Friday, July 19, 2013

Detroit Bock City: A Visit to Comerica Park!

Sad news from Detroit, as the City's Emergency Manager officially filed for bankruptcy, an incredible low point after so many decades of decline.  It's a move that might serve to stop the city's financial bleeding, but it is also one that could prove to be a serious threat to city employees, both past and present, whose pensions could potentially be at serious risk.  It surely is a bitter pill for the people of Detroit, and Michigan as a whole, to swallow.

So what happened?  The fate of Detroit since the 1960s has brought about by myriad factors, but with one particular trend having the greatest impact: the decline of the Michigan motor industry.   With American car manufacturers - particularly GM - having to cut costs to compete with foreign markets, among other things, the working population was forced to move on, reducing the city's population by nearly 28%. Less population means less taxes from which to pay for essential services, and with workers and their high paying jobs moving out to the suburbs and beyond, the City of Detroit (which for some strange legal reason, couldn't just annex those suburbs to gain some tax dollars), the downtown core and its surrounds became a haven of unemployment and abandoned buildings.  The concept of White Flight - spurred on by race riots in 1967 - also contributed to the decline of the downtown, and those that were left behind were bequeathed a city centre in truly rough shape.  The decline in manufacturing continued unabated, and so by the 1980s, the city was in dire straits.  Massive areas of the city were abandoned and left to decay, and essential services - like traffic lights and emergency response - were drastically reduced.   This fate was not Detroit's to suffer through alone; around this time, the GM plant in nearby Flint was closed, utterly devastating the city and inspiring Flint native Michael Moore to make his first major documentary, Roger and Me in 1989, which showcased the effects of GM's decision on the once mighty motor town.   In recent years, there have been revamped efforts to try to revive the state of Michigan and its largest city through outside management of city finances, and efforts from Washington to try to bail out the auto industry, as well as a major tourism campaign - Pure Michigan - with advertisements narrated by Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor, Tim Allen, extolling the natural beauty of the state.  But it's hard to see much in the way of improvement.  I truly hope that by keeping the city's creditors at bay, and by encouraging the government to step up its efforts to aid the city's recovery, this bankruptcy decision will mark the beginning of a period of civic improvement.  But suffice to say, things in MoTown are in pretty rough shape indeed.

Despite all this, I've always been interested in checking out Detroit, being the closest major American city to me - other than Buffalo - and yet so seemingly out of reach.  With things being the way they are, it seems to be the case that most people would just avoid Detroit entirely - usually with a Robocop related joke or to.   But others from the area are quick to point out that it's not all doom and gloom in Detroit.  There are, after all, nicer suburbs worth checking out, and the city centre has been the source of considerable improvement in order to drive up tourism.  I feel the same way about Buffalo, a 'Rust Belt' city that is often dismissed for similar reasons, but which I enjoy visiting a great deal.  You just have to know where to go.  But my main fascination with Detroit relates to that old American past-time - baseball.    The Detroit Tigers are one of those mysterious, legendary teams that has been around since the very beginning of baseball, being a charter founding member of the American League and with a history spanning three centuries.  They aren't a dominant team like the Yankees or the Cardinals, but they've always been around, and they manage win the World Series or compete for it every decade or so.  Its cap sports one of the classic logos in baseball lore, a simple black-letter D that speaks back to a time when Mr. Burns could use a nickel to catch a trolley to the Polo Grounds, buy a steak and kidney pie, and invest in that up-and-coming Boston Opera Hat Company.  A classic logo should never need redesigning, and I'm glad the Tigers continue to embrace it.  My grandfather was a Tigers fan for most of his life, as Toronto was without a Major League team until he was past retirement age in 1977, and so I've always had a soft spot for them.

And so, despite all the warning signs to the contrary, my baseball-loving friend and I made the trip down to Detroit to catch a Tigers game.   Thanks to some careful planning and a well charted route, we had a terrific time.  Of course, we had some damned tasty beer along the way.   Indeed, Detroit isn't all bad - in fact, some areas are quite nice indeed - especially around the major stadiums.  You just need to know where to look.

We got a hotel on the cheap - and a decent one at that - right downtown, just a short walk away from Comerica Park, but before checking in, we made the drive out to the wealthier suburb of Dearborn to hit up an excellent beer store, Merchant's Fine Wine, which has a terrific selection of Michigan crafts.  Lots of Founders and Bells, but also some new ones unfamiliar to me, such as Atwater and New Holland.  With a decent haul safely stowed in the trunk, we headed back to the downtown.  One thing I certainly did notice is that yes, the downtown - like that of many an American city - was relatively empty, both of cars and of people.  And yes, there were a fair share of rundown buildings, but nothing truly awful; then again, we did choose our route carefully.  After checking in to the hotel, we hit up a truly exceptional downtown pub - the Grand Trunk Pub - which sports a classic, long American bar area, vaulted ceilings (from its original days as a ticket centre for the Grand Trunk Railroad), and a waiter whose knowledge and interest in the English Premier League made for interesting dinner conversation.  The pub looks like something out of the Prohibition Era, somewhere where people have quaffed pints before Tigers or Red Wings games for generations.  And it also had a terrific, all Michigan craft beer lineup.   A pint of Bells Oberon, HopSlam and New Holland Saison later, and we were off to the game!

Michigan Beer Fact!  Did you know that it is against state law to serve beer in a branded glass in a drinking establishment?  That means no brewery or beer names can be on the glass, so all beer is served in plain, unadorned glassware.  Breweries like Bell's and Founders thus limit their production of branded glassware; even beer stores like Merchant's rarely have them available for sale.

