DETROIT -- Tiger Stadium, the site of some of the city's greatest victories as well as a symbol of decay and decline, was called out Friday.
After an eight-year debate, the Detroit City Council voted to demolish the beloved old ballpark as early as this year.
"I was hoping they'd save it. I had a lot of memories there," said Detroit firefighter Darnell McLaurin, 39. "When I'd drive up (Interstate) 75 and point out Tiger Stadium, that's when you knew you were in Detroit.
"Now, wow, you see Tiger Stadium," he said, pausing during a dart game at Hoot's on the Avenue near the old ballpark, "and you know you're in Detroit. It's an eyesore."
The old stadium at Michigan and Trumbull hasn't heard the crack of a bat since the end of the 1999 season, when the Tigers left for Comerica Park. As its admirers struggled to save it, the site originally known as Bennett Park grew shabbier and shabbier -- a pitiable end to the place where Babe Ruth hit his 700th homer, and where for 95 years fans cheered on heroes like Al Kaline, Hank Greenberg and Ty Cobb.
There are sad memories too. It was at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull where Lou Gehrig, battling the disease that would kill him, ended his streak of 2,130 consecutive games. And it was at The Corner where a pot-bellied Bubba Helms gained infamy when he was photographed in front of a burning police car, waving a Tigers pennant, after the team won the 1984 World Series. Detroit bore the worldwide shame for years.
"I grew up in Corktown. I love the stadium. But we have to move forward," Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel said Friday. She was among those voting in the 5-4 majority to demolish the stadium in favor of what advocates, including Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hope will be stores and homes.
They believe it will boost the Corktown area the way that renovation of the Book-Cadillac Hotel and Fort Shelby Hotel are fanning development downtown.
"This is about progress," said Matt Allen, the mayor's spokesman.
Nobody seemed happy to order the wrecking ball.
"My parents met there," said Councilwoman JoAnn Watson. "If it weren't for Tiger Stadium, I wouldn't be here today."
Part will be preserved
The plan approved by the council authorized demolition and new construction -- even though no developer has yet stepped forward.
The field and part of the stadium will be preserved so a specially created nonprofit, The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, can maintain it and use it for Detroit youth baseball.
Still, the move forward isn't as smooth as Kilpatrick had wanted.
Although the council, on a 5-4 vote, approved his Tiger Stadium Redevelopment Plan, it rebuffed Kilpatrick's desire to turn over the land to the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the quasi-government agency spearheading the development.
By doing that, council members made sure their approval is needed as the redevelopment project progresses.
They can, for example, delay the wrecking ball by not approving the money for the job or by not approving a company to do the work.
By giving the land to the DEGC, the process would have been streamlined.
Bill Dow, founder of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club and a vocal critic of razing the structure, said the plan is now a "paper tiger" that may not be able to be put in motion.
"This is a sad day in a lot of ways," he said.
Council members said they opted not to turn over the land to the DEGC so they could maintain more control over the project.
"I love the ball field, but the changes don't have to happen so fast," said Councilwoman Martha Reeves, who backed the redevelopment plan but voted against giving the land to the DEGC.
Councilwoman Albert Tinsley-Talabi, who also backed the project but not the land transfer, said there needs to be continued debate on what is best for Detroit.
"I thought it was prudent to not transfer the land in an effort to make sure that public participation and access issues are resolved in a public forum," she said.
Detroit Economic Growth Corp. vice president Art Papapanos said demolition is key to the land's future.
Potential developers, he said, want the site cleared and ready to go -- and not be bothered by further red tape.
The council authorized Schneider Inc of St. Louis to auction memorabilia inside the ballpark, and it approved a timetable for development.
A demolition contract is to be awarded in October, with all demolition and site preparation completed by September 2008, and construction to start in April 2009.
Allen said an auction and final public tour of the stadium -- a final goodbye -- should occur sometime this fall.
The City Council went ahead with the decision despite Friday's last-minute plea from retired sportscaster Ernie Harwell to delay a decision until September.
Harwell made pitch for time
Harwell, saying the stadium at Michigan and Trumbull has become just a "house by the side of the road for a long, long time," urged the council to wait a little longer, so he and his attorney, Gary Spicer, could come up with some alternatives.
"I'd urge council to not move forward too quickly," said Harwell, who is retired and lives in Novi.
Nonetheless, the council members were moved by the legendary sportscaster's plea and said they would like him to be included in the planning for the site.
Already in that vein, The Old Tigers Stadium Conservancy on Thursday night decided to approach Harwell about joining its executive board.
Council President Kenneth Cockrel, in urging the council to make a decision on Friday, said he worried the fate of the stadium was about to become a long-running soap opera.
"This should be a TV series and come to an end," he said.