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Year-end countdown: #10, Fifth Third Ballpark fire

Fifth Third Ballpark fire

Between now and New Year’s Eve we’ll run down the top ten stories covered on Ballpark Digest in 2014, determined by page views. At #10: the January 3 Fifth Third Ballpark fire and the amazing efforts by the West Michigan Whitecaps to reopen for the regular season.

The year did not begin well for the West Michigan Whitecaps (Low Class A; Midwest League) front office: On January 3, 2014, a morning fire caused extensive damage to Fifth Third Ballpark.

The fire, as it ends up, was caused by a unsupervised space heater and exacerbated by issues with the sprinkler system, all relating to offseason renovations at the ballpark. In all, the fire that destroyed 12 suites, a clubhouse and a popular concourse area could have been prevented, but cold weather (which affected the sprinkler system) certainly played a part in the incident as well. Altogether, the fire caused $500,000 worth of damage to the ballpark.

The reaction from the Whitecaps front office was quick and decisive: CFO Denny Baxter vowed to rebuild the ballpark before the start of the season and be fully operational for the 2014 Midwest League All-Star Game.

Fifth Third Ballpark upgrades

After cleaning up the damaged areas, the team mapped out restorations and improvements to be tackled for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. For 2014, the team unveiled several upgrades, including concourse concession space 1,700 square feet larger than the fire-damaged space and featuring two additional points of sale. A new team store was constructed, while suites were renovated and upgraded.

Improvements for 2015 include a new administrative building being planned down the right-field line between the first-base grill and the playground. The building will feature a rooftop deck grill area with a spectacular view of both the baseball field and the Grand River. Also planned for 2015: a craft brew bar area in the old souvenir space on the third-base side.

2014 MWL All-Star Game

The renovations were ready for the 2014 Midwest League All-Star Game. Trey Wilson was there, and here are excerpts from his story:

Minor League Baseball President & CEO Pat O’Conner watched the game from one of the park’s newly rebuilt suites.

“When you see it today, it’s hard to imagine the way it looked in January right after the fire,” said O’Conner. “To do what they’ve done, to be able to play this game tonight with virtually no lingering signs of devastation is nothing short of remarkable.

“We’ve had fires in ballparks before, but to see the magnitude of this and to see literally half of the ballpark gone, it was almost beyond belief.”

With a monumental rebuilding task in front of them, the Whitecaps’ staff and community adopted the “Never in Doubt” mantra from the beginning….

Work continued around the home game and event dates. Immediately following a concert at the park on May 31, workers began tearing up the concrete walkway on the concourse. Within 48 hours, concrete was being poured with only a two-day window before the next homestand began.

“When you run into a situation like that, it takes careful planning,” West Michigan CEO/Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin said. “We had a great team. We all sat down and wrote out a plan, and everybody worked together. They worked hard, and by golly they got it done.”

Managing such a large renovation job is a monumental task; managing it after a fire is even more difficult. We can’t wait to see how Fifth Third Ballpark looks in 2015 when all the work is complete.

Bottom photo by Trey Wilson.

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