How a Stand Off at Wigle Field Ended up in $100 Million of Investment in Detroit

In the summer of 1997, Dan Varner and I started a baseball league for 120 kids at Wigle Field.  Bordering Cass Corridor and standing in the shadows of the Jeffries Projects, the park seemed like the perfect location to bring baseball back to kids in Detroit.  To raise money for uniforms, we walked the Corridor in our best suits to convince the remaining businesses to sponsor a team for $300 ($200 for T-ball).    Complete astonishment and utter rejection met us at every turn, until we stepped into Fred’s Key Shop, managed then and now by Fred, his wife and brothers.  Fred sized us up for a bit before asking his wife whether we were con men, sophisticated crackheads, or the real deal.  She looked us up and down and issued the verdict.  “They’re for real.”  Without uttering a word, Fred pulled out a book, cut us a check for $300, and then said, “These kids need something to do.” After that, Third Avenue Hardware, an antique shop called Lil’ Class on Cass and a bar called Hungry Hippos all signed on, and we were in business.

When we were forced to take refuge inside the cinder block walls of Wigle Center on opening night as tornadoes touched down across Detroit (the first and only tornadoes in the city in decades), it felt like something much bigger was going on.  The feeling was confirmed at Wigle’s two diamonds on Thursday and Friday nights throughout the summer.  Grandmas who had never played baseball were cajoled out of the stands to coach third base, lawyer friends left their firms early to umpire, and every game seemed to end in a walk-off homerun or a heart-breaking strikeout.

Halfway through the season, a young, white guy we had never seen before walked out into centerfield with a half dozen kids in tow.  He broke out a bag of soccer balls and some pylons and started running soccer drills right between both diamonds.  We only had one kid who could hit it that far, but that was beside the point.  It was our field.  Dan and I looked at each other, and I volunteered to go handle it.  One of the few white guys in Detroit, I took great pride in being the toughest one and figured it was my responsibility to set this guy straight.

I marched right out there and told him that he would have to get off the field.  “We have the permits,” I said.  It had taken us countless hours and many, many visits to the Detroit Rec Department to actually secure a written commitment that we could reserve the field.  That should have settled it.

“I was here last year,” he replied, nonplussed, and went back to coaching.  We had a real standoff on our hands.  Belying my claim to be the toughest white guy in the city, I shrugged and walked back to Dan.  “He’s not hurting anybody,” I said.  Situation resolved.

That guy was Tim Richey.  He had started the Detroit Youth Soccer League a year before Dan and I started Think Detroit.  We merged organizations a couple years later, and merged again with Detroit PAL a few years after that.  Tim Richey is now the CEO of PAL, and Dan and I sit on the Board.

This fall, Detroit PAL will move its home to “The Corner” of Michigan and Trumbull, a $20 million project to give 14,000 young people in our leagues the chance to play all types of sports at the hallowed site of  the former Tiger Stadium.   And yesterday, Mayor Duggan announced that Wigle Field will become home to a $77 million retail and residential development.

If you don’t believe in miracles, look around you.  And if you’d like to help finish Detroit PAL’s new stadium at the Corner, you can buy a brick by clicking here and leave a lasting message behind.  Mine will say:

God makes all things new.

~Revelations 21:5

What will yours say?