It was not an auspicious New Year for the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2014, when team management and ownership saw fire take out part of Fifth Third Ballpark on January 3. The resulting rebuilding of the ballpark over a two-year period earned the West Michigan Whitecaps Ballpark Digest’s Best Ballpark Improvements Award for 2015.
“A ballpark fire so close to the opening of the season represented a huge challenge to team ownership and management,” said Ballpark Digest Publisher Kevin Reichard. “That the Whitecaps turned such a terrible incident into a chance to not only rebuild, but improve Fifth Third Ballpark is truly remarkable.”
Steve McCarthy, Whitecaps vice president of sales, said the Whitecaps organization is honored to receive the award.
“It is a real honor to be recognized for all of the work and energies that were put into the rebuilding of Fifth Third Ballpark,” said McCarthy. “It was important to us to have the facility ready for the West Michigan community and the Whitecaps fans for Opening Day of 2014, and to have it fully operational for the Midwest League All-Star Game in June 2014.
“When we rebuilt, our goal was to protect the original look and feel of the ballpark, while at the same time to make it even better so fans could enjoy some of the modern conveniences we now offer. On behalf of all those who helped put it together, we are grateful for this award.”
The fire damaged both the suite and concourse levels down the first-base line. The challenge of rebuilding Fifth Third Ballpark meant meeting several different deadlines. First, the ballpark needed to be ready to host fans for the April 8, 2014 season opener – and it was. Second, the Whitecaps were hosting the Midwest League All-Star Game in June 2014, so the facility needed to be ready to host a large crowd – and it was.
To make it through the 2014 season, some compromises were made: team offices were relocated to temporary space to make way for a new team store, for instance. Those issues were addressed in the offseason, with the team unveiling the remaining ballpark improvements for the 2015 season: new office space topped with a sponsored group deck, and a Craft Clubhouse with 16 craft beers on tap.
Fans responded: attendance was up both in 2014 and 2015.
“The ballpark improvements at Fifth Third Ballpark would be notable no matter the circumstances,” Reichard added. “That they came about after such a traumatic experience speaks well to the Whitecaps and the team’s commitment to fans.”
Ballpark improvements are the order of the day for many MiLB, independent and summer-collegiate teams: they’re a proven way to sustain and create fan interest. This was a packed and competitive category, and here are other notable ballpark improvements for the 2015 season:
- The Oklahoma City Dodgers (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League) made an immediate impact with a name change and several ballpark improvements, upping the fan experience at Chickasaw
Bricktown Ballpark. The Budweiser Deck replaced a set of bleachers in left field, designed for celebrations of any kind from business outings to family gatherings. It successfully converted an
underutilized space with incredible sightlines into the place to be in OKC. In the Budweiser Deck’s first season the organization has seen a 73 percent increase in revenue over the previous bleacher configuration, validating the decision to complete the renovation. It is the model of a modern party deck: The Budweiser Deck can be utilized as two 75-person private hospitality areas or one large space for up to 150 people. The second improvement worth noting: the team spend $125,000 investment to completely renovate the ballpark playground, the Sandbridge Sandlot. It features a three-story tower with three slides and other safe climbing activities for kids. It required some major renovations: New flooring was added where concrete was and new fencing added to the safety and overall appeal to kids and their parents.
- The Long Island Ducks (independent; Atlantic League) unveiled the Fan Can: 12 luxury seats in a giant beer can. Sponsored by the Roscoe Beer Company, makers of Trout Town hand-crafted beer, the “Trout Town Fan Can” was available for rental at all Ducks home games during the 2015 season. The Fan Can features 12 theater-style padded seats, complete with beverage holders, located inside the shape of a Trout Town beer can. The area also offers an air-conditioned atmosphere as well as a rain/sun awning for added comfort.
- The Pulaski Yankees (rookie; NY-Penn League) more than doubled attendance after an affiliation change and several ballpark improvements to Calfee Park. The P-Yankees added a new press box and concession stand, along with seating upgrades and a videoboard. In June, the team announced that it had spent more than $7 million between the Calfee Park upgrades and the Jackson Park Inn.
- Big Top Baseball, winner of the 2014 Organization of the Year Award, was back in 2015 with two serious ballpark improvements. The first was the Point Craft River at Witter Field, home of the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters. The Point Craft River is a water-powered bar serving 22 different craft beers, delivered via rafts. Yes, a river of beer probably isn’t the most efficient way to deliver beer, but it certainly drew the attention of fans, who loved seeing their brew gently floating down the rapids. The second was a double-decker pizza bus serving all four Big Top Baseball ballparks as well as other community events. The bottom level is the kitchen, featuring the a wood-fire stove for quick-cook pizzas, a small cooking area and walk-up ordering windows. Fans enter the bus in the normal boarding area and walk up the stairs to a second-level party deck. At the ballpark, this becomes a portable suite (the bus is parked down the third-base line at Warner Park, down the first-base line at Witter Field), complete with drink rails, stools and a serving table. It’s also a marketing tool for the Big Top Baseball teams. Besides appearing at ballparks and other Big Top Baseball events, it’s also rented for concerts, community events and corporate gigs.
Photo of Fifth Third Ballpark by Trey Wilson.