Despite being a new stadium, Comerica Park is steeped in history, and has that wonderful, open feel to the older stadiums of the pre-Expansion era.  Despite the somewhat cheesy entry way, the interior sports a wall of ivy in centre field, statues of Tiger greats like Ty Cobb and Sparky Anderson, and tributes to over 100 years of Tiger history - a classic American baseball stadium.

Now, I'll be picking on the Skydome a great deal here for many reasons, and so I want to take this opportunity to affirm my undying loyalty to the Toronto Blue Jays.  Our stadium isn't the worst in baseball, not by a long shot, but it's far from the best.  Don't get me wrong: a day downtown with the Dome wide open in the sunshine is a truly exceptional experience, but after watching games in both old Yankee Stadiums and now Comerica, I feel that the Skydome really needs to make some improvements to increase fan enjoyment.  It can start by being far less stringent about where fans can be at a particular time.   In Comerica, rather than restrict you to a particular zone due to your seating location, once I had my ticket scanned, the rest of the park was mine to explore. Nobody bothered us, and so we were free to check out all the lounges and special areas before the game.   The food at Skydome is pretty lousy as well, though there have been a few additions recently to the otherwise pizza, hotdogs and "nachos" fare.

But of course my biggest beef with the Skydome is the overpriced, limited selection of beer, which is so bad right now that I usually make a special point to not have a beer at all out of protest.  It's not a hipster thing, it's a wallet thing - I simply cannot justify spending ten or eleven dollars on a beer that I don't really like. Granted, this season the Dome finally has its first craft beer available - Steamwhistle - which should be better news if it weren't for the fact that Steamwhistle is literally a stone's throw away from the Rogers Centre (and should have been available for years now), and were it for the fact that it remains the only craft beer option available.  It's something, I suppose.  But in every conceivable way, Comerica Park has Skydome beat in terms of beer - and it's something that could be done so very easily in Toronto.  So Rogers Centre, Matt's Beer Den is calling you out.  

This is how you should do beer:  

See this?  That's a cup of barrel-aged, locally-brewed, Russian Imperial Stout.  Which I bought on draught, at a baseball game, for NINE FREAKING DOLLARS.  Not ten, not twelve, nine.  To put that in perspective, the Labatt's Blue and Bud Light around the Stadium sold for around eight bucks, so it's about a buck difference.  This was an exceptional glass of beer, something I never in my wildest dreams would have assumed I could buy at a ballpark, but there it was, in all its glory.

Too hot out for stout, you say?  Comerica's got you covered, for on draught they have:

- Bell's Oberon     - Bell's Two Hearted IPA       - Motor City Ghettoblaster
- Founders' All Day IPA     - Arbor Brewing Strawberry Blonde     -  New Holland Belgian Blonde Ale
- Bell's Kalamazoo Stout    - Atwater Java Stout   -  New Holland Full Circle Koelsch.

And that doesn't even count their bottle selection.   All this was made possible by the recent opening of the Michigan Craft Beer stand in right field (by no small coincidence, located immediately behind our section).   An island of refuge in a sea of BMC offerings, the Craft Beer stand is a wonderful idea that gives the fans some variety in their beer purchases, as well as encouraging the Michigan Craft Beer industry, which is a very impressive industry indeed.  The staff there were friendly and knowledgeable about their product, and even suggested other brands (the cashier, seeing me about to pick up an IPA, mentioned that he had recently tapped the keg of the aforementioned Bell's Black Nose Imperial Stout, if I was interested.  Wonderful, wonderful man...).   And this place was busy too!  There was always a good lineup of fans ready to try their next craft beer, with many of them discussing how excited they were to see these brews available at the stadium.

Craft brews not your thing?  No worries - the Blues and the Coors Lights and the Bud were still available exclusively everywhere else, so that the big players - which of course, put up the big bucks - still maintain a near hegemony over the stadium.   But for those, like us, who want something different upon which to spend our beer dollar, the Michigan Craft Beer stand was a welcome sight.   I spent more on beer that evening than I think I have in the last four or five Jays games that I have attended.

So here is my challenge to you, Skydome.  Build one of these stands in your ballpark.  Just one, at least; I'm not advocating for a violent beer revolution here, but rather for a small concession to us beer geeks who yearn for something else.  Toss it in right field or somewhere accessible; I'll happily walk over to get one. But most importantly: make it all Ontario craft brews.  Throw on some Mill St. Organic, Tank House, Amsterdam Big Wheel Amber, Flying Monkeys or Spearhead, maybe a Welly or two - Toronto has a healthy, growing craft beer industry: tap into it!   Build something like this, and I assure you, they will come.  I realize that craft beer can be challenging to keep on tap, far more so than your standard fare.  I also realize that the vast majority of ball fans probably don't care, and are perfectly content with a Keith's or Blue Light or Budweiser.  That's fine, I don't care what they drink.   But a little extra effort will go a long way.  More of my money, and the money of those who love good beer, will go into your coffers by the end of the night, I assure you.

Okay, rant over.

The rest of the game was fine, a classic night out at the ballpark, made more special with glasses of All Day IPA and Ghettoblaster.  The Tigers played well at first, Miguel Cabrera hit a two-run shot, but in the end, the White Sox prevailed.   After an evening capping beer at the Grand Trunk again, we retired for the night, and headed home the next day.   We survived a weekend in Detroit unscathed, and I would happily do it again.   Detroit may be down right now, but with some smart planning and a bit of research beforehand, there are lots of opportunities to check out the city without worrying about a Peter Weller type situation.   Lots of great beer to be had, both from the city itself and from the state of Michigan.

Go Get 'Em, Tigers!

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