the stadium around ten, and spent a couple of hours wandering the neighborhood and doing a long lap around the stadium before the game. We were met later by dad and David’s wife Kerri and we took extremely sunny seats in the centerfield bleachers and watched the Tigers win again. We sat behind a lady who’d been coming to Tiger Stadium for 67 years, since 1932. The good natured crowd tossed beach balls in the air, chanted, and frequently broke into “The Wave.”

After the game, David and Kerri departed south for Peoria, while dad and I listened to the post-game show on WJR as we headed back out to the suburbs. It was special to hear Tiger pitcher Dave Borkowski, a native of Detroit, talk to venerable broadcaster Ernie Harwell about growing up in Detroit and going to Tiger Stadium as a kid. Also special was Harwell explaining to the fans that tomorrow’s finale for the old Stadium would not, could not be the end for him. He began broadcasting Tiger games 39 years ago, and coined the term “The Corner” to refer to the ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. No, Harwell and several other old-timers, including, if I am not mistaken, 1930s Tiger pitching star Eldon Auker, and Jo Gehringer, the lovely widow of Charlie Gehringer, planned to go out to lunch on Tuesday, and then to let themselves into the ballpark in mid-afternoon, take seats near the field, and soak in the sun and the spirits, sounds, memories, and ghosts of the then-silent stadium.

But first, there was a final game to play. Though rain was a possibility, the day dawned bright and clear, and remained so all day and evening. The game was scheduled to start at four p.m., but your reporter was on hand by eleven a.m., to revel in the sun and the atmosphere, which was described as “festive, but sorrowful,” by a reporter on the radio as I approached the stadium. The fans, who love the Tigers and their old stadium, had read all the economic details about replacing Tiger Stadium, and had resigned themselves that an era was ending. During the 1980s, the team repeatedly expressed an interest in a new facility, but for one reason or another, never got it built. There was an active Tiger Stadium Preservation Society, which worked to draw up architectural plans to save and renovate the stadium, and which had a wide membership, published newsletters (available in the Hall of Fame Library), and even twice staged massive Tiger Stadium Hugs, in which a human circle hand-in-hand surrounded the park with both their bodies and their good will.

But the fight was over, the new park was rising a mile away, and today was a day to celebrate the 6,873rd and final game at The Corner. I thought I was arriving early, five hours before game time, but there were ten thousand people already milling around the park, buying souvenirs, taking photos, and sharing stories of Tiger Stadium by the time I got there. The mood among the fans was festive and celebratory, though certainly bittersweet. There were no protests and no unruly behavior. Fan Mike Jeffas, of Warwick, NY, who calls himself the ultimate baseball closer, having attended the final Met Game at the Polo Grounds and then nine other stadium finales, said that instead of a funeral, “This is more like an Irish wake. It’s a celebration of life instead of a death.”

After hanging out for a while outside, I entered the press gate and experienced the distinct pleasure, for the first time, of covering a big-league baseball game. For an hour I walked the concourses and sat in various seats, finding only the company of a few other reporters and many ushers, food service workers (some of whom had been imported from Cleveland’s Jacobs Field for the busy final homestand), and many security personnel. The ballpark slowly came alive, the air became filled with the scent of cooking sausages, hot dogs, and pizza, and the field filled up with media crews and a few players warming up.

On the field before the game, the media mostly took souvenir photos of one another, sitting in the dugouts, standing behind the plate. Smiles were warm among both the veteran Detroit media and the more than 800 other journalists, from as far away as Europe, Japan, and Jerusalem, who’d come to see the old ball park out. Every once in a while, a Tiger player would come out to do an interview, mostly talking with genuine emotion about a park they would remember fondly. Alan Trammell and Cecil Fielder were there, as was Kimera Bartee, a current centerfielder with the team. As the park filled up with fans, Bartee squatted near third base, scooping up dirt. As many other players later would confess they had done, Bartee was filling a few film canisters with souvenir dirt from the playing field. Once he had all he could carry, he walked over to the rail and tossed them to fans, then stayed to sign autographs for a while. It was that kind of day.

Tiger reliever Doug Brocail flew his father Ray in from Colorado to play catch with him. “I just want to play catch with my father on this field before they close the place. Without his help, I wouldn’t be here.”

