Fifth Third Ballpark was still under construction just a few weeks ago, but team officials say the work will not disrupt fans when the home season starts tomorrow. Courtesy West Michigan Whitecaps
Most years, Lew Chamberlin likes to scout his team in Florida during spring training.
This year, though, Chamberlin, owner of the West Michigan Whitecaps, was too caught up in construction at Fifth Third Ballpark and is unsure of what to expect from his team when it takes the field in its home opener Tuesday. The Whitecaps began the season this past weekend in Dayton.
The construction consuming Chamberlin was a result of a massive fire in January that destroyed the first-base side of the ballpark. The fire was started by a space heater igniting a trash can and was furthered by a malfunction of the sprinkler system.
The fire presented an opportunity for Chamberlin and the rest of the Whitecaps leadership team. They already had plans to upgrade the merchandise shop, move the team’s offices down to a right-field office building and upgrade the clubhouse.
But that was still a ways off, Chamberlin said.
“If there is a silver lining to this unfortunate event, it is that it gives us the opportunity to implement a plan for much less than starting from scratch,”he said.
With demolition costs saved by the fire doing most of the work and with the insurance payment, the savings are large, Chamberlin said. The final cost of the project is unknown as the insurance settlement is still in the works.
“The additions we’re adding — and to a certain extent the repurposing — are the owners’ charges,”he said. “The insurance won’t cover that — nor should they. But we are able to realize the economies of scale, and it makes sense to do these upgrades from an ownership standpoint.”
With only four months between the fire and opening day, Chamberlin said there were two main goals — and with crews working “like crazy,”those goals have been met.
“By opening day we would be fully enclosed and roofed,”he said. “And from a fans’perspective, (the rest of construction) won’t cause much disruption.”
Construction partners are Progressive AE and Wolverine Building.
Included in the first phase was converting the administrative offices area into a large souvenir shop. The new “CapSized”shop is three times larger than the old shop.
Also open will be a new version of the main concession stand on the first-base side. It includes two new points-of-sale that will provide more efficient service for fans, Chamberlin said.
The new clubhouse should be finished by May 1 and will include a new weight room, larger locker room and coaches’ offices. Until then, the Whitecaps will use the visitors’ dugout on the third-base side, and the visiting team will use a trailer in the parking lot.
Secondary goals will be finished by June 17, Chamberlin said, when the Midwest League 50th All Star game will be held at Fifth Third Ballpark. That phase of the project includes the first-base side suites.
Both the souvenir shop and the right-field offices with a rooftop deck —due next season —were already in the works.
“The rest of the project wasn’t necessarily on the drawing board, but the fire gave us the opportunity to look at what else we could improve,”Chamberlin said.
Also planned for 2015 is a craft beer bar where the former souvenir shop was on the third-base side.
He said the 2013 season was a very good year and saw growth in both revenue and attendance. This year should be no different.
“We always project a little growth,”Chamberlin said. “The public support was very much appreciated, and this season gives an opportunity for a lot of people to come and see the new improvements.”
Additions don’t stop at the stadium; a new manager also joins the squad. Former Whitecap and Australian native Andrew Graham takes over as skipper.
“He’s the first former Whitecap to return as a member of the coaching staff,”Chamberlin said. “He’s a great guy and has an excellent understanding of our organization and how we position ourselves in the community.”
Although Chamberlin wasn’t able to visit training camp in Florida, the Whitecaps will field some highly touted Detroit Tigers prospects. The rotation will be led by the Tigers’No. 1 draft pick last year: Jonathan Crawford, who is ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system.
“It’s a very exciting year for us,” Chamberlin said.