A six-pack to go at Tiger Stadium's hallowed ground

Updated: February 6, 2006, 10:58 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The high-end club has everything any partygoer could want: flat screens, water fountains, go-go cages, a bed of roses and a high-flying trapeze artist.

Go inside Tiger Stadium during preparations for the Bud Bowl

But ignore the glitz and glamour and walk past the stage where rapper Snoop Dogg will perform Friday night; and on the other side of two sets of double doors, you'll find an overstuffed slice of American sports history.

There, directly in front of you less than eight feet away, is the old pitcher's mound. The dirt is wet and clumpy, the grass around it frail and thin. But, indeed, this is exactly where Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and the rest of the 1984 Tigers mobbed Willie Hernandez to celebrate the World Series clincher. Indeed, this is exactly where Mark Fidrych talked to the ball, talked to himself and threw back all the balls that "had hits in them."

To your left, the slab of dirt that Hank Greenberg once owned. Behind that, the patch of grass where Al Kaline once roamed. And in front you, the ending point for 11,111 home-run trots through the stadium's 87-year life span.

This is the observation deck at Anheuser-Busch's Bud Bowl 2006, a two-night Super Bowl-driven concert extravaganza to be held in a 132-by-230-foot heated temporary expo center.

In the middle of Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium Bud Bowl tent
Ross Dettman/for ESPN.comTiger Stadium's infield, where Charlie Gehringer once roamed, is a nightclub this weekend.
"If you would have told me that the only way to get back into Tiger Stadium -- for any purpose, a city function or any function -- would be a Snoop Dogg concert, in an inflatable expo center, during the Super Bowl, I would have said you're absolutely nuts," said former Tigers employee Peter C. Riley, who now heads a Tiger Stadium preservation group. "There's no way Detroit's getting a Super Bowl."

It's been 6½ years since Carlos Beltran struck out on a pitch from former Tigers closer Todd Jones for the final out here, bringing an end to nearly nine decades of baseball at Michigan and Trumbull. Since then, the stadium has been vacant, save for the summer of 2001 when it hosted three collegiate and semipro games and was the site for the filming of Billy Crystal's HBO movie "61*."

The state of the stadium, which opened on the same day Fenway Park did in April 1912, is a sensitive topic in these parts. The city of Detroit, which owns the building, has been widely criticized for its handling of the property in the post-Tigers era.

On one end are the preservationists, who don't want to see the building torn down. On the other end are the progressives, who wonder why the stadium has been allowed to sit and, essentially, rot for all this time. And somewhere in the middle are the baseball diehards who drive by, look at the faded paint and missing letters on the stadium's facade and perhaps reflect on days gone by -- such as May 2, 1939, when Lou Gehrig voluntarily benched himself here, ending his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played.

"Quite honestly, I wish they would tear it down," Tigers Hall of Famer Al Kaline told MLB.com this past summer, "because I hate to see it the way it looks now. I'd rather remember it the way it used to be."

Bud Bowl sound system
Ross Dettman/for ESPN.comMaybe the Bud Bowl sound system can play "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
The Detroit Free Press has estimated that demolition of the stadium would cost the cash-strapped city between $3.5 and $4 million. In the meantime, the city reportedly has paid Tigers owner Mike Ilitch $2.5 million over the last five years to maintain the place and provide security.

Major League Baseball reportedly expressed interest in staging an All-Star Game event at the stadium this past July (the game was played in Detroit's new Comerica Park), but the Tigers were worried about safety issues.

When the New York Times did a story on the stadium at the All-Star break and brought to light Tiger Stadium's sorry state, a Detroit columnist shot back with this sentiment: Focus on the positive in the city and leave the stadium alone.

Now comes the Bud Bowl, which once again shines a spotlight on the forgotten playing field, giving baseball fans a rare glimpse into the stadium's interior state. Since the semipro games in 2001, the city has kept the site in virtual lockdown, even hiring a security firm to shoo fans away on a 24/7 basis.

"I've always had a deep respect for that place, and I always will," said Fred Rottach, who is in charge of the facility as the head of the city's Planning and Development Department. "That's why I didn't want to make it into a carnival or a circus. To see it being used like this is nice. It pays respect to the tradition but allows the event to go on."

Over the years, Rottach has considered and rejected proposals to transform Tiger Stadium into everything from a bullfighting arena or a jail to condominiums or a Wal-Mart. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has made a commitment to resolve the stadium issue by the end of the year.

"People have been critical of the city -- but if anything, it's for trying too hard," Rottach said. "We waited and waited and looked at proposals and more proposals, hoping something new might materialize. We tried too hard to save the building."

Tiger Stadium infield
Ross Dettman/for ESPN.comAl Kaline and Mark Fidryich walked on this dirt. After this weekend, Snoop Dogg joins them.
The Bud Bowl is one proposal that the city did approve. Rottach said Detroit is charging Anheuser-Busch $40,000 to rent the stadium. More important than the money, though, was the thoroughness of Anheuser-Busch's proposal, which included a commitment to return the stadium to the exact specifications it had before.

"Anytime you want something of that magnitude, it's not easy," said Anheuser-Busch's James Hunter, who helped come up with the idea for the Bud Bowl venue 14 months ago. "For seven years, people couldn't get that door open, no matter who you were. But we left no stone unturned."

Anheuser-Busch is hailing the event as Tiger Stadium's "Last Call." On Thursday afternoon, workers put the finishing touches on the makeshift club, setting up bars, double-checking lights and testing portable toilets.

The massive tent, which will hold an estimated 2,500 guests, stretches from deep center field, in the shadows of Tiger Stadium's famous in-play flagpole, to just in front of second base, where Trammell and Lou Whitaker once offered everyday clinics on the art of the double play. On the same slab of land once patrolled by Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, Snoop Dogg will strut across an elevated stage and bellow out hits like "Gin and Juice." On Saturday, the stadium will host rock band 3 Doors Down.

Both concerts are invitation-only, with the majority of tickets distributed at various Anheuser-Busch promotions across the city. Guests will enter the stadium on Trumbull Street, walk through a paparazzi-filled tunnel and, perhaps without even realizing it, end up inside the massive tent structure within the stadium. Beefed-up security throughout the place is intended to prevent anyone from taking home unapproved souvenirs.

"You've got to be pretty creative to get out of the secured area," said Hunter, the first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 1976. "And if you do, well, the police are going to be ready to jack you up."

Tiger Stadium tent
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThese front-row seats don't have quite the view they once did.
At the rear of the venue, visitors will be able to step outside onto a viewing platform, where they can watch members of the production staff, in vintage Tigers uniforms, throw the ball around the infield.

"We want people to come out here, grab one of the last glimpses of this great place and reminisce about their favorite Tiger memories," said Brent Walla of Mowalla Productions, the company that set up the event. "We're going to turn the lights on, illuminate the stadium and give everybody a chance to remember."

That's just what happened to Bill Mueller, who works in the communications department for Anheuser-Busch, when he surveyed the set-up Wednesday night. Mueller walked to the pitcher's mound, pulled out his cell phone and called his 84-year-old father, a lifelong Cardinals fan, to tell him exactly where he was standing.

"I told him, 'Bob Gibson versus Mickey Lolich,'" Mueller said. "Right where I'm standing. And he knew just what I was talking about. It's just an incredibly special place."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.