Enjoying a sunny day at Fifth Third Ballpark are members of the Whitecaps' braintrust, from left, Steve McCarthy, vice president of sales; Denny Baxter, CFO; Scott Lane, president; Lew Chamberlin, CEO/managing partner; Joe Chamberlain, director of finance; and Jim Jarecki, vice president. Photo by Jim Gebben
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The West Michigan Whitecaps will open their 20th home season Thursday when they host the Dayton Dragons at Fifth Third Ballpark. The first pitch is set for 6:35 p.m., with the gates opening at 5 p.m.
This home opener will be more than just the first game of the season: It will also be the first installment of a season-long celebration. Fireworks will follow the game, while jugglers, stilt walkers, a face painter, a balloon twister and a Dixieland band will entertain the crowd before and during it. The first 1,500 fans through the turnstiles will receive free baseball caps.
The opener is also the first Thrifty Thursday of the season, and that means $2 will buy two hot dogs, or a 20-ounce beer or soda, or a soft pretzel.
Last year, the Whitecaps drew 362,554 fans for the 70 home dates — a per-game average of 5,179 — to finish third in attendance in the 16-team Midwest League. This year, vice president of Whitecaps Baseball Jim Jarecki is hoping to see even more fans come through the gates.
“We’re looking for between 360,000 and 380,000. Obviously, we’ve come to the point where we’ve realized if we can get good weather in April and May, we’ll get there. But the bulk of (attendance) comes from late May through Labor Day, and we’re hoping we can sustain that,” he said. “Ultimately, if we can hit the 380,000 mark, that would be perfect.”
Jarecki said the team has done quite well the past few years in spite of economic conditions. He pointed out that history shows movie theaters and baseball games, which rely on discretionary income, usually maintain good sales because people still want to be entertained even if their revenue is down.
“Affordable family entertainment is what we started out with, and we still stress to keep it affordable and keep it family-oriented and keep it entertaining. If you combine those three, those are what people are looking for.”
Jarecki said being an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers also helps sales because local fans love the Tigers. In fact, the Whitecaps are holding a Tigers watch party Friday starting at 11 a.m. Detroit opens its home season at 1 p.m. that afternoon against the New York Yankees.
“You tie that in with the marketing, you tie that in with some of the (player) rehabs we’ve had over the last several years, and that shows that people really love the Tigers. And I think all of that really comes into play as far as sustaining what we have here,” he said.
Much of the attendance success can be linked to promotions offered by the franchise. There is at least one promotion every game, of which, perhaps, the most popular is Tigers Fridays, when the team brings former Detroit players to the ballpark to sign autographs and talk with fans. This promotion allows the team to further leverage the love local fans have for the Tigers, and also seals the connection the local club has with the recent history of the Detroit organization.
This summer will mark the fifth consecutive year the Whitecaps have held Tigers Fridays, which will begin June 14 when Charlie “Paw Paw” Maxwell, famous for hitting home runs on Sundays, kicks off the series
“It definitely has turned into one of the most popular dates that we do have that people look forward to,” said Jarecki of the promotional calendar.
“What’s really fun about that is you get some of the guys who may have played just one year with the Tigers — maybe that obscure guy that pitched for the Tigers in 1968 and people haven’t seen him — and he is that missing autograph the fan doesn’t have.”
The rest of the lineup includes Lou Whitaker, Darrell Evans, Bill Gullickson, Don Wert and Enos Cabell making appearances between June 28 and Aug. 30. Jarecki said the club has a contact in Detroit who has a good relationship with the former players, and they work with him in setting the schedule.
Providing affordable entertainment, being closely tied to the Tigers and offering durable promotions have been instrumental to the Whitecaps’ consumer success, and so have concessions. Right out of the box, the franchise hit an inside-the-park homer that wasn’t close to being standard baseball concession fare: In 1994, the ballpark’s first menu featured an 8-ounce, center-cut pork chop sandwich that became so popular, it led to the creation of a team mascot who wears the number “8 oz.” The sandwich is still offered.
Whitecaps President Scott Lane said concession sales now account for roughly a third of the team’s total revenue. He credited the marketing department with creating a buzz about the menu offerings when it began the Annual Whitecaps Food Contest four years ago. The contest takes place during the winter when baseball teams don’t get much publicity, and this time around, fans responded with 150 menu ideas. A dozen more came from the test kitchens at Gordon Food Service.
The winner was the Baco, a taco in a specially made bacon shell, which will be sold in the Sweet Meats Smokehouse on the third-base concourse beginning opening day. In all, the menu will feature 17 new food items this season — which reveals how important concessions are to the club.
Also important to the success of the franchise is making improvements to the park. Whitecaps CEO and Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin, who with team CFO Dennis Baxter bought the Madison (Wis.) Muskies in 1993 and brought baseball here after a decade-long effort, said fans will find new seating arrangements this season. The three bleacher sections behind home plate have been turned into premium padded seats.
“This is a nice upgrade. It makes that area behind home plate a really nice area,” Chamberlin said.
He added that the seats in the top two rows in the bleacher section have been replaced with 18 half-moon tables, each with four swivel chairs. The tables are large enough for fans to eat and drink during a game, and wait staff will take their orders.
“It kind of changes the way you watch a baseball game. In the traditional bleacher style, you’re all lined up next to each other. In this particular case, because all the chairs swivel and because they’re arranged in a semi-circle around the table, you’re able to watch the game and turn and talk to your compatriots. It’s a different way to watch a ballgame,” he said.
Chamberlin said they also turned three of the park’s suites into one super suite that can hold 60 to 90 fans. He said they were getting requests from groups that were larger than a suite could accommodate but not large enough for one of the decks or the Stadium Club. “So we made this conversion, and it turned out really well,” he said.
With the healthy track record established by the Whitecaps over the past 19 seasons, the Business Journal asked Jarecki if it was easier to market the club and sell sponsorships now.
“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily easier, but I would say there definitely is credibility out there. There definitely are direct results. There definitely is proof of what we can provide, and that’s eyeballs on your product here at the ballpark in a very unique, interactive situation,” he said.
That healthy track record not only includes success in the business office, but also a host of victories earned on the field. The franchise has won five Midwest League titles and sent 100 players to the big leagues. The Whitecaps were named the minor league team of the year in 1997 and the minor league organization of the decade in 1999.
The success began right off the bat when, in its first year, the team broke a 45-year-old Class-A attendance record when it drew 475,212 fans to the ballpark in 1994.
“I speak at a lot of functions and what’s amazing to me is that people are surprised it has been 20 years,” said Lane.
Maybe the old adage “time flies when you’re having fun” comes into play. “Exactly,” said Lane, laughing. “I hope so. It’s been fun for us.”