It’s fall, a season of hot cider, elections and the World Series. For baseball, it’s a time even a sporadic fan may check the papers for the unfolding narrative of the series and watch a few innings of this most American sport.
Like most casual fans, I’ll certainly check on what happens. At least as intriguing to me, though, is the matchup of two remarkably, almost unbelievably different American cities, both ones I’ve had experience in.
Like most Americans, my weeks in San Francisco have been largely as a tourist. Days spent in that town have been remarkably pleasant and entertaining. It is as fascinating, diverse and often spectacular as almost any major city on the planet.
Detroit is an entirely different case.
We all have images these cities’ names call to mind, but statistics can fill out the picture.
• Both cities are of similar size, but Detroit’s population is plummeting like few cities in our nation’s history.
• The average value of owner-occupied houses in Detroit: around $65,000. In San Francisco: around $400,000.
• Median home price at sales in Detroit: somewhat over $100,000. In San Francisco: just north of $700,000.
• Detroit has large swathes of abandoned houses, often block upon block of them. San Francisco uses every bit of space to creatively and expensively house its population.
It’s as though these cities are in separate nations. Detroit sometimes sounds like a failed state, while its World Series rival basks in love.
My time in Detroit was decades ago, in 1971, three years after the city’s devastating riots. I had a job through the University of Michigan interviewing welfare recipients in the city’s neighborhoods and large housing projects. Many of those I interviewed were laid-off auto workers. I was allowed into their homes, where I asked them sometimes (in retrospect) intrusive questions and was always – always – treated well.
I was a dumb, naive white kid from Seattle viewing a world that was foreign to me – even after years of tutoring in Seattle’s Central District. I came to have real respect for the city’s residents and what many in this former auto boom town had experienced.
We would often venture into town for Tigers’ games. Old Tiger Stadium was a treat. The neighborhood, though, was a little tough. Kids, maybe 8 years old, would ask for protection money – 50 cents or so – to watch our car. We paid, even though we knew they would be asleep by the third inning.
I have great memories of watching 30-game winner Mickey Lolich, the late and wonderful Mark “The Bird” Fydrich – he of long conversations with baseballs – and even of the less notable shortstop, Eddie Brinkman.
In a live interview after a play in which he helped the Tigers clinch the 1972 American League crown, Brinkman spontaneously bubbled how while he was glad for himself, he was delighted to do this for those other (insert obscenity here). Even baseball interviews are grittier in Detroit.
While I haven’t been in Detroit in years, I follow its narrative with real interest, sadness and even a little hope. There are tales out of Detroit these days of its urban adventurers, people bravely trying to rebuild neighborhoods. Longtime residents are partnering with – as is the typical American tale – newly arrived immigrants who can’t afford to live elsewhere. They are setting up urban farming, neighborhood beautification and other projects that take more grit and endurance than staring down a fastball. NPR recently ran a story about “Detroit Snobs,” people proud of their struggling but tough and inventive city.
So, while I enjoy the Giants and their wonderful town, a large part of me will be rooting for the underdog, both to win the series and to somehow eventually emerge as a reinvented urban success.