10/21/2008 12:41 PM ET
Ode to Tiger Stadium
Singer Matt Watroba keeps the memories alive
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Matt Watroba has lived in and around Detroit his whole life, and he has so many great memories of Tiger Stadium that the folk singer and radio host often finds himself taking a special out-of-the-way route on the way home from work.
"Once a month, rather than drive the freeway home, I will take Michigan Avenue," he says. "I wave and say hello to my old friend at Michigan and Trumbull."
Watroba has been paying attention to the news of the demolition of Tiger Stadium, and one day while driving near the ballpark, he came up with a song title.
"I was just thinking about traditions around the park, like the parking lot, the breakfast place nearby that closed down when the park shut its doors, and the haircutting place, too," says Watroba, who hosts the "Folks Like Us" show on WDET-FM public radio.
"All of a sudden the phrase 'They Used to Play Baseball Here' popped into my head."
The song is a classic folk number, with acoustic guitar picking and a plaintive melody. The lyrics are a mixture of nostalgic sadness and realistic acceptance.
"I drive on through the broken gate, past the booth now still and dark/ Where once the cars were bathed with light, spilling over from the park," Watroba sings.
"I'd flip my keys to Jim or Steve, find my seat and buy a beer/ But this old house is coming down, they used to play baseball here."
Watroba says that he had one central thought as he sat down to write the song.
"When something so pivotal leaves a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood disappears around it, so it's more of a lament for a time when baseball was played in a neighborhood rather than downtown," Watroba explains.
"I mean, I still like Comerica Park a lot and go to games there all the time, but it's just not the same."
Watroba illustrates that sentiment perfectly in the song's bridge, in which he sings, "I know we're moving forward, I guess we probably should/But there's a cost for what we've lost, when things are gone for good."
Watroba says he's been a Tigers fan "since they won the Series in '68."
"I was 8 that year, and my dad is the biggest Tiger fan in the world," Watroba says. "He became a fan in '45, so it goes way back."
For the last five years, Watroba and his father and two brothers have gone to Lakeland, Fla., to catch the Tigers in Spring Training action. And when he's home, Watroba feeds his baseball addiction by collecting baseball songs for his radio program.
"It's becoming quite a cool tradition," he says. "I don't think any other sport has as many songs written about it. There's something about the back story of baseball that makes for great stories and songs, and it's actually the only sport I follow.
"I guess I follow it so closely because if I followed other sports, I'd accomplish nothing in my life."
But Watroba is accomplishing a lot with his music, and "They Used to Play Baseball Here" has helped in that regard.
The publicity the song generated landed Watroba a gig at the most hallowed building in the game: the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
"I was doing a concert in Cooperstown, and a guy who owns a memorabilia shop in the shadow of Doubleday Field heard the song and contacted (Hall of Fame library director of research) Tim Wiles," Watroba says.
"I went and met him and he set me up on the third floor. People gathered around, I sang the song, and there happened to be a 'Save Tiger Stadium' bumper sticker in the background. It was an absolute thrill."
Another thrill, he says, is getting to pass his love of Tigers baseball on to his 13-year-old son.
"Those are the kinds of traditions I grew up with," he says. "Then, it was going to games with my dad, and now it's taking my son."
And even though he still is flooded with sadness every time he drives by Michigan and Trumbull and sees what's left of that old yard, his song will now live on long after Tiger Stadium completely disappears.
"That song is making grown men cry," he says with a chuckle. "I've never written a song that has quite this emotional attachment for people, and it's mostly for men, which is kind of odd.
"The funny thing is that I never mention Tiger Stadium in the song. I guess I don't really have to."
Doug Miller is a Senior Writer for MLB.com/Entertainment. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.