DETROIT (AP) – Until this year, Comerica Park didn’t have much of a place in Detroit baseball fans’ hearts.

It took a winning team to endear the stadium to a community that bore the imprint of beloved Tiger Stadium in its memory for most of a century.

“I found out that it’s a beautiful park – when it’s full,” owner Mike Ilitch said late last month. “What a difference.”

Before this year’s reversal of fortune, culminating in their first World Series appearance since 1984, the Tigers had generated few meaningful memories at Comerica after making their regular-season debut there on April 11, 2000, with a 5-2 victory over Seattle.

“They’re just beginning to reattach,” closer Todd Jones said. “There wasn’t any reason to follow the Tigers because they were so bad.”

That first season, 2.53 million fans – the second-most in franchise history – turned out to explore the new ballpark with its carousel, Ferris wheel, center-field fountain, scoreboard that soars nearly 10 stories and sculptures of Ty Cobb, Willie Horton and other Tigers greats.

Comerica was Ilitch’s $300 million bauble.

“I was a little rabid at first,” Ilitch recalled. “I had a roller coaster planned to go around the whole thing – I got a little carried away.”

The park’s seating capacity was 22 percent smaller than Tiger Stadium’s, but it had 102 luxury boxes compared with Tiger Stadium’s four. Like other owners, Ilitch argued he needed the luxury-suite revenue to help field a competitive team.

The Tigers, however, only got worse. They finished 79-83 in 2000, then went 66-96 in 2001 and 55-106 in 2002 before bottoming out in 2003 at 43-119 and breaking the American League record for losses in a season.

“What we were transitioning to was not even close to a World Series team,” said Jones, who threw the final pitch at Tiger Stadium – a swinging third strike on Kansas City’s Carlos Beltran that closed out Detroit’s 8-2 win over the Royals on Sept. 27, 1999.

“When I left, I said, “This team’s doomed,”‘ said Jones, who was traded to Minnesota midway through the 2001 season and rejoined the Tigers this season as a free agent.

As the team floundered, Comerica’s bells and whistles rang hollow. Attendance plummeted to 1.37 million in the disastrous 2003 season.

It wasn’t just bad teams that kept fans from connecting with the new place; they missed Tiger Stadium.

The storied stadium at Michigan and Trumbull was a hitter’s park where sluggers like Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Rocky Colavito, Norm Cash, Horton and Cecil Fielder routinely slapped home runs over left- and right-field walls just 340 and 325 feet from home plate.

For pitchers, Jones recalled, “It was a great place to visit, a tough place to make a living.”

The new venue, dubbed “Comerica National Park” by right fielder Bobby Higginson, was bigger in every direction except center field – 420 feet, compared with 440 at Tiger Stadium. As conceived by former club president John McHale, Comerica was to attach more importance to pitching, speed and line-drive hitting.

But the first big-name player that then-general manager Randy Smith acquired for the Comerica era was neither a pitcher nor a slap hitter. It was Juan Gonzalez, who had averaged 37 home runs for the Texas Rangers over the previous nine seasons.

Detroit and the two-time American League MVP soured on each other quickly. Injuries limited Gonzalez to 115 games and he groused that Comerica was too big. He hit eight of his 22 homers there in his only season in Detroit.

The left-field fences were brought in three years later, reducing the distance to the left-center power alley from 395 feet to 370 feet. An additional 154 homers – 72 by the Tigers, 82 by opponents – were attributed to the shortened fence from 2003-2005.

The Tigers might have been able to manipulate space but not time. Until this year, the most significant baseball event at Comerica arguably was the 2005 All-Star game. Most of the 105-year-old franchise’s history remained embedded in abandoned Tiger Stadium, most of which is supposed to be demolished to make room for condominiums and stores.

“Babe Ruth hit his 700th home run there,” said Jones, a keen student of the game’s history and traditions. “Lou Gehrig’s (consecutive-games) streak ended there. Mickey Mantle, that’s where he first tore up his knee on one of the drain covers.

“Every one of the American League’s greatest players over the last 100 years played there.”

As a workplace, Comerica and its weight room and other amenities is a vast improvement over Tiger Stadium, Jones said. But, he noted: “There was nothing brought over from the old stadium architecturally. Some of the fans (at Tiger Stadium) were closer to home plate than the shortstop.

“In a brand new ballpark, you have to put in the soul.”

AP-ES-10-19-06 1857EDT

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