FoS 20: Frank Rashid on what two decades of fighting to save Tiger Stadium taught him about American politics

There were innumerable people who helped Joanna Cagan and I learn the nuances of the sports stadium subsidy business when we first began our research more than 20 years ago, but I think it’s say that no one devoted as much time and expertise to the cause as Frank Rashid. A Detroit English professor and lifelong Tigers fan, Rashid was one of five friends who in 1987 founded the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, which became one of the longest-lived community groups fighting first to preserve a historical ballpark they loved as fans, and later to stop the flow of public funds to a private stadium project as concerned citizens.

One of my most enduring memories of researching Field of Schemes is of Rashid driving me and a couple of friends around Detroit, regaling us with tales of past and present government mismanagement and racist urban planning, along with a few tidbits of Detroit baseball lore (“That’s the house Ty Cobb lived in when he supposedly murdered a guy”) — and afterward, getting to visit the model of a proposed Tiger Stadium renovation, designed by architects John and Judy Davids, that was in storage at Rashid’s house. I was fortunate enough to get to go to a couple of games at Tiger Stadium with Rashid and other Fan Club members, and even more fortunate to get to get to testify alongside him before Congress. The book and this website simply would not exist as such without him, and given the amount of advice and knowledge he and other Detroit activists shared with people facing similar battles in other communities, neither would much of the stadium subsidy opposition nationwide.

ND: Hi, and welcome to the Field of Schemes 20th anniversary interview series! I am extremely pleased today to be joined by Frank Rashid, who is one of the cofounders of the Tiger Stadium fan club and who recently celebrated, if I’m counting right, his 30th anniversary as a stadium activist. Am I right about that?

FR: I think that’s right, from ’87 to — yes, we did mark it.

ND: I had to think about when the Tigers were in the playoffs. The Darrell Evans series.

FR: That’s right.

ND: Well, thank you for being here. You’ve been somebody who’s been you know following and involved with this stuff even longer than me which is —

FR: I think I’ve been following it longer than you’ve been alive, Neil.

ND: It’s entirely possible! I know this story and readers of the book know the story, but tell me a little bit about how the fan club got founded.

FR: It actually started when I read a column by a classmate of mine, Mike Betzold, in the Free Press. He had gotten wind that the Tigers — under Tom Monaghan, this was some time ago — were making noises about a new stadium. Not even 10 years had passed since the publicly funded renovations that were supposed to guarantee the stadium’s future for at least 30 years from that point, from 1978. I didn’t know an awful lot about the stadium finances, but I at that point just loved Tiger Stadium — it was one of the locations in Detroit that was common ground for many of us and that we loved growing up. So I called Betzold and I said, “Is there anything that can be done about this?” So he said, “Well, you know, maybe we can put something together.”

So we got a few of our friends: my brother Kevin, Jerry Lemenu, Bob Buchta, and Mike and I, and we got together for a pizza at Buddy’s pizza in Detroit, which is an institution, and watched the Tigers get no-hit and still win against Baltimore, I think it was September 2nd. [Ed note: It was indeed September 2nd, but it was Cleveland the Tigers beat despite being one-hit.] And while we were doing that, we made plans for what we were going to do. We pooled our money, ordered bumper stickers and T-shirts, and handed them out to people outside the stadium for anybody who would give us their name on a mailing list. Some of them were even accurate!

And so we started a group, and it caught on. We got a lot of favorable publicity because we tried to keep the issue very light at first, make it kind of a pro sports thing, a feel-good “people love Tiger Stadium.” And got a lot of great publicity from the local media, and that got us members. Three hundred people showed up for our first membership meeting in February of ’88, just a few months after we got going. And they turned out to be some real loyal, strong, wonderful people — people like Catherine Darin and Eva Navarro and people who had been with us for a long time — both of those wonderful women are now deceased. But it was a wonderful gathering of people and it stayed light for a while, even as we were learning more and more about baseball stadium economics, and starting to realize what a boondoggle this really was in the city of Detroit. And how really wrong it was when you had a treasure — Tiger Stadium I would say is a treasure like Fenway Park or like Wrigley Field, both of which are still still going and still contributing to healthy franchise values for their team owners.

So as we got this going it became, especially for me, much less of a baseball — even less of a historic preservation issue, even though I’m a strong preservationist — it became really about “How can we be subsidizing the wealthiest people in our society?” And I came to realize this is not unusual, but this was the issue that landed in my lap. And so I started to fight it even more intensely because of that.

