Tom Derry is a one-man wrecking crew. So is Tim Meloche. So, too, is Joe Michnuk. But Sarah Aittama — Sarah Aittama is a saint. These dedicated weed warriors, the driving force behind the all-volunteer Navin Field Grounds Crew, all have a common enemy: blight.
They also share a common love for Detroit’s rich baseball tradition, whose roots can be traced to the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in Corktown, where Navin Field (later known as Tiger Stadium) opened in 1912.
Today, with its finances in such disarray, the city simply can’t afford to maintain all of its public parks. And although the 10-acre Tiger Stadium site isn’t technically a public park, Derry and company have been working hard to restore it for everyone to enjoy. “The field just looked awful when we started back in 2010,” he says. “Tall grass, monster weeds, and garbage scattered everywhere.” That’s when he and Aittama decided to take things into their own hands.
For three years now, the Navin Field Grounds Crew has worked nearly every Sunday (sometimes in the dead of winter) to eradicate the blight left in the wake of Tiger Stadium’s demolition. “Our group has gotten this field looking better each year,” Derry says. “The dirt infield was just overgrown with weeds, but now it looks professional again.”
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Baseball fans from around the country now regularly flock to see this field of dreams. “This is no Hollywood version, either,” Derry says. “This is the real deal. Shoeless Joe Jackson actually did play on this field.”
Aittama, one of the few women in an otherwise all-boys club, hails from the U.P. and never actually saw a game at Tiger Stadium. But that hasn’t deterred her in the least. “The human experience is alive and vibrant here,” she says. “I’ve met friends for life on that dirt. I’ve met the most gracious people in those weeds.”
Derry and Aittama aren’t alone in their efforts to maintain Detroit’s ballfields. Detroit Western High School baseball coach Mike Vazquez, a longtime Corktown resident, spends much of his spare time dragging the infield dirt at Riverside Park, Clark Park, and Navin Field. He’s a man of few words, but his actions speak volumes.
Many Detroit residents and interested onlookers lamented Mayor Bing’s recent decision to close 51 city parks, fearing that even more green spaces would fall into disrepair. And while that might be true, the local nonprofit and volunteer community is stepping up to the plate.
Tim Richey, CEO of Think Detroit PAL, says his organization is planning to continue its maintenance of Maheras-Gentry and Jayne Field on the city’s east side, while Neighbors Building Brightmoor is attempting to reclaim its entire neighborhood with more than 50 parks and gardens on the west side.
There’s also the Detroit Mower Gang, a volunteer group led by Tom Nardone that maintains several abandoned Detroit parks and playgrounds. Lawnmower manufacturer Husqvarna recently donated two tractors to the Mower Gang, Nardone says, and the group is hoping to expand its efforts this season. They’re even planning a 24-hour event next month called the Motown Mowdown.
So while the city endures financial woe, there’s hope its grass will be greener on the other side.