|Despite no fans, Comerica is fantastic|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
Editor's Note: This is the 14th report card in Page 2's summerlong series rating all 30 ballparks in Major League Baseball.
DETROIT -- Disclaimer: I love Tiger Stadium. It was always one of my favorite ballparks to visit and I still wish the Tigers played there. That said, if the Tigers had to move to another stadium -- and they didn't really need to -- at least they moved to a good one. And with that, we return you to your regularly scheduled ballpark review ...
George Carlin's routines got a little tired with age but he was dead on when he laid out the differences between baseball and football, including where they are played. "Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park!" he said. "Football is played on a gridiron in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Field."
Nowhere is this clearer than in downtown Detroit, where a beleaguered city with acres of abandoned buildings and empty lots spent millions building lavish stadiums for its two sports teams directly across the street from each other.
Walk by the walls of Ford Field and you literally would not be able to tell whether it was a football stadium or an auto plant. It's absolutely perfect for the NFL -- it's cold, corporate, sterile and utterly unfriendly, just like the league itself. The only thing missing are "No trespassing, guard dogs!" signs.
And then there is Comerica Park, which is as colorful and welcoming as a state fair. There's a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, Coney dogs, picnic tables, fountains, beer halls and about a hundred giant tiger statues. Unlike its neighbor, the place is so downright open and inviting that you can even peer through the gates and watch the game from the street.
The only thing missing is a slick carnival barker offering to guess Dmitri Young's weight.
Actually, that's not right. The fans are missing as well. The Tigers are so bad that Detroit is drawing fewer fans in the new park than they did at Tiger Stadium. Which is too bad. Wandering around the stadium with my friend, Scooter, we kept talking about what a fantastic, happening spot it would be if only the Tigers could have a winning season.
Heck, it would be so fun, so festive -- so perfect -- that it would almost be as good as the old stadium.
1. Exterior architecture: No team has ever integrated its name into a stadium as extensively and successfully as the Tigers have. There are tigers everywhere. There are enormous tiger statues guarding the main entrances. There are stone tiger heads mounted on the exterior walls, each holding a lighted baseball in its mouth. There are even tiger claw marks down the walls. (No place ever cried out more to be called Tiger Stadium than this one.)
As I stared at all these statues, two thoughts kept recurring. One, this must be what Siegfried and Roy's living room looks like. Two, I hope the Padres don't try to copy Detroit at their new stadium.
I mean, can you imagine? Gigantic monk statues looming above the entrance. Altar boys hawking gold-leafed programs meticulously illustrated and lettered by hand. Holy water going for $4 a bottle. Priests charging $5 for regular, venial-sin confessions, $7.50 for biggie-sized, mortal sin confessions.
I better stop now. 5+++
2. Interior Architecture: The tiger theme continues inside -- the merry-go-round has tigers instead of horses to ride on -- but what really stands out is the attention to team history. Tiger Stadium may be empty but they transported the team's history as best as possible to the new one.
First, there are these lovingly-detailed, beautifully displayed exhibits to each decade of Tigers history mounted throughout the concourses. The 2003 team may stink but you can always drift over and read up on the '84 or '68 teams for a fix of when times were good.
In addition to the displays, there are these extraordinary statues behind center field of Tigers greats such as Ty Cobb, Al Kaline and Willie Horton. They're set in spectacular action poses -- Cobb is sliding, Horton is swinging -- though to really capture their essence, Horton should be scratching himself and Cobb should be spiking the third baseman and cursing him for bleeding on his uniform.
The best detail, though, is the Kaline statue. It pictures him leaping to make a one-handed catch and his glove has pins it just in case someone hits a home run into it so that the ball will stick in the glove. (If the Rangers thought of something that clever in Arlington, they would have put a statue of Jose Canseco in right field so that baseballs can bounce off his head.)