ND: One of the first realizations that Joanna Cagan and I had working on the book was we went into it thinking, like I think a lot of people who follow this casually did, that “Oh yeah, this is one of those battles where the sports fans are all saying ‘the teams need to get whatever they need,’ and the people who aren’t sports fans are saying ‘no, don’t spend our taxes.’ But there are plenty of people, whether it’s in Detroit or the Fenway Park folks — really you can pick the city, there are plenty of sports fans who are opposed to these deals, either in spite of or because of their involvement with the team.

FR: Yes, I think that’s it. You know, I recently have written something about this where I was thinking about the deal that the teams have with us. We give them our loyalty, we buy their merchandise, we listen to their advertising, we read their stuff in the newspapers. We support them. But we don’t have to turn over hundreds of millions of public dollars that can go to other more worthy projects that are legitimate public interests. And that’s where the deal got broken. There are more intense Tiger fans than I was — but not too many. I just grew up loving this game, loving this team, loving the experience of baseball in Detroit and a Tiger Stadium. And to me they broke the deal. The illusion was that they were our team. The Tigers are our team. That’s what they sell. And I realized, no. That illusion doesn’t work for me anymore. And so it’s been really painful to realize that — that the loyalty isn’t mutual.

ND: Do you think that’s something that’s hard for sports fans to realize? Certainly plenty of fans resent their teams and their team owners for all sorts of different things whether it’s trading all their good players or charging too much for ticket prices — or tearing down a stadium. But it seems like it’s hard to navigate believing in the team as something that’s a communal experience. You wear the gear, but you at the same time are recognizing that it’s a corporation that’s owned by somebody — we may be attached to ordering things off of Amazon, but very few of us, I would think, wear hats with the Amazon logo.

FR: Yeah, it’s the same kind of thing. Hey, sell us this illusion that they are our team, and because we like it, we buy it! It’s the Detroit Tigers. It’s the Ford Motor Company, but it’s the Detroit Tigers. They’re ours. It’s the Boston Red Sox. It’s the New York Yankees. It’s the Los Angeles Dodgers. The teams belong to the community; that’s the illusion.

We willingly suspend our disbelief about about the fact that it’s a business and the owners may be a crook or a racist or whatever. But the team was ours. And that’s the hard part to realize that really that is an illusion. You can accept it for a while, and then sometimes it’s not so not so good anymore.

ND: So the Tiger Stadium battle went on, if we count it as starting from from ’87 , when did they finally, they left in —

FR: 1999 was the last game.

ND: And when did they tear it down?

FR: 2009, finally.

ND: So in the various stages, it went on for over 20 years. And when I tell people about the Tiger Stadium Fan Club , it’s always, well, this is one of the great success stories of citizen organizing — except for the end.

FR: Yeah, except for the fact that all of our work paid off in: not only do we have a new baseball stadium, we have a new football stadium, and a new arena! You can’t imagine what great success we all feel.

ND: It’s just like Star Wars, only if Darth Vader won at the end!

This is probably beyond the scope of a short interview, but what are some of the things that you feel like you learned during all that time, maybe that other people in other cities could take away from this in terms of anything from discoveries about the way that this system works to discoveries about what works and what doesn’t in terms of organizing.

FR: I think there are a lot of ways to answer that question. The large issues are: It opened my eyes in many ways to the way we subsidize the wealthy in this country and the ways stadiums are one instance of this and that that’s a larger battle. But this is an important part of it. And there’s a whole feeding frenzy on the stadium game — it’s not just the team owners and the players, it’s the construction people and the developers and the real estate people and the lawyers and a whole bunch of politicians, of course. And it’s all legal — I mean most of it is legal, as far as I know — but it’s a bad game. It’s something that’s stacked against regular folks. And so that’s part of it.

And I recognized too, through fighting two ballot initiatives — or one ballot initiative and one referendum — on this issue, that that system, it’s not just one person, one vote. Because the system is rigged in favor of those who are going to profit from the team. They can all contribute to a campaign. It’s Citizens United at the local level, because it’s their freedom of speech to be able to contribute to a pro stadium initiative. They’re the developers and they’re the bond attorneys and they’re the construction people — they’re all the people who are going to profit from this.

So when you are trying to take part in a referendum about a stadium issue, that’s great that we have those referendums — they should come to votes, they often don’t. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a fair fight. It’s not a fair fight. That’s something else, and it opened my eyes so the ways in which elections work.

