As the West Michigan Whitecaps head into the home stretch of their 16th regular season of single-A baseball, CEO and Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin treated an attentive audience at a recent Rotary Club of Grand Rapids luncheon to the key business changes the partners have made over those years to the home field in Comstock Park.
The first one came rather quickly — just two weeks after opening day in 1994. And not unusual for the metro area, it had to do with parking.
The north parking lot was seeded and set aside for “overflow parking” on that misty opening-game evening in April. But after the first homestand, Chamberlin said the grass had to go, and the lot was rapidly paved to better accommodate the throngs of paying customers who came to see the team in its inaugural season, which drew a record-setting 470,000 to the park. Chamberlin told the Rotary crowd they had hoped to draw 250,000 through the turnstiles.
Here are the other alterations made by the franchise:
- The deck behind the right field wall was built in 1995.
- Rows of seats and suites were added along both foul lines and the bleacher section in centerfield was built in 1996.
- A second entrance and additional parking behind the outfield wall were added in 1996.
- The corner patios were added in 1998.
- The videoboard made its debut in 1999. “It really let us interact with the fans in a humorous way,” said Chamberlin.
- The deck in left field was built in 2003, which Chamberlin said completed the park.
- The Stadium Club and its outdoor deck on the building’s roof were built in 2006 and replaced the centerfield bleachers. “That turned out to be a better use of that real estate,” he said, adding that the franchise can now host meeting, parties and receptions all year.
- Outdoor seating was added to every suite, also in 2006. “We seem to rent more of them now and people seem more interested in them,” said Chamberlin.
- The box seats were replaced last year and those behind the plate are padded.
“So we have continued to invest in the ballpark and we will continue to do so,” said Chamberlin of the field that began as Old Kent Ballpark and is now Fifth Third Ballpark.
Chamberlin pointed out that a major reason the franchise has been able to make so many changes in such a short time was that no public dollars were used to build the park. “Not even a tax abatement,” he said. So the team didn’t have to get anyone’s approval to make a change. “It was a great choice because it let us invest in it as we wanted,” he said.
The franchise has made other changes over the years, such as moving from an affiliation with the Oakland A’s, which resulted in the team’s first Midwest League title, to the Detroit Tigers, which has added four more championship flags to the park.
Chamberlin said being tied to the Tigers has allowed Whitecaps fans to see some of their favorite players on rehab stints here, something he said would never have happened with the A’s due to the distance between the two franchises.
“We won four championships with the Tigers. They’ve provided us with great players. I hope we can keep that relationship going for the next 50 years,” he said, while adding that Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has become a friend.
When asked why he and Dennis Baxter, his partner in bringing the franchise here, chose “West Michigan” instead of “Grand Rapids” for the team’s name, Chamberlin said, “We do things as a region. We do business as a region.”
Despite all the changes, with more likely to come, Chamberlin said two things would remain the same as long as he is with the Whitecaps. One is the business’s commitment to families, which has served the Whitecaps well. He said some of the teens he saw at the park in the early years now attend games with their own kids. The second is to continue to provide lots of fun, great baseball and great food.
Chamberlin said 100 people have conquered the challenge of the Fifth Third Burger so far by completely consuming one during a game. The sandwich, new to the menu this season, is perhaps the nation’s largest and most publicized hamburger. “It just goes to show what the national media can do on a slow news day.”