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New West Michigan Whitecaps manager Andrew Graham had his team on the field yesterday, getting ready for the long season ahead. Graham spent the last three seasons managing the Connecticut Tigers, where they only play 76 games, and now will helm a squad for a 140 game season. He is familiar with the Whitecaps, however, helping them win the Midwest League championship back in 2004 as a player. He feels confident he can end the three-year playoff drought in West Michigan.
“It was great to win a championship here as a player and it is a goal of mine to come here and bring one back as a manager,” Graham told MLive.com. “I had 16 of the 25 guys with me last year, so I know what they can do. All hard-working guys; no bad apples.”
In the 2014 version of the Whitecaps, Graham sees a team with speed that can hit for average, and not much power. He feels they have a very strong pitching staff that can lead them to victory on most nights.
“Pitching definitely should be one of our strengths,” he continued to MLive.com. “We have a number of starters, and most of them were held back last year because of the amount of innings they had already thrown (in college). So it will be interesting to see how they do with fewer restrictions on them.”
The team definitely looks to have a solid staff, with four pitchers for the 2013 draft. One pitcher in particular they will be looking at to lead the staff this season is Jonathon Crawford. He is the Detroit Tigers’ number one pick in the 2013 draft, and played collegiate ball for the Florida Gators. Former Tiger and current ‘Caps pitching coach Mike Henneman seems to have a high opinion of him, and look forward to working with him this summer.
“I kept an eye on him just to see what was coming our way,” Henneman also stated to MLive. com. “I like his mound presence. He throws in the mid-90′s. He’s got a very good slider and a good change-up. He’s a competitor; a hard-nosed kid.”
Crawford also seems to have high hopes for this season: “I want to go out there and get a solid six innings every start. If they let me go that long.”
The Whitecaps definitely look like a team that can compete, from their pitching staff to their returning players such as Raph Rhymes and Austin Schotts, and top prospects like infielder Javier Betancourt. The team started their season tonight in Dayton, with a 5-4 win against the Dragons. Schotts went 2-5 with a run scored, and shortstop Curt Powell went 2-4 with an RBI to lead West Michigan offensively. On the mound, Scott Sitz earned the win with a scoreless 7th and 8th inning, and Montreal Robinson got the save. Unfortunately, both Schotts and Rhymes left the game due to injury, the extent of which is unknown at this time. I’m glad the Whitecaps started off the season with a win, but hope the injures aren’t too severe. I still can’t wait to see this team play on the 12th!
Photos courtesy of Cory Morse/MLive.com
While down on Lansing, the Lugnut staff is going over the future plans for their ballpark, in West Michigan they’re just focusing on getting Fifth Third Ballpark ready for Opening Day. When that day comes on April 8, the Whitecaps will use the third-base dugout and locker room while they wait for theirs on the first-base side to be completed. The visiting teams will be using a temporary trailer just outside the center field gate, as will the umpires. The new locker room and clubhouse facilities are expected to be completed by May 1, in time for the ‘Caps home stand on the 5th. The temporary visitor clubhouse will only affect two home series, and four opponents in Wisconsin, Beloit, Bowling Green, and Fort Wayne.
“I know it’s going to be a bit of a change,” stated Whitecaps Vice President Jim Jarecki to MLive.com. “But cooperation from them (the opposing teams) has been very good. These guys may be prepping a bit and going back and showering at their hotel, but, for the interim, that’s the best setup we can do. Hopefully, it’s for a short period of time and we’ll put it behind us.”
The Whitecaps still expect to have the first-base side enclosed with concessions stand and restrooms ready to go. The re-building of the suites will be ongoing, but the smoke damaged ones on the third-base side will be ready to use. The effort by all involved has to be the weather we’ve been hampered with here in Michigan. This is one of the coldest winters in recent memory, and only two cities in the country (Buffalo and Erie) received more snowfall this year. The organization is still push to be ready by the home opener, and grounds crews will be removing over a foot of snow off the field in the coming week.
“We’re usually starting work on the field at this time,” Jaracki stated. “But you just can’t take off all the snow and go. You (remove it from) the warning tracks, then the infield skin. The grass will take care of itself, but the biggest focus will be on the infield skin and the mound and the home plate area. That has to get dried out.”
There’s no doubt that the ballpark will be ready by opening day, in my opinion. I know this organization will be striving to meet all of their goals. We plan on being in the stands on April 12, and for the Midwest League All-Star Game in June.
