Lapointe: Should Comerica Build Back Better or Should Ilitch Just Sell the Tigers?

August 12, 2022, 1:34 AM by  Joe Lapointe

Chris Ilitch (Company photo)

The Tigers will now Build Back Better by rebuilding again, this time with a new general manager to be named later.

But until he replaces the fired Al Avila, owner Chris Ilitch might consider a couple other options to give his baseball business a badly needed boost.

First, he could try rebuilding Comerica Park, the cockeyed baseball stadium that opened in 2000 and has never fixed its fatal flaws. Such things can be done.

The Toronto Blue Jays, for instance, are planning to renovate Rogers Center (the former Sky Dome) over the next two or three off-seasons. And they’re paying for it themselves.

Then again, perhaps Ilitch and his family should just cash out and sell the Detroit franchise – as is, a fixer-upper -- after 30 years and let someone else have a try. Forbes lists the value of the Tigers as $1.4 billion.

That’s a pretty hefty profit on an investment of $85 million in 1992. But the average baseball team value is $1.85 billion, according to Forbes, and the Tigers are merely 18th in the 30-team major leagues.

Imagine what they would be worth if they were a well-run operation in a first-rate ball yard.
Comerica is a mixed blessing. It looks great on TV with all that ivy and that fountain and those statues and the Motor City skyline as a backdrop.

In some ways, it’s fun to go there, too. I share two season seats for 10 games and I pick and choose various other games to sit in various sections.

I took two of my grandchildren (and their dad) to a recent game and they enjoyed the best carousel in Major League Baseball, although they were intimidated by the Ferris wheel. (Wait until next year!)

Hot, Wet and Loud

Comerica Park (Deadline Detroit)

But the problems at Comerica start when you try to actually watch the game. Because there is virtually no covering overhead, Comerica’s customers bake in the sun and soak in the rain.

In the upper deck, on hot and sunny days, the fans in the front seats usually migrate two dozen rows back to the top rows of the stadium to catch a rare patch of shade.

Day or night, the upper deck is too high up and too far back because the architect had to accommodate two levels of luxury boxes between the two decks.

Many of these pricey suites have often stayed empty in recent seasons as Ilitch’s Tigers plunged toward baseball’s basement.

In Comerica’s lower deck, many seats offer poorly-pitched sight lines because the elevation between rows is not steep enough. There’s no shade there, either, unless you wish to pay a premium price to sit in the posh “Tiger Den.”

Even if they don’t lift a hammer, the Tigers can improve the Comerica experience by turning down the relentless fake enthusiasm of recorded noise and shouting announcers.

During Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Cleveland Guardians, the Cleveland radio announcer Tom Hamilton mocked the phony cheerleading of the Comerica speaker blasts.

Every pitch, he said in the bottom of the ninth, brought a new order blaring over the speaker system. “Last pitch, the fans were told to dance,” he said. “This pitch, they’re supposed to clap their hands. What might come next?”

After a few more blasts of recorded artificial enthusiasm, Hamilton noted:  “Comerica isn’t the kind of place you come to if you want to talk to the person sitting next to you.”

But if you wanted to hear baseball talk when Ilitch fired Avila on Wednesday afternoon, you could hear of fusillade of it on radio station 97.1 The Ticket.

The station stressed the shabby side of Tigers public relations in the Ilitch era.

First, in the 5 p.m. hour, the host (I think it was Mike Valenti) began ranting about how the Tigers’ media relations department had not set up an audio connection with the studio for the live news conference.

“We are the flagship station!” he thundered.

A Sign of the Times

When the station tried to tap into the live feed from Comerica, the line went dead, the host went nuts again and the show broke for several commercials before returning with a different feed, courtesy of WDIV, Channel 4.

After it ended, the host raged on about how awkward and ill-informed Ilitch appeared and sounded.

True, Ilitch’s answers were mostly platitudes and boiler-plate corporate speak. He couldn’t remember when he last extended Avila’s contract, saying it was 2021 when it was in 2019.

As for now, Ilitch remains the landlord at Comerica. Is it too soon to remodel what still seems like a newish stadium? Not really. After 23 years, Comerica needs at least a facelift, perhaps a total replacement.

Such things also happen.

The Atlanta Braves, for instance, left Turner Field in 2016 after 20 years and the Texas Rangers left Globe Life Park in 2019 after 25 years.

If the Tigers were to build anew, they could put a better ballpark in the parking lot between the current Comerica and Woodward Avenue.

That’s been done, too. When the New York Mets replaced wretched old Shea Stadium with Citi Field right next door in 2009, the camera on the game telecast from the new park showed the remnants of Shea, then just a giant pile of rubble.

“Shea Stadium,” said announcer Keith Hernandez, “never looked so good.”

Perhaps Comerica could meet the same fate.

In the meantime, this week’s prize for looking good at Comerica goes to the young man on Sunday who walked to the front row in the lower deck behind the backstop screen in the bottom of the ninth inning and held aloft a simple sign that was easy to see on TV.


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