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Squat, gray, peeling Tiger Stadium stands within a short walk of downtown Detroit, and in a city sprucing up its look—and outlook—with a futuristic Renaissance Center of cylindrical towers, the ball park presents a marvelous contrast. It is a contrast that will remain, too, because rather than move to an antiseptic new suburban stadium, the Tigers have decided to keep playing at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, in the 66-year-old ball park where Cobb came in spikes high, where Gehringer went to his left with quiet grace, where Greenberg hit rockets into the seats and where Kaline played with class. Antique lovers, nostalgia freaks and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce are thrilled by the idea of renovating the existing structure—which stands on a site where big-league baseball has been played since 1901.
"We have a commitment to the city, to downtown," says John E. Fetzer, the 77-year-old sole owner of the Tigers. "I believe the Tigers belong to Detroit and the people. I look upon the Tigers as a public trust. The Tigers have meant much to Detroit; events such as our World Series victory in 1968 helped bring together the races and brought a oneness to the city that hasn't always been present. This has been an ideal of mine, and I hope all idealism hasn't been stamped out."
Fetzer's idealism is merged with common-sense materialism. Detroit, like almost all cities, is troubled by the financial shorts and urban rot. For years a proposal for a dual-use domed stadium for the Tigers and the NFL Lions was knocked about by the city's politicos. A site along the Detroit River was selected for such a facility, but the Lions decided to foresake the city for Pontiac, 29 miles from Detroit's center, and in a final blow the courts voided the sale of bonds for the project. Fetzer, pledging to stay in the central city, subsequently declined an invitation to join the Lions in suburbia.
Last year, with Tiger Stadium in disrepair and maintenance bills running $500,000 a year, Fetzer struck up a deal with the city. He sold Tiger Stadium, valued at $8 million, to Detroit for one dollar. He then signed a lease with his new landlord that commits the Tigers to playing in the stadium for 30 more seasons. He also announced a $15 million, three-year plan to refurbish the old park. The changes include new seating, an electronic scoreboard, luxury loge boxes, the works. The city, in turn, qualified for $5 million in federal funds and floated a $10 million bond issue to cover costs. The plan is similar to the one that brought about the renovation of Yankee Stadium—but it figures to cost only about one-seventh as much as it cost the taxpayers in New York City.
Through the years—from Cobb to Gehringer to Kaline to Fidrych—Tiger Stadium has been a chummy ball park with short fences, one where fans could smell the odor of hot dogs grilling and, being so close to the playing field, also eavesdrop on conversations between managers and umpires, batters and catchers. But the aching concrete of Tiger Stadium has started to give way. Chips and chunks from the upper deck have fallen onto the seats below. The Tigers fear Bat Day because the pounding of bats in unison might send the walls a-tumbling down.
The renovation should still those apprehensions. The new seats—20,000 of a total of 52,000 are already installed—are the first steps of the renewal plan. They are blue plastic, not the traditional green wood, because green plastic fades too quickly and wood doesn't last as long. There have been some complaints about this breach of tradition, but Jason Thompson's home runs look just as pretty landing in a sea of blue as they do in a field of green.
Ebbets Field, Griffith Stadium, Shibe Park, Forbes Field, Crosley Field, the Polo Grounds, Sportsman's Park, Braves Field in Boston, Municipal Stadium in Kansas City and League Park in Cleveland all have fallen to the wrecker's ball. But the hot dogs still give off their savory aroma at Tiger Stadium, near downtown Detroit.