I’ve really enjoyed watching the Detroit Tigers’ pre-season games so far during Spring Training. I especially like seeing the former West Michigan Whitecaps players wearing the ‘D’, and hanging with the big boys in major league camp. Nick Castellanos is hitting the ball very well, and proving so far he’ll fit nicely into the hot corner at Comerica. It’s fun to watch Casey Crosby on the mound, trying to get back to that form that made him a top prospect, and the likes of Hernan Perez, Eugenio Suarez, and Devon Travis patrolling the infield. There is always that one player, however, that really stands out, and this season that guy seems to be outfielder Steven Moya. The 22-year-old started out on a tear this spring, going 2-4 with a double, a triple, and four RBI’s against Florida Southern College in the Tigers’ exhibition game. He recently followed that up with another impressive performance against the St. Louis Cardinals, being a home run away from hitting for the cycle, and knocking in another four RBI’s. So far in Grapefruit League play, he’s batting .412, with two doubles, a triple, and five RBI’s (stats against FSC don’t count). Moya was added to the Tigers 40-man roster in December, but despite his play, few think he’ll make the Tigers’ roster out of spring training.
“I like what I see, but he’s young,” manager Brad Ausmus told Chris Iott of MLive.com. “He’s inexperienced, really. He’s had some freak injuries that he missed some time with. I definitely like him. He still needs some time in the oven. He’s swung the bat well from day one. He really hasn’t let up at all offensively.”
Moya played for the Whitecaps during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In 2011 he struggled a bit, hitting .204, with 10 doubles, and 39 RBI’s. He improved drastically in 2012, hitting .288, with 14 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, and 47 RBI’s in only 59 games before being injured. He also played in the 2012 Midwest League All-Star Game, going 1-2 with two runs scored, and three RBI’s on a bases-loaded triple. We should have a good chance to see Moya play this season if he stays in the minors, as we’ll be making stops in both Toledo and Erie form some games this June. All the best to him the rest of the spring, and for the 2014 season.
UPDATE: Moya has been optioned to Double-A Erie SeaWolves. The Tigers also cut five other players on Friday, bring the number of players in major league camp to 40. Moya’s final big league camp numbers are a .333 average, with five doubles, and one triple in 21 at-bats.
“You can make an argument he was the MVP of camp. The problem is that he was in A-ball and he really just needs to play. He needs experience,” Ausmus stated to MLive.com. “We certainly have a high ceiling for him. But asking a guys with 90 games in A-ball to go to the big leagues is an enormous jump. So, the best thing for Steven Moya is to play.”
Photo courtesy of MLive.com/Grand Rapids Press
Whitecaps Winter Banquet: Last weekend the Whitecaps held their annual Winter Banquet, and over 20 current Detroit Tiger players, along with GM Dave Dombrowski attended. The players who attended included Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Bryan Holaday, Austin Jackson, Steve Lombardozzi, Justin Miller, Rick Porcello, Max Scherzer, and Drew Smyly. Former Whitecaps now with Detroit also attended, like Nick Castellanos, Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, Hernan Perez, and Bruce Rondon. Some Tiger coaches also made an appearance, along with announcer Dan Dickerson. Whitecaps’ owners Lew Chamberlin and Denny Baxter spoke about the ballpark situation, and feel confident it will be ready by opening day, and fully restored by the Midwest League All-Star game in June.
“It will look better than ever, and we will be ready to go into the future for another 20 years”, Chamberlin stated. “Those are ambitious goals, but that’s what we’re going to do.”
Dombrowski also spoke, and showed the Tiger organizations support for their Single-A affiliate. He stated: “When you see the commitment of Lew and Denny and their staff, and also the community involvement and what you are doing and what you are overcoming, it shows what type of individuals that run this franchise and are involved in this city. From the Detroit Tigers perspective, we have no doubt that the West Michigan club will be ready to play and we’ll do whatever we can. You have our total support.”
There were also auctions that took place at the event, and they raised $58, 528 for YMCA Inner City Youth Baseball and Softball programs. Jon Connolly was unable to attend the event, but the former ‘Caps pitcher was inducted into their Hall of Fame. The event at DeVos Place was also a homecoming for other alumni like Castellanos, who is slated to be the Tigers starting third baseman this season. He seemed to have fond memories of his first full pro season.
