On the Road: A Productive Morning in West Michigan

My day with the West Michigan Whitecaps started early and ended late, the way that days on the road are wont to do.

After waking up at an ungodly — at least from my perspective — hour in Lansing, I made the quick drive to Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, MI. There, I met with Whitecaps director of marketing and media relations Mickey Graham and we drove into Grand Rapids proper.

Hello, Grand Rapids proper!

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I was in Grand Rapids proper — or “the GRP” as I like to call it — in order to visit a conglomerate of radio stations inconspicuously nestled within a downtown office building.

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My destination was, the lower left quadrant of the conglomerate: Thunder 94.5, home of Flounder and Marty in the morning.  Flounder, he’s on the right:

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Flounder and Marty had been recruited to serve as my “designated eaters” that evening — in other words, the individuals who would sample the ballpark cuisine that my gluten-free diet prohibits. They interviewed me for about five minutes or so, during which I explained who I am, what I do, why I am the most underrated entity in all of sports media (maybe I just thought this), and just what their designated eating duties might entail.

For each photo in this post in which I am wearing this t-shirt, I am expecting the Tennessee Smokies to pay me $75.

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Flounder was a bit apprehensive about this whole “designated eating” thing, remarking that “my personal trainer would punch me in the face.” Marty, whose DJ career has already taken him from Chicago to Rapid City, SD to Wassau, WI to Grand Rapids — was more amenable. Both individuals were nice guys, and amenable to having their picture taken after the interview.

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The evening’s ballgame was still some nine hours away, but, back at Fifth Third Ballpark, there was already plenty of activity. Whitecaps coaches and players were hosting a youth clinic, most notably, but front office staffers and groundskeepers were all over the place as well as bespectacled silver-haired gentlemen in collared shirts curious as to why some dude in a Smokies t-shirt was taking a picture of the field.

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Before moving any further, please take in the following triumvirate of vantage points.

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And, yes, that is a giant plunger left center field, adjacent to the scoreboard. The “Penning Plunger,” to be exact, which moves up and down via the flick of a press box switch.

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Also of note is the lighthouse in right field. This joins the one in Bowie, MD as the only outfield lighthouses that I am aware of in Minor League Baseball. [EDIT! The Lake County Captains also have a lighthouse.]

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Or is it a “Lite” House?

At this juncture Graham gave me a thorough tour of Fifth Third Ballpark, which opened in 1994 and was built entirely with private funds (a true rarity). Graham extolled the bureaucracy-free virtues of this arrangement, saying “The little things make a difference, and we can take care of the little things so much easier. If the railing’s chipped, we can paint it. If the concrete’s cracked, we can fix it.”

The team can also ensure that their men’s room boasts the Midwest League’s shiniest porcelain and most unique men’s room sink layout.

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For when Thirsty Thursday goes wrong:

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Out on the concourse, one can find plenty of concession options, presented in an eye-catching and appealingly ramshackle fashion.

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As you are probably aware, the Whitecaps have become well-known for their concession items in recent years. The Fifth Third Burger, introduced in 2009, was featured in this very blog and that post was picked up by Darren Rovell (then with CNBC) and, before you knew it, the thing was an international sensation.

“That was the craziest two weeks of my life,” said Graham. “I did hundreds of interviews. I even did one in [the country of] Columbia, and I could tell that they were totally making fun of me.”

The Fifth Third Burger is still going strong:

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On the day that I visited, 18 people had already been crowned Fifth Third champions in 2013. Off to the left is the one photo that the team keeps visible from season to season, featuring Man vs. Food host Adam Richman.

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One of 2013’s new additions is the Squeelin’ Pig, which requires those who purchase it to sign a waiver. This pig is like, “If you’re going to butcher and consume me, then at least I shall have some measure of revenge.”

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 Then there’s the Baco, which is essentially a BLT without the bun (gluten-free!)

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But this is all just a preview, as there will be plenty of food pics and videos in part two of this Whitecaps saga. Take a deep breath and center in on this beautiful ballpark image, which reminds us that there is more to enjoy than giant hamburgers and such.

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Graham and I wandered over to the outfield, where I practiced for one of my duties that evening: operating the manual scoreboard.

I was not good at this, as you can see, and the stress caused my cheeks to well up uncontrollably.

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At least there were some good views to be had out there, while seated in a vintage logo chair.

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Youth clinic in full effect!

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That youth clinic looked really fun, as I hope the following two Vine videos will illustrate.

And those youth, they sure made good use of the dugouts.

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Would someone please get this guy a vintage logo chair to sit in? That bucket looks mighty uncomfortable. 038By comparison, a picnic bench looks like a veritable king size bed. 041 Those in search of true comfort should wander down to the home clubhouse. 045Adjacent to the clubhouse is the trainer’s room, where I was able to snap the following photo: 046I’ve said it before, but like Grizzly Man showing on a loop it bears repeating: One of these I plan on doing an article in which the contents of a trainer’s table (or medicine chest) are explained on an item-by-item basis. If you are a trainer who might like to do this, or if you know one who might, then of course please get in touch.

I call this picture “Existence.” 047Trainer’s tape can be utilized in a variety of ways. 048From my perspective, however, clubhouses and trainer’s rooms pale in comparison to the beauty that lurks in team promo closets. Hula hoops, deflated eyeballs and waylaid bovines are all par for the course.

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And then there was this — bobblehead storage room!

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Many of these bobbleheads featured Tigers legend Lou Whitaker, 1000 of which were slated to be given away the next day. I am not sure how early fans had to arrive in order to insure that they got one, but I do know that six hours in advance was a bit on the excessive side.

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That’s brothers Ryan and Raymond Ortega, who pride themselves on their indefatigable Tigers fandom. They did indeed show up six hours early for the Lou Whitaker bobblehead giveaway, and my interview with them is HERE.

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 But I’m getting ahead of myself. There is still lots more to come from West Michigan — LOTS — but for now I’m going to bid you adieu from the Grand River.

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benjamin.hill@mlb.com

twitter.com/bensbiz

9 Comments

Classic Park, home of the Lake County Captains, also has an outfield lighthouse. It isn’t prominent in this photo, but you can see it if you look left of the batter’s eye: http://mwltraveler.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/100_7308.jpg

Also, the stadium opened in 1994, not the 1996 listed in the article.

The park opened in 1994, not 1996 as listed in the article.

Aw….my home away from home. No place I’d rather be with my kids!!! Hope you had a great time, Ben.
-Mike

Reblogged this on Minoring In Baseball and commented:
My idol, and all around Minor League guru, Ben Hill was able to visit Fifth Third Ballpark, home of my West Michigan Whitecaps. Here is his post on his great adventure to my hometown!

Pingback: On the Road: He Would Not Accept the Plunger in West Michigan « Ben's Biz Blog

Pingback: Ballpark Visit ALERT: Fifth Third Ballpark (Comstock, MI) |

Fifth Third Ballpark is in Comstock Park, MI, not Comstock, MI (which is about an hour south). Also, it’s Fifth Third Ballpark, not Fifth Third Field. You’re sloppier than a Squeelin’ Pig sandwich.

Shouldn’t you be out eulogizing Maxwell’s, Ira? Thanks for the corrections!

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