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Tom Derry

By Matthew Lewis
May 23, 2014

On a cold, gray April day at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, stiff winds blow across the ballfield, taking shape in the American flag flying on the tall pole in center field, one of the few structural elements that remains of Old Tiger Stadium.
A couple gets out of their car parked on Michigan Avenue and heads onto Navin Field, the name of Old Tiger Stadium's playing field, a place where professional baseball was played for over a century. They walk slowly around the neatly maintained basepaths, talking and laughing. When they reach home plate, they stop and look to the outfield. The man points to right center, perhaps remembering a game he watched as a boy from the grandstands. They walk back to their car smiling, get in, and drive away.
It's small moments like these that Tom Derry and the Navin Field Grounds Crew (NFGC) make possible through their work maintaining the historic ballfield at Michigan and Trumbull.
It wasn't long ago when moments like these were impossible. Tiger Stadium closed after the 1999 season and the Tigers moved to downtown's newly built Comerica Park. The old ballpark would sit vacant until it was demolished in 2009.
Once the stadium was gone, the playing field began to return to nature.
Tom Derry took notice of the field's poor condition in May of 2010. Legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell passed away on May 4. His body was laid in state at Comerica Park so the public could pay last respects to the beloved voice of the Tigers. Tom Derry was watching the news and saw that a group was paying their respects in a different way -- by heading out to the site of Old Tiger Stadium and playing catch on Navin Field.
Tom and a group of friends decided to head out to the field to do the same that weekend.
"When I saw how tall the weeds were and how much trash there was, I wasn't too excited about playing catch anymore," says Derry. "Then I thought, 'I have a riding mower and I know some friends who could help me cut the grass.'"
By the summer of 2010, the Navin Field Grounds Crew was born and the group began to restore Navin Field.
They didn't have an easy start, though.
"The weeds were six to eight feet tall," remembers Derry. "I had to rent a brush hog for 10 straight weeks."
But the weeds weren't the only challenge Derry and crew faced that summer. The city of Detroit, which has not maintained the site since Tiger Stadium's demolition, claimed that those working to restore the playing field were trespassing.
"2010 was a difficult year," says Derry. "It was physically and mentally exhausting. We were constantly under threat of arrest. The city was sending cops out there to harass us when we were working. Here we are, a bunch of middle-aged people armed with rakes. Without us, the field would be a garbage dump."
Since that summer, however, the city has left the NFGC alone as it works to restore the original playing field and maintain the site surrounding it. The group is composed entirely of volunteers who bring their own equipment. Derry, who works as a mailman, donates his riding mower to the cause and pays for many of NFGC's supplies out-of-pocket.
The playing field itself is not so difficult to maintain, says Derry, but the areas where the stands used to be are.
"We got 25 flat tires on our riding mower last year, as well as broken blades and belts. We've picked up thousands of rocks."
Currently, Derry is sidelined from doing any physical work on the field due to a knee injury, but he's at Navin Field every Sunday to supervise the group he started as they work to make sure the field stays in good shape.
"Since we started working, the field has become a tourist attraction for people from all over the world. Every time there's a Tigers home game, you'll see people out here. Imagine if the city actually promoted this as a tourist attraction," says Derry. "There have been at least three weddings here since we started working and we know of at least a dozen occurrences of people spreading the ashes of their loved ones on the field."
In addition to tourists, Navin Field draws all kinds of locals who use the field as a park. Cass Tech's varsity baseball team practices there on weekdays. Occasional vintage baseball games are played there, too, and friendly scrimmages are common occurrences.
"Kids can run the bases there everyday -- and they do," says Derry. "Where else in this country can anyone go onto a baseball field where the likes of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth played?"

"It's about more than just baseball," says Derry. "Since we started, there are kids playing soccer and practicing archery and groups of people running their dogs on the field."
Derry hopes that any plans to redevelop the site will keep the original playing field intact.
"It's important to have green space in the city. What's wrong with having a restored historic park as an anchor in a rejuvenated Corktown?"
Until the fate of Navin Field is decided, Derry and the Grounds Crew will keep showing up on Sundays to mow the grass, pull weeds, and chalk the foul lines so that the public can continue to enjoy the historic site.
Those interested in volunteering with the Navin Field Grounds Crew can bring a rake to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull on any fairweather Sunday at 10 a.m. Follow the Crew's Facebook page for updates about other volunteer opportunities.
"There's no spot in the state of Michigan that has brought more people together than the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. And even though Tiger Stadium is gone, the place is still bringing people together," says Derry.
For more background on the NFGC, check out Stealing Home, a documentary chronicling three years of the Crew's work and the winner of the Audience Prize at the inaugural Freep Film Festival.

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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