Vanishing Ball Parks

SOMEHOW the crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, even the green of the grass seems sharper in a historic old ball field like Detroit's Tiger Stadium or Boston's Fenway Park. These places were built for one purpose: baseball. They're tiny in comparison to today's domed, Astro- Turfed monuments. They're also more intimate, more attuned to what was once just a game, not big business.

The past tense applies to most of these troves of baseball nostalgia. Now another of their number, Tiger Stadium, may be headed for its last hurrah. Last week Detroit's electorate voted to back the plans of their city government, and of Tiger owner and pizza magnate Michael Ilitch, to build a new home for the team.

But a vocal minority of Detroiters has always held out for the old park. When calls for a modern facility arose years ago, they formed the Tiger Stadium Fan Club and tirelessly pleaded their case.

Anyone who has ever attended a game in Tiger Stadium, or walked its aisles and rows in the off-season, can sympathize with that case. There's not a poor seat in the house. The arched, sharply pitched seating creates a gravity flow of attention down to the athletes below. The era of Ty Cobb, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner still resonates. Al Kaline may sit in the press box these days, but his memory will always roam right field.

But nostalgia, apparently, doesn't make up for inadequate parking, pinched space for food and souvenir vendors, and constricted seating capacity - or so the bottom-line calculus goes. The lure of thousands of new construction and service jobs in an economically depressed city is great. And can the millionaire players of the 1990s really be showcased in a park that opened its doors in the misty past of 1912?

Still, if there's any game where the past still plays, and pays, it's baseball. Nostalgia and tradition keep many fans coming, even when the sport's key figures squander its place in Americans' hearts with players' strikes and certain owners' ego trips. Baseball would do well to show that it still has a little heart.

Why not start by ensuring that not all the old ball parks disappear? Even Boston's beloved Fenway is under pressure to go the way of Tiger Stadium. Preserve one or two of these reminders of the game's early days as living museums - perhaps as sites for special games or events, if money-driven big-leaguers inevitably go elsewhere. The national pastime's past could help ensure it a future.

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