The pregame ceremony featured speeches by the mayor, the governor, the Tiger management, and the great Al Kaline. Kaline’s memorable speech began with his first visit to the stadium in 1953, as a 19-year-old player recruited straight off the sandlots of Baltimore. The guards refused to let him in, as he looked too young to be the newest Tiger. Now, 46 years later, Kaline spoke eloquently about his love for the ballpark, and how the day’s events had him feeling “humbled and overwhelmed.” He remarked on the place’s “character, charm, and history,” but, sounding the sweetest note of the weekend, a note repeated often by commentators and fans, Kaline noted that it was the family memories that people have of the park which were “the cement” holding the place together. The message was that, win or lose, it was your trips to the old ballpark, with Dad, Mom, your first date, or your own children which would live forever in memory.

Governor John Engler added that, “If there were a Hall of Fame for stadiums, Tiger Stadium would be eligible for immediate entry,” a line which drew great applause. There is an exhibit on ballparks at the Hall of Fame, and Tiger Stadium will be well represented. Hall curators have asked the Tigers for at least two artifacts. First, the signpost from the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. Also, the blue padded panel from the deepest reaches of center field, with the “440” foot distance marker from the plate in white numerals. This piece will be useful in showing fans the shrinking size of big league ballparks over the course of the century. Tiger Stadium was the oldest of big league parks, and its centerfield distance the deepest remaining in 1999 by around thirty feet. The fans want to see home runs, and so the parks continue to shrink.

The first pitch was thrown out by 95-year-old shortstop Billy Rogell, with the club from 1930-39. The oldtimer was clear on his feelings about Tiger Stadium “I hate to see this place go. The first game I played in this park was in 1925. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with this ballpark.” The lineup cards were brought to the plate by Hall-of-Famers Al Kaline for the Tigers and George Brett for the Royals. Both were in uniform, and both were in fighting trim. I heard Brett in an interview a week or so before the game express his desire to appear in uniform, but say that he was waiting for word from Kaline as to whether he planned to wear the old English D again. The two embraced to a tremendous ovation, 6,161 hits between them.

And then the game was on. Tiger starter Brian Moehler stood on the mound facing centerfield, kneeled down to write his late father Fred’s initials in the dirt, and threw the first pitch. The Royals threatened in the first, but didn’t score. Maybe they weren’t supposed to. It wasn’t in the script. Tiger left fielder Luis Polonia led off the bottom of the first with a monstrous home run to deep left center. This was in the script, and the crowd went wild. The game was tightly played, 2-2 until the bottom of the sixth, when Tiger right fielder Karim Garcia homered to put the home team up by 2. The seventh inning stretch was very celebratory and good natured. The Tigers play an instrumental version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” and throughout the homestand, the fans had sung along with gusto. Today, they spontaneously sang an extra verse. The Tigers were ahead by two with two to go. It looked like the stadium would go out as it came in, with a Tiger victory.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Tigers loaded the bases with nobody out. The place was rocking. Rookie Gabe Kapler hit into a fielder’s choice. Bases still loaded. Fans, if you listen closely, you might hear the soft strains of instrumental music from the soundtrack of “The Natural.” Rookie DH Robert Fick stepped up to the plate. His average was .194 since his recent call-up from the minors, where he’d spent an injury-plagued season. The left-handed Fick waited at the plate. The pitcher threw and before we knew what was happening, the ball was sailing high toward the right field line. Would it stay fair? Yes! It hit the roof of the second deck, the same roof made famous when Reggie Jackson homered into its light towers in the 1971 All-Star Game. The roof which had only let 35 home runs escape since it was built. The Roof! A Grand Slam! A rookie? The flashbulbs were intense as he jogged around the bases. What a fitting end for a grand old ballpark! Hollywood could write this no better!

Rookie Fick would reveal some striking things in the post-game interviews. He’d written his junior-year term paper on “The Natural.” Al Kaline had approached him before the game and said “Make a little history tonight, kid. Hit one out.” Manager Lance Parrish had wanted to pinch-hit for him, in order to ensure that more players would get to play in the finale, but Fick convinced him not to do so. Both he and his manager had a feeling. He was wearing uniform number 25, which had belonged to Tiger first baseman and power hitter Norm Cash. All of the Tigers were wearing the uniform numbers of the Tigers all-time greats at their respective positions. Cash hit four balls onto the roof in his day. Fick dedicated the homer to his late father, Charles, who died last November. Perhaps no stadium ever went out with such a memorable, grand hit. The remainder of the game was academic, as Tigers closer Todd Jones retired the side in order in the ninth, flashbulbs popping to a blinding degree.