“At this point, that was still my most favorite season that I ever had,” Castellanos told MLive. com. “I had the most fun, I learned the most and it definitely gave me an idea what pro ball was going to be like. It’s a day-in, day-out grind, and I fell in love with it. I think that we had a great deal of the fan support that we had here, they made playing so much fun. It was definitely a reality check. It introduced me to professional baseball.”
Tiger Fridays: Oh, yes! The Tiger Fridays are back in West Michigan this season, with some great former players making appearances. The ‘Caps brass has secured another impressive list of Tiger alumni, as well as one special guest for a special night. We kick it off on May 30, with Ron Leflore making an appearance. I remember ready his book, and it was really eye-opening. I recommend it for any baseball fan. On June 6, they welcome Daryl Patterson. He was a member of the 1968 World Series Champions, going 11-9, with a 4.09 ERA. Glenn Wilson comes to West Michigan on June 27th. Wilson suited up for Detroit in the early 80′s. July 18 will be a homecoming for Grand Rapids native, and ’68 Champ Mickey Stanley. Stanley was an excellent fielder, winning Gold Gloves in 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1973. On August 1st, the ‘Caps will be celebrating the 1984 World Series, with former manager Tom Brookens (who led West Michigan to the 2007 MWL championship) representing the Tigers, and Steve Garvey (who played at Michigan State), representing the Padres. The Tiger Fridays will conclude on August 22 with Craig Monroe, who now works as with Fox Sports Detroit. I would really love to make it down to meet Mickey Stanley, though. We’ll see how the summer goes!
The progress in rebuilding the decimated portion of Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, Michigan, seems to be coming along nicely. Before the Whitecaps Winter Banquet last week, members of the Detroit Tigers organization took time to look at the fire damage and how much work has been done so far.
“I was amazed when I first showed up,” said Dan Lunetta, director of minor league operations for the Tigers. “I was expecting to see all the damage I had seen before online. I was amazed at the progress.”
“The first thing that one thinks about is that nobody got hurt,” Lunetta told MLive.com. “There could have been serious injuries or fatalities … Then you begin to think about the extent of the damage, and things that were lost that are irreplaceable, and your heart breaks when you hear that. It’s obvious that this place means an awful lot to an awful lot of people in this community, and there are memories that will be just that because the ballpark will undergo some change. But under Lew’s (Chamberlin) leadership, there’s no doubt they will get through this period and get the job done right.”
The Whitecaps still plan on having Fifth Third Ballpark ready for opening day. The weather here in Michigan has been brutal, so I really don’t envy the company doing the construction. We’ve been battling nasty blizzards, and sub-zero temperatures he last two weeks. Spring cannot come soon enough for us up here, where dreams of baseball seem so far away.
Tragedy hit West Michigan this morning, with the Whitecaps’ Fifth Third Ballpark caught on fire. First I want to say that we are very thankful that no injuries occurred due to the fire, and that the Whitecaps staff members and dozens of brave firefighters are all safe. According to reports by WOODTV8 by the Plainfield Township Fire Dept., the fire was started by a heater in one of the suites on the first base side. Once it spread to the attic area, it ended up destroying approximately 40% of the stadium, including the clubhouse and 11 suites. Early reports also indicate that in that area of the ballpark the sprinkler system may not have been active or charged. At this time, nothing is known as an absolute cause of anything, though. Fifth Third Field, built in 1994, is just 95 days away from the ‘Caps opening day. It is also the venue for the 50th Midwest League All-Star Game on June 17.
The Detroit Tigers were notified of the event also, and seem to be supportive of their Single-A affiliate’s predicament. In a statement on Twitter, the Tigers’ organization said, “The [Whitecaps] are and extension of our baseball family. We certainly hope for the best for all parties involved. The Tigers look forward to attending the annual baseball banquet later this month as part of the annual Tigers Winter Caravan”. Some of the form ‘Caps were stunned by the news and pictures of their old ballpark, also.
In a statement to MLive.com, Detroit infielder Don Kelly stated, “The team means a lot to the Grand Rapids area. You hate to see stuff like that happen to a great organization.”
Tigers’ catcher Alex Avila started his pro career in West Michigan, and told MLive.com, “Just saw some of the pictures. Pretty crazy. I’m glad no one was hurt. That is one of the best Minor League Baseball stadiums. Always a packed house and a great atmosphere.”
