A friend of mine in Chicago, an ex-Detroiter, my former baseball coach when I was 12, sent me a photograph the other day of former Detroit Tiger centerfielder Ron LeFlore. LeFlore, who did time for armed robbery but was granted early parole to chase down fly balls in one of the most cavernous centerfields in all of Major League Baseball, is captured down on one knee, with a gardener’s watering can in his hand, and is about to tend to the needs of what looks to me like a tomato plant growing in the outfield warning track just inches from the fence.
I could be wrong about what kind of plant LeFlore is about to water—it’s most certainly not a weed—though in my mind it is clear what this image suggests and what it might remind us: the fact that Tiger Stadium (which stood tall for eighty-seven years on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull) was built on land, on dirt. Things grow in the dirt: not just outfield grass, but flowers, plants, things we can eat. These days up from the dirt on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull it’s mostly weeds rising up around a makeshift sandlot where adult children sometimes come to play in the dirt where the ghosts of their childhood heroes once roamed this piece of the good Detroit earth.
For six years in the mid-1970s Ron LeFlore owned the great expanse of land in straightaway centerfield that stretched and ended 440 feet from home plate. That was a lot of green for one man to cover, and at its deepest point in the park LeFlore would sometimes disappear beneath the upper deck bleachers to give chase to a ball deeply driven. Those of us who sat out in the nose-bleeds would know that the catch had been made by the cheers we’d hear resonating from across the park, or from the radio voice of a drawling Ernie Harwell singing the praises of Ronnie LeFlore, a man who knew how to get on his horse and ride.
Tiger Stadium no longer rises up on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The land itself where Tiger legends like Cobb and Kaline owned Detroit’s most infamous corner house has been left to go (for the past ten seasons) to weed.
The photograph of Ron LeFlore makes me think that maybe what needs to happen here at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is what happens to many vacant lots in this city when land where houses once stood get turned routinely into gardens. My grandfather, who moved to Detroit in the 1920s and died in that same house at the age of one hundred and three, when a neighboring house was abandoned, burned down, once, twice, three times, then eventually bulldozed to the ground, he’d take this land and make it his own. His garden, his piece of Detroit, kept on growing as the people around him packed up their belongings and left. Up from the dirt where houses once stood grew tomatoes, peppers, paprika, corn, so much green to fill the empty space. In the spirit of this kind of regeneration, maybe we should turn the nine-acre corner block at Michigan and Trumbull into a farm. Maybe, if we’re lucky, and if we believe in the power of transformation, renewal, and dream, from out of the fields of corn or sunflowers will appear the legends called by the names of Kaline and Cobb, Greenberg and Gehringer, Lolich and Horton and Cash, a bird whose given name was Fidrych, all of them all young players again, all of them walking out, out of the past, to play one final inning.