July, 2009: I'm on the field at Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps (the Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers), playing catch with my son and daughter. We're there because my kids' school is one of the sponsors for tonight's game, which comes with certain "VIP privileges," like running the bases after the game, and this game of catch in the outfield. This sort of thing happens on a regular basis. The community is proud of its ballpark, and nearly every game is sponsored by multiple local businesses and other organizations.
August, 2009: Back at the ballpark again, finally trying to wrap my mind and my mouth around the Fifth Third Burger, a concession stand novelty that has attracted national attention. Adam Richman from Man vs. Food even made the trip to West Michigan so he could eat this burger on his show. I can't do it. Five one-third-pound patties on a giant bun, smothered in nachos and cheese and God knows what else ... I give up after eating less than half of it. A friend of mine, though, who maybe weighs 95 pounds soaking wet, has eaten this burger and had his photo posted on the ballpark's wall of fame.
June, 2010: Just another day at the ballpark, this time with the whole family. We do this maybe two or three times a year: get the whole clan out for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon game. It's fun, it's cheap (box seat tickets are a whopping $12), they do lots of goofy stuff on the field between innings (like the Dizzy Bat Race, or the Human Sandwich), and the concessions are fun. Lots of local families make this part of their summer tradition.
April-August, 2013: I went to so many Whitecaps games this year. How could I not? It's a 10-minute drive from where I live, I pass the ballpark on my way home from work every day, and what better way to kill a summer evening than to head over to Fifth Third and take in a game? I even bought a radio so I could listen to Ben Chiswick and Dan Elve on WBBL during the games. I always sit on the first base side, as close to the Whitecaps dugout as I can. The players come running off the field between innings and toss a baseball to some kid in the stands; my son loves it when he actually gets to catch one. I even caught a foul ball this year!
Week after week, month after month, I went to the games. I know the stadium layout like the back of my hand. I've been in the luxury suites. After so many games and sitting in the same location, I got to know some of the "regulars," and they're sort of like family. This park is something of a second home in the summer, not just for me, but for so many people.
There is a charm to this team, this stadium, this franchise that doesn't exist at the major league level. Oh, the major league level is more professional, sure, but it can also be more sterile for that same reason. Here, in West Michigan, we know Bob Wells as the on-field announcer (I've even met and chatted with his family in the stands on occasion), but Bob is also a math teacher in one of the local schools. Do you see what I mean? It's like that. Come to the ballpark for a bit of summer evening entertainment, and you're very likely to run into a friend, a co-worker, or even a family member.
And we love our Whitecaps. It's been a while since they won the championship (under then-manager Tom Brookens, no less), but so what? They're a semi-decent team, and we know we're probably watching a couple of future major leaguers. After all, the Whitecaps helped produce guys like Omar Infante, Don Kelly, Avisail Garcia, Brandon Inge, Brennan Boesch, Fernando Rodney, and more. The hanging banners along the concourse remind us of this on a regular basis.
There's a tangible connection with the Detroit Tigers there, and when Infante was injured in July of 2013, he played a couple of rehab games at Fifth Third. I got to see him play up close for a fraction of what it would have cost to see him in Detroit.
The ballpark is also home to several other local events throughout the year. We have an annual winter beer festival every February that is held at Fifth Third Ballpark. For the month of December, the parking lot of the stadium is converted into a Christmas lights extravaganza, with giant likenesses of Santa Claus, reindeer, snowmen, and skiing gingerbread men. For $15, you can load up the car, grab a hot chocolate for the road, and enjoy a leisurely evening Yuletide drive through the twinkling/blinking display. It's one of my family's traditions, and again, I know I'm not nearly in the minority here.
So it really hit hard this morning when I heard the news that the ballpark had, inconceivably, caught on fire. Some two hours later, nearly 40 percent of the park was destroyed, as the structure along the first base/right field side of the park was gutted by the flames and collapsed. For anyone outside of the West Michigan area, I suppose this is just another news item, a headline with accompanying photos. But for people like me -- and there are thousands and thousands of people like me -- this is heart-breaking news. I dread having to break it to my son.
The good news is that the Whitecaps management is optimistic about playing baseball at the park this spring. With less than 100 days left until Opening Day, and seeing the extent of the damage, it's difficult to imagine how that will be possible, but West Michigan is resilient. When the community takes pride and ownership over something like this, as they so often do, everybody pitches in to get the job done. It wouldn't surprise me if several local business owners contribute large amounts of money, or if local construction companies end up volunteering a lot of their time and materials. The stadium was originally built entirely from private funds, and I'm sure it will be rebuilt in the same way.
We've all got our fingers crossed in West Michigan. April will be here soon, and we're starving for good live baseball and cheap stadium hot dogs. But for now, this is a devastating loss, and it's difficult to express in words - though I've given it my best shot here - exactly how deep that loss runs.