‘Phony’ case made for artificial turf at old Tiger Stadium field

The former Tiger Stadium field. Photos by Steve Neavling
The former Tiger Stadium field. Photos by Steve Neavling.

By Michael Betzold
Guest columnist

It’s time for those who want to keep natural grass at Michigan and Trumbull to put their money where their mouth is.

All they need to do is raise $100,000 a year and give it to the Police Athletic League, whose plan for a youth sports facility at the site of the old Tiger Stadium has been green-lighted by city council.

So far, opponents of PAL’s plan to install synthetic turf at the Corner have been understandably reluctant to question PAL’s intentions. How do you argue against city kids playing sports there? You can’t.

Leaders of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy have been privately whining about how they never expected PAL to opt for carpet when they first made the deal. Members of the Navin Field Grounds Crew have raised good arguments about the health hazards of turf fields – and PAL CEO Tim Richey has now agreed not to use crumbed tire infill, which has been called a possible carcinogen in several recent national reports. Instead, he says PAL will install some other sort of synthetic turf.

Corktown residents and merchants want access to the field, which – thanks to the unauthorized mowing and grooming by the all-volunteer Navin Field Grounds Crew – has been theirs to play on for the last six summers. So Richey agreed at a Detroit City Council meeting to guarantee 15 hours of public access per week – but didn’t say it would be free, or even during daylight hours.

An old parking side near the former Tiger Stadium site. Photo by Steve Neavling.
An old parking sign near the former Tiger Stadium site. Photo by Steve Neavling.

Throughout recent public meetings, Richey has insisted that synthetic turf is necessary to support the intensive programming PAL plans for what it’s touting as a showcase facility for youth sports. He made the same assertion Thursday morning on WJR’s Frank Beckman show in an interview with substitute host ML Elrick. Until now, no one’s been able to challenge him on that point.

Critics have questioned PAL for over-programming the site. But that’s played right into PAL’s hands. While the matter was before city council, PAL issued a plea to its supporters to come out in force against the nefarious folks who were trying to keep city kids off the historic field for “thousands of hours a year.” Ouch.

Since Richey has insisted the health and safety of its young athletes is PAL’s top priority, his insistence on carpet has been puzzling. Even the “alternative” brands he’s opting for now— which have surfaced in recent years after communities across the country have balked at their kids playing on crumbed tires—have not been proven safe.

Richey has maintained all along that PAL has done systematic research to support its conclusion that turf is safe. When I asked to see that research, what Richey provided was highly selective – mostly supplied by turf manufacturers and FIFA, the corrupt world soccer governing body that has been pushing turf fields.

The experience of people who’ve run intensive sports programs on natural grass, notably Deb Sumner of the Clark Park Coalition, proves Richey wrong – but to no avail, since apparently the deal to develop the Corner was already done in the back rooms of city hall.

When pressed, Richey has said something about rain and muddy fields and cited “a top turf expert” at MSU who backs up his assertion that they need a synthetic surface to withstand the amount of programming they plan, including football, soccer, lacrosse, and other events like “movie nights,” and, oh yes, baseball.

At the Corktown community meeting on Oct. 28, Richey distributed a list of “talking points” that included a quote from that expert, MSU turf management professor John Rogers, asserting “I do believe synthetic turf … is the best option” for the PAL project.

Fans played a game of "1860s baseball" at Navin Field, the site of former Tiger Stadium. Photo by Steve Neavling.
Fans played a game of “1860s baseball” at Navin Field, the site of former Tiger Stadium. Photo by Steve Neavling.

I’ll be charitable and call that quote intellectually dishonest rather than an outright lie. It’s what we journalists would call cherry picking.

You see, I talked to Richey’s expert two weeks ago. And far from backing up Richey’s assertion that he’s on PAL’s side in this, John Rogers made it crystal clear he’s not.

Rogers told me he is so opposed to artificial turf he refuses even to research it. He went on to say: “The decision to use artificial turf is always made by people who will never spend one minute on the field. If they were out there and the surface was 140 degrees, they might not like it so much. If they were out there and banged their knee on the field, they might not like it so much.”

Some months ago, Richey asked Rogers to give his expert opinion on what surface would work with PAL’s plan to program the field for six to ten hours a day. Richey also made it clear what PAL’s budget for maintenance would be.

Rogers explained to me that proper maintenance of a natural grass field requires a real professional, and PAL didn’t have that expertise nor was it allocating nearly the amount of resources needed to hire a pro groundskeeper. Rogers couldn’t recall the exact maintenance figure in the PAL budget but scoffed that it was “less than six figures a year.” So Rogers had no choice but to write back to PAL that, given its budget and programming, they would have to use synthetic turf – because it doesn’t take much money to hire someone who can sweep off a carpet.

I asked Rogers if PAL could do the programming it wants on a natural grass field at Michigan and Trumbull, and he said absolutely yes if it allocated a proper amount to maintenance. Then he laid out the kind of budget it would take, and it was about $100,000 more annually than PAL had told him it wanted to spend.

This might explain why Richey told me that PAL considers the costs of grass versus turf “a wash” – even though an artificial turf field costs about a million dollars to install and needs to be replaced after ten years. Maintaining grass would cost that same million dollars more over a decade, using Rogers’ estimates. But it’s clearly a choice PAL is making on how it’s allocating the money.

