Tuesday night’s Midwest League All-Star Classic was more than a showcase of baseball talent. It was a celebration of a remarkable effort by the West Michigan Whitecaps to rebuild a ballpark heavily damaged by fire less than six months ago, reports Trey Wilson.
As more than 7,000 fans filled the seats of Fifth Third Ballpark, all evidence of the Jan. 3 blaze that wiped out the first-base line suite level and concourse had disappeared.
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.
“Our ownership, the day of the fire they said, ‘We are going to be open April 8,’” West Michigan Director of Marketing and Media Relations Mickey Graham said. “We believed it. We didn’t know quite how we were going to do it, but we knew we had to get it done.”
As promised, the Whitecaps opened their home slate on April 8 with the first-base concourse reconstructed and the majority of the suite level ready for use. As of Tuesday, the remainder of the suites and home clubhouse repairs had been completed.
“We are completely done,” said Graham. “We had two dates in mind to finish construction. April 8, to be open and to be functional and be ready for the fans, and today, June 17, we had to be done. Even up to Monday, and this morning, there was some last-minute work going on.”
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 home stand 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.”
While giving tours of the ballpark prior to Tuesday night’s game, account executive Glenn Eckelkamp marveled at the progress made over such a brief time.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Eckelkamp. “166 days and we all knew in our hearts that it would get done, because that’s the way the Whitecaps organization works. “The horrible winter that we had, you just wondered how it would take its toll on the contractors. We can’t say enough about the contractors, how they worked in that severe cold and snow and kept moving forward and making progress.”
The fire presented the opportunity to update the 21-year-old ballpark, including redesigned, larger suites, and more efficient concession facilities.
“We completely reconfigured our largest concession stand and added points of sale,” said Chamberlin. “It also allowed up to reconfigure all of the suite level space on the first half and make the suites a little bigger, reconfigure some of the space and make it more practical and more useful. There are a lot of things that have happened that wouldn’t have happened without the fire.”
The change most noticeable to fans is the addition of “CapSized,” the new team store in the former location of the front offices behind home plate.
“The old souvenir shop was the original from 1994,” said Graham. “For years and years we talked about moving it and making it much larger. We just couldn’t find the right time.
“With circumstances being what they were in January, we said, ‘Hey, we aren’t going to get a more opportune time than now to make that change.’ It’s almost four times as large as the old shop and it’s in a better location.”
Along with the rebuilt upgrades, the Whitecaps plan to continue adding new amenities to Fifth Third Ballpark.
The front office staff are currently using offices two miles from the ballpark, but plans are in place for a new three- or four-story office building beyond right field which include a rooftop deck where groups can get a view of the field and the Grand River on the other side.
The location of the old team store, currently being occupied by offices for the operations staff, will be transformed into a craft beer bar for 2015.
O’Conner commended response of the West Michigan community and the club.
“I don’t know how you put into words how they had to feel,” said O’Conner. “These parks are in many ways our second homes. You invest so much physically and emotionally, to sit and literally watch it burn had to be a devastating event.
“There are milestones in a city and milestones in a franchise and its history and relations with the city. In an ironic way, this allowed this community to reconnect with this ball club in a very emotional way.”
As for the game itself, the Western Division All-Stars rolled to a 7-0 shutout of the East and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Beloit outfielder Boog Powell was named MVP, scoring three runs with a double, two walks, and two stolen bases.
Trey Wilson is part of the Lansing Lugnuts broadcast team.
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