The only drawback is the statues face the field, which is a bit of a waste. They're too far from the seats to be seen clearly and they face away from fans trying to pose by them on the concourse. Better to turn them the other way so fans can get a good look at them. 5+++
3. Seat comfort: The Tigers are owned by Michael Ilitch, the founder and owner of Little Caesar's pizza, a chain whose success formula was selling twice the calories at the same price as the other guys. Perhaps as penance for his role in the fattening of America, the Tigers offer what I call the Lolich seats -- a special level of extra-wide seats, large enough to comfortably hold Cecil Fielder and Mickey Lolich, with room left over for Dmitri Young and his brother. I shudder to think how obese Americans will be at the end of the century when these seats are considered too cramped. Points: 5
4. Quality/selection of other concession-stand fare: Henry Ford changed the face of industrial America in 1914 when he announced an astonishing wage of $5 per day in his factories, double the going rate in the United States and about six times the rate in Britain. A newspaper described the new wage scale as a "gold rush" for workers and 15,000 men showed up to apply. Unfortunately, there were just 3,000 jobs, leaving thousands of angry applicants outside the Ford plants. They were dispersed with water hoses.
I should have kept that in mind while waiting in line for ice cream and then getting to the front and finding out that a waffle cone cost $5.
But while the prices are a little steep, there is an excellent variety of good food, including delicious gyros, fajitas and, of course, Little Caesar's pizza. 4
5. Quality of hot dogs: Do you know what's almost as uncomfortable as asking strange women at every stadium how they rate the restrooms? It's ordering a $2.75 hot dog (basic, but very tasty) and asking for a receipt. 4
6. Signature concession item: Despite the misleading name, the Coney Dog -- a hot dog smothered in chili and cheese -- is a Detroit institution. The Coney Dog is the specialty of Downtown Leo's, which has a store in the stadium. Detroit residents have had Coney stains on their shirts as long as the Tigers have had the old English D on theirs. They love these things. So maybe I just got a bad one, but my hot dog tasted like it was made from Jack Morris' old resin bag and the cheese-like coating had the same consistency and taste of 30-weight motor oil. My apologies to Detroit, but this was awful. 1
7. Beer: There is a surprisingly limited beer selection for a new stadium, though you can get Sam Adams at the park's Downtown Beerhall, tucked behind the left-field line. Fittingly, for a bar that advertises its downtown Detroit location, the place was virtually empty during the game, with Tigers/stadium employees outnumbering customers by at least 2-1. Perhaps they could add a few more beer choices or maybe they should just reconsider their TV channel selection. When we visited, "The Cosby Show" was on one of the screens.
Then again, given the Tigers' usual level of play, this is perfectly understandable. 3
8. Bathrooms: You know when your team is in trouble, and I mean serious trouble? It's not when they're losing games at the same rate as the 1962 Mets. It's when they resort to the most desperate of marketing ploys. You know the one I'm talking about. Yes, the dreaded Dog Day Afternoon.
I mean, what's the point to this promotion? It can't bring in many fans. And isn't it a little cruel to bring a dog to a stadium where he has to walk around on hot concrete while staring at lush green grass that he isn't allowed within leg-saluting range of? As much as I love dogs I sure don't want to wait in line behind one at the ballpark, as Scooter did at the water fountain.
And for crying out loud, now that Lenny Dykstra is retired, fans shouldn't have to look where they step at a ballpark.
Sigh. At least the dogs weren't using the restrooms, which are in good shape. 4
9. Scoreboard: Good lord. There are even tigers on top of the scoreboard. 4
10. Fun stuff to do besides the game: I can already hear the purists crying -- "Why do you need a Ferris wheel and a merry-go-round at a ballpark? Isn't the game enough?"
Well, yeah, the game should be enough, even if it is the Tigers. And you don't need a merry-go-round or a Ferris wheel. But there's nothing wrong with them, either. And if they entice additional families and little kids to the game, what's wrong with that? Once they tire of riding tigers around in a circle, they might just wander back to their seats and discover that baseball is a wonderful game and want to come back. Besides, the rides are tucked back behind the concourses and can't be seen from the seating area.