The Tigers planned and executed a textbook-perfect closing ceremony. Beloved broadcaster Ernie Harwell was master of ceremonies. With the ‘99 Tigers sprawled on the field in front of the dugout like kids at a fireworks show, more than 65 Tiger greats jogged one by one onto the field and took their old positions, from Billy Rogell to Cecil Fielder. The first through the gate was Mark Fidrych, who scooped dirt from the mound for a souvenir in front of 43,356 fans. Willie Horton, Frank Tanana, Jimmy Outlaw, Reno Bertoia, Jim Bunning, Steve Kemp, Jack Morris, Don Lund, Mickey Lolich, Gates Brown, Chet Lemon, George Kell, and many more jogged out, with Kirk Gibson and the keystone combination of Alan Trammel and Sweet Lou Whitaker coming out together for the finale. These two were teammates longer than any other two ballplayers in history.

After they were all on the field, they formed a living timeline from the center field flagpole to home plate. To the gentle strains of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” the Tigers lowered the flag for the last time and passed it all the way down the line. At the end, pitcher Eldon Auker, 1933-1938, passed the flag to current catcher Brad Ausmus., directing him to raise it next year over Comerica Park. The groundskeepers dug up home plate and carted it in a motorcade down one mile to the new park, where the fans watched it installed by three current Tigers. The first to touch the plate at Comerica with their feet were two local little leaguers, Monique and Brian. It was all very well scripted and carried off, but the fans expressed their disapproval with a short but hearty round of boos. They seemed to be saying that today was about Tiger Stadium, not Comerica Park. That’s what the local media in the press box were saying.

Each of the Tiger legends on the field then threw a ball into the stands. And then came the Stadium’s last pitch. George Campbell, great-nephew of Charlie Bennett, the old Tiger catcher (1881-88) after whom Bennett Park was named, threw a ball to Brad Ausmus which will also be used for the first pitch next year. For most of his life, Charlie Bennett caught the first pitch each year at Tiger Stadium.

It was a touching finale, well orchestrated and carried off, and it will be difficult for anyone in attendance to forget it. For many years, ballpark closings have sometimes become dangerous affairs, as fans began tearing the places down after the last pitch. But this did not happen in Detroit. Actually, the stadium belongs not to the ball club but to the city, and plans for its future are not yet agreed upon. It may be torn down, or it may become a city recreational facility. One of the most creative plans calls for its upper deck to be removed, so that it can be restored to what it would have looked like in the early years of Bennett Park, and then for that facility to be used for college and high school baseball. There are ideas to turn it into a health club, condos, or a retail/office space facility. Time will tell. Long time Detroit sportswriter Joe Falls said it best, whatever they do with the facility, “Do it gently.” There is a great love in Detroit for this ballpark, and it was a true thrill to be there for its last hurrah.

Tim Wiles is the Manager of the Research Department at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. This article was reprinted with his permission.

5 replies on “Remembering the final weekend at Tiger Stadium

  • John B

    Tiger Stadium. My favorite ballpark of all time. So many memoies of generations of families attending games there. I really like Commerica Park, but Tiger Stadium was just a special place to take in a big league ballgame.

    Reply
  • Tom Marshall

    Wonderful storey of the last home stand at the corner. My son and I were at the final game, we arrived at 10:30am and went home at 10pm. What a great day!

    Reply
  • Dave Lubbers

    I was there for the last four games, and have memories I will never forget. This article reminded me of those memories. Well written!

    Just two minor corrections that I saw. First, Tram and Lou are not “teammates longer than any other two ballplayers in history.” That would be accurate if you changed it to American League history. Also accurate if you said said they were the longest serving keystone combination. But the most games as teammates are 2020 games – Craig Biggio & Jeff Bagwell and 2012 games – Billy Williams and Ron Santo, with Houston and the Cubs respectively. Lou and Tram are in third place with 1,874.

    Also, the Tiger manager in 1999 who decided not to pinch hit for Fick was Larry Parrish, not Lance Parrish.

    Despite those minor corrections, I am forwarding this great article to my friends.

    Reply

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