Correction: A previous headline incorrectly stated that PAL lobbyist Jim Curran wants to padlock the gates. Curran stated that some police officers want to padlock the gates over concerns of protests.
By Michael Betzold
Motor City Muckraker
As stewardship of Detroit’s most historic sports field shifts from a group of volunteer caretakers to the Police Athletic League, tensions over the transition have been mounting. Despite heated words from both sides, however, some stakeholders still hold out hope for a way to modify PAL’s plans to carpet the field with artificial turf.
PAL lobbyist Jim Curran said some police officers want to padlock the gates to the field at Michigan and Trumbull in order to prevent the Navin Field Grounds Crew from holding final community events there on April 9.
In an angry online message this week to the grounds crew’s Dave Mesrey, Curran warned that rumors of protests at PAL’s groundbreaking ceremonies planned for April 13 “only piss off DPD more” and falsely asserted that “DPD wants to padlock all the gates and deny access” to farewell activities originally planned for Saturday but now postponed a week because of bad weather.
Detroit police quickly dismissed Curran’s threats, saying he doesn’t speak for the department.
“We would never, ever prohibit anyone from expressing their constitutional rights,” police spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody said. “That’s not who we are.
“Mr. Curran doesn’t have the authority to speak on behalf of the Police Department.”
Mesrey says he and the Grounds Crew are not planning to lead any protest at the groundbreaking for PAL’s new showcase multi-sports youth stadium. But some Navin Field supporters are fed up with PAL’s refusal to budge on the artificial turf and may make their presence felt.
Corktown resident and PAL parent Kim Schroeder says, “If there were to be a protest, it would be polite, nothing raucous.”
It’s unclear how any such protests would be handled by PAL. Police Chief James Craig, who said he was “unaware of a protest,” is expected to be at the April 13 event, along with other city officials.
Woody told Motor City Muckraker that gates would not be padlocked to stop the Grounds Crew’s farewell events, which include plans to show videos on April 9 of two iconic Tiger victories from 1968 and 1976. Members of the grounds crew have maintained the field at their own expense since May 2010 after the abandoned Tiger Stadium was torn down. Many ball games, birthday parties, memorial services, and other events have taken place there the past six summers.
In a phone interview, Curran, an unpaid volunteer for PAL, earlier had expressed frustration and resentment over what he characterized as unfair and unrelenting “attacks on PAL.” Asked for examples of the “attacks,” Curran cited Mesrey’s refusal to let PAL co-sponsor its farewell events. He also blasted the tone and content of public objections, including online and in previous Muckraker stories, to PAL’s conclusions on the safety and appropriateness of artificial turf.
In an email exchange, PAL CEO Tim Richey was asked directly if a final decision has been made on the field surface and replied, “We believe a synthetic turf surface will give PAL the durable field it needs to withstand intense programming throughout the year for thousands of kids in multiple sports. Safety of our kids comes first.”
Publicly, Richey hasn’t budged from his support of artificial turf, despite months of criticism. For his part, Curran pinned blame for the lack of a compromise on the Grounds Crew, even though the group has never had a seat at the table for any discussions on the future of the site. Dave Mesrey responds by saying ,“I’ve always been willing to work with PAL on this project, and I still am.”
In November, Detroit City Council approved PAL’s plans for the parcel, as well as for housing along Trumbull and retail along Michigan to be built by developer Eric Larson.
PAL kids play now on fields scattered around the city, but at least one PAL soccer team has already begun practicing at Navin Field. Richey says PAL will continue to rely on parents and carpooling to transport kids to both the traditional neighborhood playfields and the much greater distances to the new stadium in Corktown.
PAL is being awarded a $3 million federal grant meant to preserve the historic diamond that was the site of baseball from 1896 until 1999, when the Tigers abandoned it for Comerica Park.
To date, there has been no evident progress on backdoor conversations reportedly still taking place on a way to satisfy PAL’s programming needs without laying a carpet over the historic field. Holding the keys to any compromise may be the PAL campaign’s major financial backers, including the Skillman Foundation and the Ralph Wilson Foundation, and the focus of pressure from critics of carpet is now shifting to those foundations. In addition, Larson is known to favor a natural grass field but has so far avoided injecting himself into the public controversy.
The solution could be a 3% hybrid surface in which natural grass would grow around artificial implants, making the field more resistant to wear and tear while keeping it mostly real. But it appears that for now PAL is more concerned that no one try to spoil its April 13 party than about efforts toward a compromise.
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.