The official “final game” at Tiger Stadium was on September 27, 1999. The last home run, in fact the last hit, was a grand slam off the bat of Robert Fick. The ball hit the right field roof before bouncing back down to the field.
But was it really the last home run?
Well, it may have been the last major league home run.
But there was destined to be one more four-bagger hit at The Corner. More on that in a moment.
On July 24, 2001, after Tiger Stadium had been sitting vacant for nearly two years (except for a few fantasy camps and the filming of Billy Crystal’s film 61*), a baseball game was played at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. I know, because I was there.
I wasn’t the only customer. An unofficial tally had the crowd pegged at around 1,500. It was a disappointing turnout for the promoters of the game, who were hoping for at least 5,000. A group that called itself Michigan and Trumbull, LLC, a local sports management company, organized the affair. The plan was to try and lure a team to Detroit to play in the Frontier League, an independent baseball circuit (which still exists, by the way). If all went well, the group would sign a short-term lease for the ballpark, and the new team would play night games when the Tigers were on the road (so as not to draw fans away from Comerica Park).
“This is kind of a litmus test to see if there is still interest in going to the ballpark,” pointed out one of the representatives of Michigan and Trumbull, LLC. Not coincidentally, the event took place on Detroit’s 300th birthday.
For Peter Comstock Riley, the group’s general manager, the fact that there was going to be one more baseball game at The Corner was indeed a big deal. It was the moment he’d been waiting for ever since the Tigers had abandoned the site. “Generations of Detroiters have a connection to this ballpark,” he noted.
Of course, in the end a new Frontier League team never moved into Tiger Stadium. But it never hurts to dream.
The game this day was a Great Lakes Summer Collegiate contest pitting the Motor City Marauders (of Livonia, Michigan) against the Lake Erie Monarchs (of Carleton, Michigan). Many of the players competed in local colleges in the spring. “The guys are really excited about being a part of Tiger Stadium history,” said Tom Wakefield, coach of the Monarchs. “From what I hear, the field is still in pretty good shape.”
It was a great day for baseball: Hot, and very, very humid. Not a cloud in the sky. The gates opened promptly at 5:30 pm. Tickets were $7, sold only at the ballpark.
Billy Rogell, star shortstop for Detroit’s pennant-winning teams of 1934 and 1935 (and who’d served on Detroit’s City Council for 38 years) was given the honor of throwing out the first ball. Now 96 years old and wheelchair bound, Rogell could manage only an awkward heave that barely went a few feet. But he got the biggest ovation of the evening. “It’s good to be home,” he said.
I don’t remember much about the game. Needless to say, the contest itself wasn’t the major draw. For most of the people in the nearly-empty ballpark, it was an opportunity to take one more (possibly final) look around at the old battleship. Wasn’t that how Al Kaline had described the Briggs Stadium exterior when he first laid eyes on it? Said it looked like a battleship. I felt like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, just trying to feel some kind of goodbye. I knew I was leaving the place. Like Caulfield, I didn’t want to feel any worse. I spent much of my time wistfully gazing at the ghosts that still danced on that glorious swath of green grass.
But I do remember the last home run ever hit at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull.
The batter, a left-handed-hitting kid by the name of Peter Varon, was the son of Marauders owner Dan Varon.
I was sitting a few rows behind the first base dugout. It was a hard hit line drive to right field that kept carrying, up and up. From the time bat met ball, until ball banged loudly against the facing of the second deck in right, was a span of less than three seconds. A real poke.
After the ball dropped lazily back onto the bright grass, the right fielder picked it up and lobbed it back to the infield, the crowd cheering the whole time. The young Varon scampered around the bases, and was met at home plate by a small swarm of enthusiastic teammates.
What a thrill it had to be for the kid!
The Monarchs won, 4-3.
Oh, and did I mention I also ate my last hot dog ever at Tiger Stadium?