Questioning PAL’s programming or public access plans does little good now. PAL has been given the keys to the car. The conservancy has agreed to award PAL the $3 million left from a 2009 earmark Sen. Carl Levin obtained to redevelop and preserve the Corner “as a public park” – though it arguably isn’t really that. Last week city council unanimously approved the land transfer that starts the project in motion.

PAL can program the field to its liking now – if it can raise the remaining half of the money needed for its $15.5 million project. Its fundraising campaign touts the unquestionable virtues of city kids playing on the historic grounds. So far, however, it’s fallen millions short of its goal, and the recent negative publicity can’t be helping. Last week, a major corporation reportedly pulled the plug on its longtime support for PAL.

PAL’s position is so bizarre that some observers have started to question whether it’s in bed with turf manufacturers.

PAL could use some help, it seems. How about an offer it can’t plausibly refuse?

I’d bet PAL parents would like to know the real reason Tim Richey insists on a synthetic field. After all, it’s their kids who will be playing there.

I’d also wager Eric Larson would value his planned housing development on Trumbull as worth at least $100,000 a year more if it bordered a historic field with real grass.

That’s a small sum compared to the total project cost. So let’s have a campaign to raise the additional $100,000 for annual maintenance and give it to PAL – so that the young people of our city can play there on natural grass.

If PAL refuses that offer, Richey will have to give the community a real explanation for opting for artificial turf – rather than the phony one he’s been getting away with.

I’d be happy to chip in the first $100.


Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.

  • javierjuanmanuel

    the crumbled rubber is no more dangerous than rubber on the street in the form of dust, brake dust, crap leave blowers blow up, every house in detroit has lead paint and asbestos out the ying yang, almost every school does as well. Same with city offices. Most of the high rise buildings as well.

    Pieces of rubber tire only make you sick if you work in a factory for 30 years, and did it the old days with no mask on.

    You might die ten years early.

    15 ball games per year, 30 practices, is less harmful then a summer on a landscaping crew with a leave blower.

  • CommonSenseInTheD

    Let’s also “ask” Richey the million dollar question about whether PAL is actually planning to “pay” for the artificial turf “or is it being donated”? I have asked him that question but never received the answer! PAL would have 10 years of natural grass field maintenance for the Corner by not installing the $1 million into the artificial turf if this line item is in their budget that they a raising within their fundraising campaign plus, all the folks that would line up to raise the additional funds needed to help PAL maintain the natural grass!!!! And, let’s not forget that “a compromise” could also co-exist where the Tigers/Navin Baseball Diamond & Field remains natural for all of the kids & adults to play on but the northern edge of the Site where the fans stadium stands once stood could hold the artificial turf that PAL insists they need to have PAL Football & Soccer games played back to back, even in the rain!!! DO the COMPROMISE PAL and let’s have a WIN/WIN & WIN for 1) the KIDS, 2) the PAL Org. & 3) the Natural Grass No-Brainer & Supporters for the Love of Kids & for the Love of the Game!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • It’s great to read a well-written article by my old neighbor from Green Acres. Way to go Mike. You laid out a position (unlike Richey) with a cogent argument and call for a field more in keeping with the sacred spirit of that particular corner in Detroit. In a way, this represents a lot of what’s going down in the country right now. Do we fight for a healthy and natural resolution requiring more sweat, heart, and soul to maintain…or cave into the expeditious phoney alternative that may look better, but actually sucks for the kids who will play there.

  • CommonSenseInTheD

    Can we get 1,000 folks to each pledge $100 annually? I’m 2nd in line behind Mike Betzold! There were almost 3000 signatures supporting the natural grass field. I am wondering if 1/3 of these supporters would line up behind us Mike & donate their $100 annually?

  • CommonSenseInTheD

    Can we get 1,000 folks to each pledge $100 annually? I’m 2nd in line behind Mike Betzold! There were almost 3000 signatures supporting the natural grass field. I am wondering if 1/3 of these supporters would line up behind us Mike & donate their $100 annually?

    • Gandolph06

      I’m in for $100 a year and more if that’s what it takes. Also, I wonder how Mr. Larson feels about this issue. Would people want to look out over plastic grass or the real thing?

  • Michael F. Copado

    I’ve been saying it since the beginning, Mr. Richey is so arrogant in the way he pushes artificial turf I wouldn’t be surprised that in typical Detroit fashion his pockets aren’t getting lined a little, I keep expecting to hear the field will be renamed the Nike Field, and they’ll be providing the artificial surface.

    As the person that has hosted and put on vintage base ball matches, and tournaments, every weekend on the field for the last three seasons, and who has presented health and safety info to them even at the Oct. 28th meeting, I am saddened by all of this.

    As I said at the meeting, if even New Jersey, once considered the “armpit of America” has documented not just the environmental and health risks, but also the possible financial impact to areas with artificial turf, and recommended against it, then maybe we need to re-evaluate it.

    As you said in the article, I wonder if the Larson Group (who I’ve come to respect during all this, much more the Richey and his ilk,) are actually going to have any takers in their residential/retail development once the plastic is laid down on the field. As this report from New Jersey states, there are all sorts of issues with heat and even smell being given off by these fake fields.