There were a lot of larger issues I learned about as a result of this. I specialize as an academic in research about contemporary Detroit, in addition to its literature, and I have been made aware of the way in which cities work and the way development happens in cities, not always for the most altruistic or the most public spirited reasons.

So those are the large things. Along the way, though certainly we learned very early on — there were five of us to start with, and we were a bunch of writers and artists and teachers — we didn’t have the expertise to make this work. But if we got the word out, which we were able to do early on, to people who did know how to make it work, like the architects and the lawyers and the urban planners and people who just had influence, knowledge, ability that we didn’t have. That was our what we did. Andthe reason that the fight lasted as long as it did and was as successful as it was — ultimate failure though it ultimately became — was that there were all these great people who were brought together by their love of this ballpark and their interes, later on , in the subsidies for the wealthy. And that became kind of wonderful, meeting all these people that I wouldn’t otherwise have met. And how it jelled — how really great the effort was as a result of that process. I think I could, if I had the energy, start another organization, if I had a Tiger Stadium to work with, something that people loved. If I were able to pull together those diverse groups of people into this, that’s something really useful.

I also found out: Do not overbuy merchandise. When we did the first hug of Tiger Stadium I let two of my pals talk us into “Oh, we’re going to have so many people.” We had this souvenir book that we spent quite a bit on, itt was pretty glossy, pretty nice. And we ended up where we bought , I forget, 10,000 of them or something — we ended up with nine hundred and eighty that I had to get rid of. Along with several posters and all kinds of stuff like that.

ND: I think I still have a couple dozen of those in my closet.

FR: I think everybody in the United States might.

It was don’t believe what they say about how popular you are and how great you are. Be real careful about the money. When you’re grassroots you can’t waste money. And it took us a long time to get out of debt, and time and energy that would have been better spent working on the issue.

ND: That said, though, I think you did have was successes. The Fan Club story has tons of examples of both the power and the failure of American democracy, right? Not just the way that the referendums went , and the power of money there, but I always remember the story — I’m probably going to mangle it, but what was the governor’s fund —

FR: Oh, the Michigan strategic fund!

ND: That he managed to use as a slush fund and then, am I remembering right that it went to a state court and the ruling was, “Yeah, he’s not allowed to spend it without legislative approval, but we’re going to let it go this time”?

FR: Yes, exactly. That’s how they got the $55 million for Comerica Park. But then they went back to the well and got much more through the Michigan strategic fund for the hockey arena.

ND: Oh, that’s the same fund! I didn’t even realize.

FR: Yes. So this is a fund that if you go to their website, you look at what kind of money they give out, it’s supposed to be for worthy development projects: things that will help diversify Michigan’s economy, things that will help Detroit, help commercial districts. And you’ll see a few hundred thousand grant, 30,000 grant, maybe up to five or maybe ten million. But not 55 million, and not 260 million or whatever they ended up using from it for the hockey arena.

From what I can see, this is really unprecedented use of this fund. Some of it’s passthrough money that goes through this fund, but that’s the vehicle they use to make this happen. And that is not the way the fund was supposed to be used. It was set up by Democrats, by Jim Blanchard, to be a development fund to help diversify Michigan’s economy, badly in need of diversity. And the Republicans, John Engler in particular, opposed it, thought it was a terrible idea — big government. And he was going to close it down, and then lo and behold, when the stadium thing came up, he found a way to make use of it.

And then it kind of lay dormant. I shouldn’t say dormant — it was doing its good work through the Granholm administration. And then when the Ilitches wanted a hockey arena, they came back to Rick Snyder, the Republican governor now, and got it.

You know, I don’t understand the fiscal responsibility of this. Big government works for big business, but it doesn’t work for other folks.

ND: And that’s the thing again — there are some people who will approach this whole thing as “Why are you opposed to public spending on sports?” And at least for me, I feel like it’s not fundamentally about whether the government should ever spend money that helps sports projects, it’s about who the government is serving.

FR: That’s right.

ND: Is the government serving the public interest, or is it serving the interest of people with money? And you really cannot have better examples than Michigan and all these sports projects.

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the list that became Chapter 4 of Field of Schemes, “The Art of the Steal.” I think you unintentionally started that by saying, “Somewhere I have a list of what the playbook is.” And I called you up, and I said, “Can I get that list?” And you said, “Well, we have to figure that out. It’s like a list or anything.”

FR: I remember that conversation.

