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Battle Lines Are Being Drawn Over Fate of Tiger Stadium

ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

It’s been almost 60 years since Harry Donaldson chased Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth out of Tiger Stadium and into a taxi on Michigan Avenue.

He was just a kid then, and he wanted their autographs, which he says he eventually got. Memories like those would fade if the Tigers move to a new stadium, Donaldson says.

“All the ghosts played there,” said Donaldson, 67, a retired van driver who worked on the stadium’s ground crew in the late 1940s.

Tiger Stadium, according to a sign outside the Corktown Citizens District Council, is in Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

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“That’s an old Irish neighborhood,” Donaldson says proudly of the area where he grew up, named for the concentration of immigrants from Ireland’s Cork County who settled there in the first half of the 19th century.

Tiger Stadium and Boston’s Fenway Park, both 79 years old, are the oldest stadiums in the major leagues. Wrigley Field in Chicago is two years their junior.

In a sport that wears its history like a shiny medal, old means tradition, and that’s powerful stuff. The possibility the historic ballpark at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull is nearing its end has sparked emotional debate in a city that has lost many ties to its past.

“What really, literally, do we have left to enjoy in Detroit that is safe and economical and unique to Detroit?” asked state Sen. John Kelly, D-Detroit. Kelly is backing legislation that would block municipal bonding by any Michigan county or city to build a new baseball stadium.

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There are two possible scenarios looming for Tiger Stadium. At least two plans call for renovation of the current facility, an idea to which the Tigers are cool. At least six sites -- both in Detroit and its suburbs -- are being considered for a new park.

Public sentiment is running overwhelmingly to keeping the stadium within city limits.

The most passionate lobbyists are urging renovation of the existing facility. Price tags range from $26.7 million-$95 million.

Estimates for a new stadium run between $150 million and $200 million. Kelly’s legislation would allow municipal bonding for a project of no more than $76 million.

The Tiger Stadium Fan Club, which claims 12,000 members, last year presented the lower-budget Cochrane Plan to the Tigers. The plan would:

--Leave the first and second decks unchanged, including view-obstructing posts in front of some seats.

--Build a third deck that would add 73 luxury suites.

--Expand clubhouse, concession, rest room and office space.

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A second renovation plan, proposed by Ann Arbor contractor Joe O’Neal and Birmingham architect Gunnar Birkerts, would cost $70 million-$95 million. Without interrupting play at the ballpark, that plan over three to four years would:

--Remove all the support posts.

--Expand concessions and restrooms.

--Add a 400-seat stadium club and 200 luxury boxes.

Birkerts and O’Neal have business ties to Tigers owner Tom Monaghan. Birkerts designed the Ann Arbor headquarters for Monaghan’s Domino’s Pizza Inc., and O’Neal was general contractor for Monaghan’s new Ann Arbor mansion.

But Tigers president Bo Schembechler, in his second year in that capacity after a storied career as football coach at the University of Michigan, says the organization opposes renovation. He has hinted that it could be done if a plan were reached for 12,000 lighted, secure parking spaces. The Tigers want to control all parking revenues.

Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara says such a parking plan would be difficult to achieve.

“Parking is a major obstacle” because the stadium is bordered by Interstate 75 on the north and Michigan Avenue on the south, he said.

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McNamara’s first choice is renovation. At least three sites in Detroit are being looked at for a new stadium which, he said, would be linked to economic development.

Plans for condominiums, ethnic restaurants and industrial development “are very much a part of it, ... with the stadium as the focal point,” McNamara said.

Neither McNamara nor Tigers vice president of operations William Haase, to whom the team directs all questions about the stadium’s future, would say where a new park could be built.

Several suburban communities mentioned as possible sites, including Wayne County’s Plymouth Township and Novi in Oakland County, have come out in favor of keeping the stadium in Detroit. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments has passed a resolution urging the Tigers stay in Detroit.

A new stadium site would be have to be chosen between August and December to keep to the Tigers’ plan of being in a new ballpark by 1995.

A never-before-used bonding authority created by the state Legislature in 1970 helps tip the scales in Detroit’s favor.

The state law was enacted to help Detroit and Wayne County build a new stadium for the Tigers and Detroit Lions, who shared Tiger Stadium from 1934 until the Lions moved north to the Silverdome in suburban Pontiac in 1975.

The bonding authority allows the county to sell tax-exempt bonds, and lower interest rates would mean reduced financing costs. The law also allows the Wayne County Board of Commissioners to levy a 5-percent tax on hotel and motel rooms in the county. That would raise about $6 million annually.

McNamara said the county is prepared to use the bonding authority if the Tigers decide to stay in Detroit.

But that points to a new stadium, and an end to the memories on Michigan and Trumbull.

“To me,” Donaldson said, “it would be a sad day.”

Tiger Stadium is a whitewashed monolith rising above its mostly dingy, dilapidated environs in a city known for the frequency with which its residents meet violent ends.

Michigan Avenue, the main artery carrying traffic west from nearby downtown, is in horrendous shape. Spotty asphalt and the old brick street make for a rib-rattling ride.

Earlier this year, Monaghan called Detroit “one of the worst baseball cities in America.” He blamed the city’s crime rate and what he said was fans’ perception that the ballpark area is dangerous for the Tigers’ slumping attendance.

The team drew about 1.5 million fans in 1990, which Haase said ranked 13th out of 14 American League teams. In 1989, the Tigers had the worst record in the majors. Five years earlier, the 1984 Tigers won the most recent of four World Series championships and drew a team-record 2.7 million fans.

Monaghan’s public relations gaffes, the team’s threats to relocate to suburbia and last winter’s firing of longtime radio play-by-play man Ernie Harwell have angered many Tiger fans.

“They say they’re heading in a new direction. I say it’s the wrong direction,” Donaldson says.

Several groups, including the Tiger Stadium Fan Club, are organizing boycotts of Monday’s home opener against the New York Yankees to protest Harwell’s firing.

“Baseball has always been a part of the city. Now we have people running the team that have no ties to the fabric of the city,” said Steve Palmer, administrator of the Corktown Citizens District Council. Palmer was speaking of Monaghan, who bought the team in 1983 from another out of towner, John Fetzer, and of Schembechler.

“They’re Ann Arbor folk,” Palmer said. “There’s nothing wrong with Ann Arbor folk. They’re just different.”


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