COMSTOCK PARK, MI â€“ The right field stadium club at Fifth Third Ballpark, where thousands of West Michigan residents have reveled in summer baseball fun over the last 20 years, served as a staging area again Friday.
This time, however, the backdrop was a still-smoking, fire-ravaged row of a dozen luxury suites, a collapsed roof and a snow and ice covered outfield instead of a perfectly mowed green expanse, crisply chalked foul lines and a smooth, dragged infield.
Representatives of the Class-A West Michigan Whitecaps baseball franchise, known for two decades for family entertainment and offbeat promotions as much as developing future Detroit Tigers stars, fought back tears and accepted condolences after flames ripped through the stadium for more than two hours.
The upper right field section, including the concourse where Tigers Fridays are held and the famous Fifth Third burger is served, was destroyed – gone – along with the Whitecapsâ€™ clubhouse. The seats below appeared to have been spared.
Summer never seemed so far away as the single-digit temperatures made April’s opening day seem more than three months in the future.
Co-owner Denny Baxter, at his Muskegon home, learned about the blaze in a phone call as he and his wife, Cheryl, dealt with an insurance issue as she copes with chemotherapy for treatment of lung cancer.
â€œThis isnâ€™t what I expected to be doing today,â€ Baxter said as he faced media members while Lew Chamberlin, his longtime friend and business partner, raced back from an engagement in Chicago.
â€œThere are a great deal of emotions,â€ Baxter said, his voice wavering slightly. â€œItâ€™s a lot more than just a business. Itâ€™s a community member, and weâ€™ve got a lot of ourselves into this with our families.â€
Whitecaps CFO: ‘If we rebuild it, they will come once again’ Whitecaps CFO Denny Baxter talks about rebuilding Fifth Third Ballpark after fire Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. (Cory Morse | MLive.com)
The rest of the Whitecapsâ€™ front office were together on a most difficult day, including Scott Lane, the president of the organization; Jim Jarecki, the vice president; Joe Chamberlin, the finance director and Lewâ€™s son – who called and delivered the bad news to Baxter – and Mickey Graham, the director of marketing and media relations.
By late afternoon, Lew Chamberlin joined them. They capped a long day and sifted through the damage amid the icicles formed by water freezing after it helped douse the flames. That included Chamberlinâ€™s office, filled with Whitecapsâ€™ memorabilia. It was not burned, but sustained water damage from lines dousing the fire.
â€œThere will be better days,â€ Jarecki said, leaning against a window overlooking the field. â€œJust not today.â€
Fire officials believe that a space heater used by a work crew started a small fire in a luxury suite behind home plate. The workers thought they extinguished the fire and left the area, returning hours later to find a fire alarm sounding and the box in flames about 11 a.m.
Plainfield Township Fire Chief Dave Peterson said reports indicate there had been an earlier false alarm from the facility’s fire suppression system, and that the unit may have been turned off. That allowed the flames to spread faster than if had it been functional, the chief said.
Peterson also said a lack of nearby fire hydrants – there were only two – hampered the ability of firefighters to knock down the blaze. Water hoses were run nearly 1,500 feet from hydrants, but that sapped water pressure and crews were forced from the onset to take a defensive position as the fire extended down the first baseline and the roof eventually collapsed.
Despite the stadium devastation, the spirit that founded the Whitecaps remain unbowed as Baxter said with conviction that the games will go on and he hopes the construction effort will have the park ready to go by opening day. He acknowledged it’s a difficult task to fix an estimated $500,000 in damage in three months.
“If we rebuild it, they will come once again,” Baxter said.
The Whitecaps are a family organization, one that begin in 1993 when Baxter and Chamberlin purchased the Madison Muskies, moved them here and broke ground on a new stadium that was built for $6.5 million with private investors.
The first home game was April 12, 1994, with a seating capacity of 5,700. Baxter recalled how employees â€“ including some there on Friday â€“ were putting the final touches on the new stadium as the gates opened for the first time.
The park now holds more than 10,000 and has become an annual Midwest League attendance leader. More than 8 million fans have come through the gates and the field has hosted championship games and all-star contests, including being selected for the 50th annual game come June.
On Friday, Fifth Third Ballpark got drilled by a fastball, but the Whitecaps are still swinging. Baxter vowed the upcoming season will go on as planned. The community, he said, expects it, and the Whitecaps count on it.
â€œWe love this place, and weâ€™ll do everything we can to make this the most enjoyable experience, and the best place to watch a ball game that we can,â€ he said. â€œOur commitment remains the same.â€
The home opener is April 8.
â€œWeâ€™ll be there,â€ Baxter said. â€œWe hope everyone else will, too.â€