Fans Rally to Tiger Stadium

Old-time baseball park has endearing quirks, defenders say

DETROIT'S Tiger Stadium, built in 1912, is one of the few remaining early 20th-century shrines of the American pastime.

Like other urban ballparks of its era, it was squeezed onto a city block, necessitating an architecture that puts fans right up to the foul lines and up over the playing field. The $4 bleacher seats in center field may be the "best cheap seats" in baseball, say the park's boosters - better than some box seats elsewhere.

At a time when other venerable ballparks - the old Comisky Park in Chicago, for example - have given way to modern structures, the Detroit Tigers' home grounds have long been the subject of negotiation and controversy.

In the 1970s, team owners, in league with city officials, made no secret of their desire to trade in the old park for a sprawling, domed arena. The new owner, Little Caesar's Pizza tycoon Mike Ilitch, has not yet made clear his plans for the stadium. Repairs are being made, but a club spokesman emphasizes that this does not imply management is committed to keeping the old park.

The economic incentive for a new park is clear: maximize profits by providing more high-priced seats and better quarters for food and souvenir concessions, as well as improved parking.

But that motive has to be weighed against history and the sheer pleasure of watching the game in a place designed with nothing but baseball in mind, say Detroit baseball faithfuls who revere the old stadium. They formed the Tiger Stadium Fan Club six years ago. Club members campaign tirelessly for the park and miss no chance to extol its short right-field line, its overhanging upper deck, and the in-play center-field flag pole - quirks that give a park character.

"It's remarkable that the stadium gets so many people, 52,000, in such a small space, and so close to the field," says Frank Rashid, a fan-club member and professor of English at Marygrove College here. "The first row of the upper deck in the new Comisky Park is in the same position as the back row of Tiger Stadium's upper deck."

Club owners who angle for "sweetheart" deals to underwrite new stadium construction are the threat, Mr. Rashid says.

"It's time our society stopped subsidizing billionaire owners and players."

He and his fellow fan-activists in Detroit have colleagues in Boston, home to historic Fenway Park. The other old-time major-league park, Chicago's Wrigley Field, has undergone some of the revenue-enhancing changes (improved space for concessions) that could help ensure Tiger Stadium's future, Rashid says.

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