This was a nightmare of a day for the Whitecaps co-founder, chief financial officer, and director of accounting Denny Baxter. While his wife is battling cancer, he was called away to help deal with the situation. Baxter seems positive, however, that the organization and community will band together, and the Whitecaps will be ready to play baseball in April.
“We’re going to survive this and come out of this. I’d like to believe, if we rebuild it, they will come,” Baxter stated. “April 8, plan to be here, we will be. We’ll be back, business as usual. We’ll just have some construction plans and design work, but we have a great staff and we’re up to that challenge. The community will show that support to us. We’re gonna play baseball–we’re very determined about that. We’re strong in our resolve. We’re going to play on Opening Day, we’re still going to have an All-Star Game. I’m absolutely confident about that.”
If any baseball organization can bounce back from this, I believe the Whitecaps can. We plan to make our first game of the season on April 12, and are really looking forward to seeing how much they’ve accomplished by then. All the best to the Whitecaps, and, again, we’re just grateful no one was hurt.
Baseball and hockey, the two sports loves of my life, going together like chocolate and peanut butter. And with this outdoor hockey thing really catching on, more teams and leagues are taking part in this type of event every year. So whoever decided to build a hockey rink in the middle of a frozen baseball park, is simply brilliant. Although this is not a new concept, this past weekend was the first outdoor game for our own Grand Rapids Griffins. The Griffins took on the Toronto Marlies at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, in American Hockey League action. The game was part of Detroit’s Winter Festival, which featured in-state high school, NCAA, Ontario Hockey League, and the Griffs AHL game. The Comerica Park venue also hosted two alumni games from the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Griffins, the defending Calder Cup Champions, and off to the best start in franchise history, found themselves tied at three all after regulation and overtime against the Marlies, however. It looked like a great experience for all involved, and will hopefully lead to more events like this in the future. I would really like the Griffins to stay close to home, though, and maybe one day play at an outdoor game at Fifth Third Ballpark, home to the West Michigan Whitecaps. This would be another great venue for hockey, with many successful high school, college, and professional teams in the area. You can even look at what the Rochester Red Wings did with their Frozen Frontier this season, as a model of success. From what I’ve read, Frontier Field did a phenomenal job of hosting hockey of all levels last month, and the same could be done at other minor league stadiums in the north. Although a Frozen Fifth Third may be a pipe dream, I guess I’ll have to wait until April to see some action there. Until then, we plan on hitting a Griffins game very soon.
The West Michigan Whitecaps and their fans got an early Christmas present this year. Upon watching the newly released Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, some fans and staff noticed the baseball footage in the film is none other than of their Whitecaps. During the film, sports reporter Champ Kind (actor David Koechner), plays a montage of home runs to boost the ratings. The montage happens to be a mash of West Michigan players’ homers, with Champ using his catchphrase ‘Whammy!’. And you’re probably wondering how a Single-A Minor League Baseball team can make into a movie such as this, as did I. According to MLive.com, a Detroit-based filmmaker working for a Los Angeles film company came to Fifth-Third Ballpark to film what is called ‘B-roll’. The ‘Caps signed an agreement, the film was shot, but no one knew how the film would be used. Now we know. Unfortunately, the Whitecaps’ name isn’t used, but baseball fans will recognize the uniforms. Koechner is familiar with Grand Rapids, also, as he was in town last month for a comedy show. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie, but even more so now. Stay classy, West Michigan…
Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps/Anchorman 2
Next season, Fifth Third Ballpark, home to the West Michigan Whitecaps, will be hosting the Midwest League All-Star Game. The announcement was actually made during the seventh inning stretch at last Saturday night’s game that we attended. Next season’s classic will also be the 50th All-Star Game for the MWL, and will take place on Tuesday, June 17. This will be the third time West Michigan has hosted the event, with the first time being in 1995, and again in 2003.
“This is a bid deal for us”, Whitecaps President Scott Lane stated to MLive.com. “Not only are we hosting the Midwest League’s premier event, but we’re hosting it in it’s 50th year. We intend to put on a grand show for the fans, executives and players of the 16 teams in the league. We will showcase not only Fifth Third Ballpark during the two-day event, but West Michigan as well.”
All I can say, is that I have to make this game. I’ll be waiting to jump on some tickets when they go on sale for sure. Attending an All-Star Game is definitely on my baseball bucket list, and where better than at my home-team Whitecaps!
Photo property of Minoring In Baseball