ND: We sat down to figure out, here’s the things everybody does. It’s that there’s economic benefits of it, saying the team s going to move, it’s saying you can’t compete — whether that means compete monetarily or compete for players or compete on the field. And it seemed like this amazing snapshot of the mid-’90s sports business. And ten years later we came back to work on the new edition of the book, and we didn’t have to make any changes to that chapter at all. And if we did a new version of that now, I think it would be exactly the same, because it’s really the exact same same playbook. It just does not change.

Does that surprise you any, that it has managed to go on this long, and they’re just doing the same tactics over and over and over again, sort of cycling through them — if one doesn’t work, you try the next one. But did you expect that by the year 2018 we would be on to something different?

FR: Yes, you know, I did. And that’s another thing you learn is how short the memory of the public is — and of the press, and of a lot of political leaders and activists, even. We don’t really learn from what has happened and from the tricks that have been played on us before. And so a threat to move is going to still be a threat to move — people don’t want to take the chance.

And so all of those little steps that they follow, the little playbook on how to do this, are still very much in operation. I’m shocked. One of the funny things was that they used to say you know there’s Spalding concrete in Tiger Stadium — some cement fell down. Well, you know what happened about three years ago at Comerica Park? Some cement started to fall down. So I’m pretty sure we’re going to start hearing some noise about Comerica Park, just not safe and it’s time to time to start thinking of a new place.

ND: It’s almost 20 years old now, right?

FR: It’s almost 20 years old.

ND: That’s ancient in ballpark years!

FR: Yeah. So we will see.

The problem that I think we will have with a lot of the newer generation of stadiums is that so many of them are right downtown, and are supposedly anchors for all kinds of development, that in selling that aspect of it they’re going to have to figure out what do we do about this big gaping hole we’re going to leave in this area. One of the stages we should add is “Don’t talk about what’s going to happen to the other facility.” They never plan — at least they didn’t plan what was going to happen here for Joe Louis Arena or for Tiger Stadium before they move to the other facilities. That really should be part of the part of the discussion, since these are huge swaths of land that the city should have some plan for once they’re going to be abandoned. And right now they’re just starting to talk about what’s going to happen with Joe Louis Arena after they’ve already built this new arena.

ND: They still haven’t built the soccer stadium, so they can repurpose Comerica to be the soccer stadium. And build their baseball stadium somewhere else.

FR: Yeah, that might be what happens. But really, keep it simple and play to ignorance is part of what’s there. Don’t complicate it by worrying about what’s going to happen to the old place. Even though the civic leaders should be should be on them about that. That’s where they fall down on the job.

ND: So do you see a way that this is ever going to end? When Roger Noll, the sports economist, was here, he was saying, I think that the tide started to turn here. And, as I think I said to him, I’ve predicted the tide was turning before and been wrong, so I’m always hesitant to say that. But part of it’s just that I don’t know what kind of end game you can have. I think people are getting somewhat more skeptical. I think it doesn’t seem as unusual for people to say, “Well, of course economists all agree that sports stadiums aren’t worth big economic numbers and aren’t worth big subsidies. But again, it doesn’t seem like — every week or two it seems like it’s another team that comes out there and is saying, well, of course we need to get more money for renovations or for a new stadium. It’s hard to see it ending any time in our lifetimes.

FR: I kind of agree with you, Neil. But I also know that there is more awareness. There’s more awareness in Detroit. There was a big push — it didn’t work out well — in the wake of the arena deal, which was an obscene deal, because it was right after we declared bankruptcy! I mean, it was in the midst of all of this awful stuff with emergency managers, and taking money from the pensions of the public employees as part of the grand bargain, and threatening the Detroit Institute of Arts collection, and oh, by the way we’re going to turn over nearly 300 million dollars, and the land, to the Ilitches for this new hockey arena.

So in a sense I think it was so obscene that there was more awareness. And then John Oliver came out — so there is a shared understanding among more people now. There was a movement to do a community benefits agreement in the wake of the Little Caesars Arena deal. And then of course the political establishment said, “Oh, good idea, but this one’s a little too you know strong in this way.” And so they put another one on the ballot and put all their strength behind that — Mayor Duggan, by the way. And that’s what we have. We have a very weak community benefits agreement — but there is a community benefits agreement. That language is now out there, and there is a there is a strong group of people, not just Tiger Stadium Fan Club members anymore, who realize what a bad deal this is.