The best part is that even if you're so old-school that you think batting donuts are for prima donnas ("Let 'em swing three bats, like Charlie Gehringer used to!"), you'll find plenty to hold your interest. You can easily spend an entire game just studying the Tigers history displays. I was marveling at the '34 Tigers memorabilia and all of a sudden it was the fifth inning. 5+++
11. Quality of public address system: They have an excellent sound system but they don't feel the need to prove it to you by constantly blaring loud commercials between innings. Of course, the speakers really aren't needed. Most games, the Tigers could probably send Ernie Harwell down to personally introduce the lineup to each fan. 4
12. Price/selection of baseball souvenirs: There are several team stores, selling everything from tiger ears ($7) to stuffed tigers ($64). The item I coveted most, however, was the "I believe" Tigers T-shirts. Now that's optimism. If you believe the Tigers are ready to turn the corner, you also probably think the AMC Gremlin is about to make a comeback. 3.5
13. Ticket price/availability/location: Here's the one drawback to the new stadium. Tiger Stadium had some of the best, closest seats in baseball. In fact, the mezzanine seats behind home plate may have been THE best seats in the entire game (you almost felt like you were leaning over the catcher).
The new stadium, meanwhile, is like all the other new ones -- its seats are farther than desirable from the field to accommodate the luxury suites and avoid any obstructive posts. The bleacher seats also are situated in such a way that fans almost never catch a home run (not that the Tigers ever hit any) and the slope of the lower seating level is so gradual that the back row is somewhere near Ypsilanti.
Now, I'm not saying the seats are bad. They're all pretty decent and there are no obstructions. It's just that there aren't the great seats there were at Tiger Stadium, either, and for these prices -- my seat in the extreme upper deck (Bob Uecker was rows ahead of me) was $12 -- that's a shame.
I will, however, give the Tigers a bonus for these three features: One, you can walk all the way around the park and see the game at all times. Two, you can steal a glimpse of the game from the sidewalk behind home plate without buying a ticket. And three, I'm told that the bars on the gates in the outfield are spaced far enough apart that thinner fans can slip in without paying. (But if you've been eating a steady diet of Little Casear's pizza, forget it). 4
14. Access: This is Motown, so fans are encouraged to drive their own gas-guzzling cars to the game (there is very little public transportation). And because no one dares park at night in downtown Detroit even if there were spots available, that pretty much means you're forced to pay the $20 extortion fee in the Tigers lots.
By the way, to give you an idea of the surrounding neighborhood, we drove by a rusting muffler laying on the sidewalk three blocks from the stadium and it didn't look out of place at all. "Look at that," Scooter said. "It probably fell off Mickey Stanley's Cadillac during the 1968 championship parade and has been rusting there ever since." 1.5
15. Friendliness and helpfulness of usher staff: If the Tigers hired a full complement of ushers, they could lower Detroit's unemployment rate by two entire points. Those that were there, were pleasant enough. 3.5
16. Trading-up factor: Apparently the ushers must figure that anyone who actually bothers driving to downtown Detroit and paying $20 to park and $5 for an ice cream cone to see a team this bad doesn't deserve any hassle over something so trivial as a ticket. They'll let you sit anywhere. We sat in the upper deck. We sat down the left-field line. We sat behind home plate in the cushioned Lolich seats. Heck, I bet if we wandered down to the dugout, Alan Trammell not only would let us in, he would bat me cleanup. 5
17. Knowledge of local fans: Detroit fans have always struck me as being among the best and smartest in the game. They have to be, to keep supporting this team. I know attendance is worse here than at Tiger Stadium but don't blame the fans. The team hasn't been competitive since Terence Trent D'Arby had a career. No one would go see the Yankees, either, if they strung together that many losing seasons (don't we wish). 4
18. Take Me out to the Ballgame moment: It was pretty standard, but it was followed by the always welcome Chicken Dance, a tradition as Midwestern as bowling, beer guts and Tupperware. 3.5
19. Pre-and-postgame bar-and-restaurant scene: This is downtown Detroit, so there isn't much if your limited notion of a bar requires more than a brown paper bag. HockeyTown is down the block from the stadium and it's a tremendous sports bar, albeit dedicated to the boys of winter. 3
20. Wild Card: Did I mention that there are a lot of tigers at the stadium? I did? Oh. Well, let me say it again. There are a lot of tiger statues at the stadium and they are really, really something. I don't know how much they cost but their presence separates this stadium from so many of the other retro-parks. So I'm giving out an extra 10
TOTAL SCORE FOR COMERICA PARK: 82