Even in tough times, Detroit fully backs its Tigers
World Series championship would give struggling city something to celebrate
DETROIT -- Every morning, Toney High pushes a grocery cart filled with his belongings to the corner of St. Antoine and Monroe in downtown Detroit.
High plants himself on a stack of plastic crates and clutches his trombone, patched up with duct tape to preserve the dulcet tones of "Just My Imagination" by the Temptations, or "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" or any other melody in his repertoire.
He sports an orange Tigers hat, an American League Championship Series shirt, a Tigers pin on the left collar of his black leather jacket and a Tigers wristband. His allegiance is unquestioned, and on every game day for the past four seasons, the man known on the streets as "T-Bone" relocates a few blocks north near Comerica Park and plays his instrument for all to hear.
High has been homeless since September 2009. He was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., split his childhood between Middletown, Ohio, and Saginaw, Mich., and resided in Europe, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Waco, Texas, before settling on the Motor City.
Throughout High's copious travels, he has never witnessed the passion and enthusiasm currently on display in Detroit. The Tigers will host Games 3 and 4, and possibly Game 5, of the World Series at Comerica Park.
"I have never been in a city where the World Series has been," High said. "But I see all of the confetti flying around. This town is going to be exciting this weekend. It's exhilarating to know that we're a part of history."
Strolling down Cadillac Square, it's nearly impossible to dismiss the capacious red-and-white checkered display adorning the west side of an old white building.
The painting includes a depiction of "The Spirit of Detroit," a bronze statue perched in the center of downtown. In the portrait version that provides character to the outside of Checker Bar & Grill, the illusory figure is carrying a tray of drinks. It took the collective effort of 40 people more than two days to complete the artwork at the restaurant, a fixture in downtown Detroit since 1952.
The eatery's 60-year run has included a predictable procession of ups and downs. Ford Field, the home of the Detroit Lions that sits adjacent to Comerica Park, hosted Super Bowl XL in 2006. Later that year, the Tigers hosted the Cardinals for a pair of World Series tilts. Checker Bar & Grill, about a 10-minute walk from each venue, tripled its staff and extended its hours for each peak sporting event and reaped in the boosted revenue.
Then, the recession struck, and Checker was far from immune.
"We were down, way down," said Karen Munro, who owns and operates the restaurant with her sister, Kathy. "We still are."
A month of postseason baseball, and the accompanying morale and spirit, provides the Munros with a brief reprieve from the harsh reality that exists beyond the checkered wall.
"Everybody left the city," Munro said. "Nobody lives downtown anymore. It's terrible."
The morning after the Tigers captured the AL pennant, Shannon Eagan was on the phone, purchasing 3,500 units of merchandise for her store.
For all of the financial and dispositional turmoil that has shackled Detroit -- and much of the nation -- in recent years, interest in Tigers gear has never waned, she said. In fact, the business for which Eagan works, Sports Mania, actually enjoyed a 33 percent increase in sales from 2010 to '11.
"It's a Detroit thing," said Christi Smarch, an employee at Sports Mania. "People could be eating out of a box and figure out a way to support the team. I've never seen anything like it in my life. The poor of the poor will come in and get a shirt to support these teams. When this town lights up, it lights up, and it doesn't matter if you're the creme de la creme or you're way down here -- you're going to support the team."
That includes High, who plans to assume his typical position for the World Series contests, behind the 36th District Courthouse, within shouting range of the ballpark.
"Sports, it's funny, because the salaries are big, and some people take offense to that, and we're spoiled and we're supposed to be role models," said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "But through it all, what it does to people is unbelievable. It's unbelievable the impact it has on people's lives.
"I've been around quite a while, and I've never seen [so much] passion for a team. I live in Pittsburgh, and in Pittsburgh, it's the Steelers. But in Detroit, it's the Tigers. And that's not to take anything away from the Red Wings or the Pistons or the Lions. But here, for whatever reason, the Tigers are kind of a favorite son."
With the NHL amid an indefinite lockout, the Tigers' feats this season penetrate even further into the city's well-being. Downtown businesses have no idea when to expect a return from Red Wings fans. Meanwhile, the Hilton Garden Inn, the hotel in nearest proximity to Comerica Park, booked all 198 of its rooms for this weekend before the Tigers secured a World Series berth.
"This will hopefully tide some of those businesses over until the hockey season is back on ice," said Scott Watkins, a senior consultant with Anderson Economic Group, a firm based in East Lansing, Mich., that offers research and consulting in various economic fields.
As the Tigers scrimmaged their fall instructional league squad on Monday, clusters of fans climbed up a platform and peered in on the action through a fence on the south side of the ballpark. Throughout the week, they invaded, in hordes, the handful of local team shops, eager to collect any item sporting the script "D."
"The energy of the city is unbelievable," Smarch said. "Everyone is happy and smiling. Everyone is invested in the team."
The activity and liveliness have been a pleasant adjunct. The city's moniker carries with it a gritty connotation indicative of the afflicted auto industry. The Motor City embodies the nation's recent economic woes, as Chrysler and General Motors, the financial backbones of the region, were fractured by Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. Detroit's population also plummeted 25 percent in the past decade, according to the 2010 census.
"The area in and around Detroit has been among the hardest hit in the country, in terms of the recession and the loss of manufacturing employment," Watkins said.
Watkins estimated that the city should generate about $10 million in revenue for each World Series affair it hosts. The heightened morale and pride in the area, however, is immeasurable.
"We're a very close community, a very sports-oriented community," said Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. "When [fans] are going through tough economic times, as this community has at various points here, they need to be in a position where they have some place that they can relax, be in a position where they can enjoy themselves and get away. It's something to rally about, and hopefully we can bring home a world championship."
John Daley dwelled in the Motor City for 30 years before relocating to Los Angeles and then Honolulu. As he paced the streets of downtown Detroit earlier this week, he couldn't help but notice: A World Series might not provide sustained salvation, but the Tigers have filtered a breath of fresh air into an area in desperate need of rejuvenation.
For those who still grace the mostly barren streets, who still dispense their spare change into T-Bone's white bucket, who still watch the water sprout up from the Edison Memorial Fountain, who still squeeze in through the slightly ajar gate to marvel at the dwindling evidence of dirt and grass at the site of the old Tiger Stadium -- a win for the Tigers is a win for Detroit, and a win for them.
"The city is down," Daley said. "Our better days might be behind us, so it's good to have a pick-me-up. It's going to bring all of the spirit back.
"It's a revival."