ND: So maybe Roger is right in that the success that the movement to raise awareness at least about these deals has had is that team owners are increasingly … “too embarrassed” isn’t the right term, but that they can’t manage to stand up in public and demand quite the same lavishness of subsidies as they once did. So they’re resorting to, “Well, just give us a little bit here and give us some land and give us some tax breaks — which still adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars. But I guess that’s better than just being able to say, “Write us a blank check.” Although, of course, in Las Vegas the Raiders are practically getting a blank check.

FR: No, you’re right. It’s not going to be a sudden stop of this kind of stuff. Even Obama tried a couple of years in the budget to get rid of federal supports for these things. So there was a discussion; it was happening. And I’m finding it happening more on different levels and that we’re not the only ones bringing it up in Detroit, at least locally. And I think that’s true nationally, too. I think there’s awareness of it. That awareness doesn’t always translate, as we know, into policy change, though. Because there’s too much of a gap between awareness, academic research, all of the things that contribute to our knowledge of how bad these deals really are, and the deal getting done right. The media are not always filling that gap of translating what we know about how bad these deals are into the discussion, because they’re still addicted in some ways to fairness, and they just play off two arguments against each other as if they’re of equal worth.

ND: “Fairness” in scare quotes, right? Not actual fairness, but “balance” and the fairness of “We’re not going to try figure out what’s true, it’s just about you know picking two people with opposing opinions and saying well, therefore…”

FR: And I think that’s changing a lot in the media. But it’s still there n the local media a lot. So until you can really inform the public and bring out the real discussion and the debate and what information exists, the folks with money can wage the campaign that is a a disinformation campaign.

ND: So I’ve got to ask you: Have you found yourself able to watch baseball again yet?

FR: If I’m sitting in a bar and the ball game is on, I will watch it. And I o go back sometimes late at night, when I can’t work anymore, and look at old things like Willie Mays making his catch on YouTube. I still get pleasure from the game. But it’s very hard to follow the Tigers. Much as I would never have believed it. I wonder now how I ever had the time to always make sure I had the radio on at a certain time and could go to 20 or 30 games a year, or however many I ended up going to, and following it in the papers. I spent a lot of time of my life doing this. And I’m puzzled as to how I made that happen.

ND: Is that a good feeling or a bad feeling?

FR: It is a relief. When you love something you’re obligated to it, and to suddenly find yourself free of the obligation, it’s not all bad. There are things I miss about it. But it’s not as much as I would have thought. The Frank Rashid in 1990 or 1985 or whenever I was the most rabid fan that I could have been would be very surprised that he was so able to let it go.


5 comments on “FoS 20: Frank Rashid on what two decades of fighting to save Tiger Stadium taught him about American politics

  1. There are many nuggets of political wisdom in this man’s sad tale.(I’m only being political because “politics” is in the headline). But his quote, “Big government works for big business, but it doesn’t work for other folks.” especially encapsulates how we got to this sorry state of taxpayer financed playgrounds for billionaires. The opposite of limited government is unlimited government and if a majority of referendum voters, city council members, or county commissioners vote to take from the general public and give goodies to the connected, who’s to argue about illegality? Majority rule tends to turn to majority tyranny if left unchecked. Or, as a former POTUS said, ‘If a man tells you “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”, hold onto your wallet’. Enlightening interview, Neil.

    • I should note that the whole bit about the Michigan Strategic Fund is that it wasn’t approved by a majority of anybody — the governor at the time just decided to spend the money on a Tigers stadium without asking any permission, and when the Tiger Stadium Fan Club sued, a court effectively said, “Yeah, that was actually illegal, but we’ll let it slide this time.”

      I’m not super high on the wisdom of the majority, but much of the stadium subsidy story is about the moneyed classes either outright ignoring the majority or buying its support.

  2. Great interview Neil. Yeah this was definitely the most depressing chapter in your book. Partly because of what you said, it was a success story…until it wasn’t. Partly because even though the Yankees evicted people near that park that was almost a forgone conclusion with the evil empire (biased Jays fan here-and obviously the Jays haven’t done anything horrible say in Florida). Whereas here like Rashid said this was such a community-embedded icon.

    But yes I agree with the Star Wars analogy made in the interview. It is like snatching fiscal irresponsibility from the jaws of responsible government.

    • About that how the Jays treat Florida, and specifically Dunedin, comment..
      Pinellas County commits $41.7 million to Blue Jays Stadium http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/Pinellas-County-commits-41-7-million-to-Blue-Jays-Stadium_167635022
      Obviously, they read the playbook & aren’t afraid to bully…

      • Yeah that was the point I was making. Even though I treat the Yankees as the evil empire, my team is far from perfect. On the plus side they are way less powerful.