In downbeat Detroit, Tigers are a source of pride

A shuttle bus from Nemo's Bar transports Tigers fans to games at Comerica Park in Detroit. ZACH HELFAND / Staff
A shuttle bus from Nemo's Bar transports Tigers fans to games at Comerica Park in Detroit. ZACH HELFAND / Staff
Posted: July 30, 2013

DETROIT - A bus rumbled over a potholed street and stopped at a bar just past the old Tiger Stadium. A line of people waited for it on the sidewalk outside the bar. The bus offered 52 seats and a ride to the game. The patrons in line smiled.

Today, this fleet of buses would ferry fans to another sellout a mile and a half down the road at Comerica Park. In a city that filed for bankruptcy less than two weeks ago, the first-place Detroit Tigers are a source of pride. The Tigers would sweep the series against the Phillies. They sold out every game.

JoAnn Thomas drove one of the six buses owned by Nemo's, an old Detroit sports bar in the Corktown neighborhood. She shuttles patrons to and from each game in an old green and white bus. Graffiti dots the walls and ceiling. On the walls, instead of campaign posters for politicians, there are imitations for Tigers players: "Vote Miggy" or "Vote Hunter."

Thomas greeted each person who stepped onto the bus. Like most Tigers fans, Thomas, 52, grew up in Michigan. She is from Flint, another hardscrabble city an hour north of Detroit. The most recent census data ranked the state 47th in net migration. About two people leave the state for every newcomer. The passengers on the bus are second- and third-generation fans. They grew up with the team, like Thomas.

"Are you kidding me?" Thomas said, driving the bus. "Ernie Harwell. My dad. Mustang right down the road. AM radio."

She laughed.

"We would drive north from Flint," she said. "Always seemed like there was a Tigers game on the radio."

Detroit filed for bankruptcy on July 18. The financial troubles have been decades in the making. Many stand to lose pensions. As Thomas drove, the talk on the bus was about baseball. Max Scherzer had dominated Saturday. Miguel Cabrera hit another home run. The Phillies couldn't contend.

"I don't hear anything negative," Thomas said. "And people don't ever talk about positives."

Thomas pulled up to the street running past center field and let off her passengers.

"Get your brooms ready," she said. "Go Tigers!"

Then the bus rolled back into Corktown, back to Nemo's. Across the street, a man mowed the grass in the lot where the Tigers played for 87 years, up until 2000. It is vacant now, like thousands more lots around the city. The city doesn't maintain it. Until three years ago, the field was overrun with weeds.

A group called the Navin Field Grounds Crew fixed up the field in 2010 and restored it to its original dimensions. This day, they played a game with 1860 rules: no gloves, old balls, and vintage uniforms.

Harrison Richardson waited for that game to start as the buses idled nearby. Richardson has lived in Detroit for 55 years, all his life. He has found part-time work with a food distributor in the city.

"It's up and down," he said. "But I'm blessed to have that."

The people here identify with the Tigers. Downtown, the workers at Lafayette Coney Island who shout orders in Greek accents wear Tigers hats. Seemingly everyone does.

Tigers manager Jim Leyland's father was a factory worker. Leyland knows about getting laid off. After the Tigers clinched the American League East in 2011, he choked up when he said he hoped the Tigers could lift people's spirits.

Richardson watches the Tigers when he can. He likes to talk sports.

"My heartbeat telling you all this is bouncing off," he said. "To be able to talk about something normal besides corruption and politics and all the other bullcrap that we go through here."

When the Tigers frustrate him, he goes on walks. He said Corktown is better than it was 10 years ago when "the rats were taking over."

Now, Nemo's and other restaurants are enjoying a slow revival. The bar has yellowed newspaper clippings on the wall from past victories. It was mostly full by late morning. Fans crowded the dark wooden bar. Pat Osman, Nemo's 44-year-old manager, said it was maybe a slow day. But the Tigers have been winning, and the fans have been coming.

"People are spending money to go," he said.

Nemo's doesn't charge for the return ride. They are glad to have the business. The Tigers won again Sunday, a sweep. Thomas got her wish.

The buses took turns shuttling patrons back to the bar. Five hours after the first passengers left for the game, they stepped off the bus again, still smiling.

Contact Zach Helfand


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