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Thought Of Final Rumble On Trumbull Has Fans Clinging To The Stadium

April 17, 1988

DETROIT (AP) _ It was 1955, Bob Buchta was 6 years old and the Detroit Tigers were hosting a doubleheader against the Washington Senators.

″Back in those days, we only had black and white television and I had never seen a game in color,″ the Detroit native recalled of his first outing at Tiger Stadium. ″You had to walk up this ramp to get your seats, and at one point I could see just this patch of bright green - it was grass. I had never seen grass so green. I was just thrilled.″

The grass is still as green at Tiger Stadium. But some officials are clamoring for a replacement for the time-honored ballpark, which has grown frail in stature but colossal in character.

″They’re are so few old ballparks left, and each one has different characteristics,″ said Mike Gruber of Detroit, who along with Buchta are coordinators of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club. ″Tiger Stadium has that 10-foot overhang in right field - no other park has that. That has contributed vitally to the Tigers’ need for left-handed pitching.″

Plus, Gruber said, sending the Tigers to a glitzy, domed home with artificial turf and different dimensions will wipe out any accurate comparisons of Tiger stars of today and tomorrow, to superstars of yesterday like Ty Cobb and Al Kaline.

The 8-month-old Tiger Stadium Fan Club is on a mission to save the park and prevent the last rumble of the crowd on the corner of Trumbull and Michigan avenues.

The fan club’s most visible show of support for the facility is a huge birthday ″hug″ scheduled for Wednesday, when Tiger Stadium turns 76 years old. Coordinators expect thousands of people - though only about 800 would be needed to encircle the stadium - to join hands and embrace the stadium prior to Detroit’s game against the Boston Red Sox, whose Fenway Park also observes an April 20, 1912, birthday.

The hug-in will include singing ″Happy Birthday″ and ″Take Me Out to the Ballpark,″ and end with the release of 10,000 balloons. Before the game begins, coordinators will present a huge birthday card signed by fans to the grounds crew.

Faced with the increasing likelihood of losing their beloved park, fans who once whined about too few restrooms, too many seats with obstructed views and insufficient parking are adamant about preserving Tiger Stadium, which seats 52,806.

″They constantly have to tear things down and build new. I think they’re going to lose a lot of fans because of it,″ said Theresa Wilkinson, 30, who says she began skipping school since she was 9 years old to attend Opening Day.

″I love the Tigers and I’ll still go see them no matter what, but I may not go to as many games.″

John McDevitt, chief stadium aide to Tigers owner Thomas Monaghan, says the primary problem is the continuing deterioration of concrete and steel, especially its foundation, because of weather conditions and heavy salting during the years the Detroit Lions played football there before moving to the Pontiac Silverdome in 1975.

An informal examination by stadium engineers and architects indicated renovations would cost $45 million to $100 million, McDevitt said. City officials estimate a new stadium would cost at least $200 million.

Monaghan says he more than anyone would like to see Tiger Stadium upheld - but says he’ll foot the bill only if the city of Detroit sells him the ballpark.

Mayor Coleman Young has agreed to do so if a feasibility study, under way by two architectural firms, indicates the cost of restoring the park is reasonable. McDevitt said the studies would be completed at the end of the year.

″I’m a big architectural preservation nut anyway, and I think it’s a shrine. I’d like to see it restored,″ said Monaghan, who also owns Domino’s Pizza Inc. ″I don’t think it’s a good thing to have a situation where I run the stadium and the city owns it. I don’t think any municipality can run something as well as a private enterprise.

″Personally, I’d rather have an old, decrepit stadium that I own than a perfectly punctual stadium that I don’t own.″

The Tigers have 20 years left on a 30-year lease with a 30-year renewal option. The club makes annual lease payments of $150,000 plus 90 cents per ticket sold.

Young himself favors an all-purpose retractable dome.

From the outside, the stadium isn’t pretty. Painted baby blue and white, it’s located near the historic but dilapidated Corktown neighborhood that prides itself in being Detroit’s oldest - 150 years. Many a fan have worried about leaving their cars parked in that ambiance for nine innings, especially during night games.

But history, tradition and even location are at the heart of the campaign against razing the ballpark. Even before Tiger Stadium opened its doors in 1912 as Navin Field, the Tigers played there in a wooden structure known as Bennett Park as early as 1901. They played minor league ball on that site since 1896.

Tiger Stadium is one of four remaining ballparks that predate World War I. The others are the Cubs’ Wrigley Field and the White Sox’s Comiskey Park, both in Chicago, and Fenway.

A Detroit Free Press survey of metropolitan Detroiters indicated two-thirds want to keep Tiger Stadium. But if razing it is unavoidable, about half of those polled said they prefer a retractable dome; about one-third favor an open-air structure; and just a few want a permanent dome.

″Restoring it is just delaying the inevitable,″ said Mark Dellavalle, 29, who would like to see a retractable dome house the Tigers. ″People like it and have fond memories, but in the future there’ll be people with the same feelings for a new stadium.

″But it needs to be downtown and open to the air if it’s not raining. That’s what baseball is all about.″

Fans say Wednesday’s hug-in will draw widespread attention and support for the aged stadium.

The fan club, which wants to see proof that repair costs are exorbitant before the stadium is discarded, has used its membership dues to print posters, flyers and other paraphernalia pleading: ″Don’t let them make the biggest error in baseball. Hold on to Tiger Stadium.″

End Advance for Weekend Editions, April 16-17, and Thereafter

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