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.”
Lunetta was joined by director of player development Dave Owen and Whitecaps vice president Jim Jarecki. Jarecki hopes to have building permits from Plainfield Township within the next 7 to ten days.
“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.
Photos courtesy of West Michigan Whitecaps/MLive.com
With Andrew Graham’s promotion from the Connecticut Tigers to the Whitecaps, the Detroit organization had another spot to fill. The Tigers filled that spot with another former catcher who played in West Michigan, with Mike Rabelo. He spent 2011 as hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League Tigers, and 2012-13 in the same position for Connecticut. Rabelo was drafted by Detroit in 2001, spending the 2006-07 seasons with the big club. He started out his minor league career with the Oneonta Tigers of the New York-Penn League in 2001, before they relocated to Connecticut. In the first of two season with the Whitecaps in 2002, he hit .195 with 41 RBI’s. In 2003, Rabelo improved to hit .274 with 40 RBI’s, and 16 doubles. It’s always fun to watch former players move up the ranks in the coaching department, too.
“I’m extremely excited for the opportunity to take the next step with a great organization like the Tigers,” Rabelo stated to MiLB.com. “We have a tremendous staff in place in Connecticut with Mark Johnson, Scott Dwyer, and Randy Brunner. I speak for all of them when I say we can’t wait to get started and play under the lights at Dodd Stadium in front of our fans. I wish the season started tomorrow.”
Johnson with serve as the teams pitching coach, as he did last season. He spent the 2008-12 seasons as pitching coach for the Whitecaps. Johnson pitched in the majors for nine seasons, including a stint with the Tigers. Scott Dwyer, who was the hitting coach in West Michigan just last season, will take Rabelo’s old job in Connecticut. They seem to have a very good staff lined up for the C-Tigs this season, that the Detroit organization seems to have some confidence in.
Stated the Tigers Director of Player Development Dave Owen: “Mike Rabelo is a talented young man with a very good baseball mind. He has done a great job as hitting coach and we are confident in his ability as he moves into his role as manager.”
We wish the Connecticut Tigers and Rabelo all the best this coming season. After all, they will be mentoring some future Whitecaps in the coming years for sure.
Fun Facts: The third game on our trip this coming season, will be a return to Toledo. We last took in a Mud Hens game back in 2007, so we’re very much ready to enjoy more baseball at Fifth Third Field. The Mud Hens have one of the best known minor league logos in history, mostly due to actor Jamie Farr wearing their hat during the run of the TV show M*A*S*H. They are also one of the oldest franchises, as pro baseball has been played in Toledo since 1883. The real era of baseball began in 1896, however, with the Toledo Swamp Angels who played in the Interstate League. The team played a Bay View Park, which was located near marshland which was inhabited by American Coots, also known as ‘mud hens’. The local press soon dubbed the team the Mud Hens, and the name has basically stuck though out the last 100 plus years. Toledo was also known for possibly hosting the first African-American to play in the major leagues. On May 1, 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker suited up for the Toledo Blue Stockings, who were a member of the major league American Association at the time. The Mud Hens played in the minor league American Association for many years (1902-1962), and then until the league folded after the 1997 season. The Mud Hens then joined the International League, playing in it’s West Division. They have won the Governor’s Cup (IL Champions) on three occasions in 1967, 2005, and 2006. The team has two mascots, Muddy the male Mud Hen, and Muddona, the female.
Notable Alumni: Casey Stengel, Freddie Lindstrom, Hack Wilson, Kirby Puckett, Jim Thorpe, Frank Viola, Travis Fryman, Billy Beane , Curtis Granderson, Lance Parrish
Andrew Graham, who managed the Connecticut Tigers of the NY-Penn League the last three seasons, will take the helm in West Michigan for the 2014 season. Former manager Larry Parrish was promoted to take over the Toledo Mud Hens last fall. Graham is the first Whitecaps alumni to come back and manage in West Michigan, as he was a catcher in 2003-04. He previously coach the Gulf Coast League Tigers from 2009-10, and served as the Tigers Minor League catching coordinator in 2010.
Graham, a native of Sydney, Australia, was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 19th round of the 2003 draft. He played six seasons in the Tigers’s system, including the ‘Caps. In 2004, he helped West Michigan claim the Midwest League championship, hitting ,253 in 26 games. In 2005, he hit .190 in 32 games before being promoted to Lakeland. He was also in attendance when the team won the 2007 MWL title, and seems to have fond memories of his time north of Grand Rapids.
“I loved it”, he stated to MLive.com. “West Michigan fans are just the best. The area is beautiful and, to me, it’s like the big leagues in the minor leagues.”
While in Connecticut, he led the Tigers to a 33-42 last season, 35-40 in 2012, and 39-31 in 2011. He seems to be ready for the step up to the Midwest League level.
“I’ve done three years in Connecticut, and I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong time, but I think I was able to handle myself there”, Graham said. “I think I developed good relationships with the players and I’m ready to do that with the Whitecaps.” While stating that he’s a players coach, “In that meaning I like to get to know the players and foster relationships to develop trust. I want them to know I have their backs when it comes to evaluating them and helping to develop their game.”
Both the Whitecaps and Tiger organizations seem very pleased with the promotion of Graham. Jim Jarecki, the ‘Caps Vice President, stated to the Grand Rapids Press: “Andrew was definitely a player that you could look at and see that he had the make-up to manage once his playing days were over. Being the first former Whitecap to come back to manage in West Michigan is a great opportunity for him and I know that the Tigers are confident in his leadership skills to manage at this level.”
And Dan Lunetta, Detroit’s director of minor league operations had this to say: “After three years managing our Connecticut affiliate, we believe Andrew is ready to take the helm and advance to the Whitecaps. He has worked diligently and prepared himself well for the opportunity to advance to the next managerial step in our system. We’re also very pleased that for the first time, a former Whitecaps player as a Tiger will be managing the club. West Michigan is a very special place to play and work and we know Andrew is looking forward to returning to Grand Rapids with great anticipation.”
We wish him and the Whitecaps the best this coming season. We plan on making the trip down to a game in early April.
Photos courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps/MLive.com
20th Winter Baseball Banquet: The Whitecaps have announced that their annual winter banquet will be held on January 23 at the DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids. Attending this years ceremony will be the Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, winner of this seasons Cy Young award. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski will also be in attendance, as well as 20 other ball players, including newly acquired Joba Chamberlain and Steve Lambardozzi. Whitecaps’ co-owners Lew Chamblerlin and Denny Baxter will also be on hand to discuss the recent fire at Fifth Third Ballpark, and the renovation plans. Dombrowski and the players will be speaking and taking questions at the event, also. The proceeds from the banquet go to the Whitecaps Community Foundation, that donates the funds to the YMCA Inner-City Youth Baseball and Softball Program, and the Detroit Tigers Foundation (affiliate with Ilitch Charities). Very positive things to look forward to this month, and throughout the constructions process.
Connolly HOF Induction: Pitcher Jon Connolly will be inducted into the Whitecaps Hall of Fame at the winter banquet, also. He played in West Michigan in 2003, earning a 16-3 record in 25 starts. Connolly’s ERA of 1.41 is the lowest for a starter in the history of the Whitecaps. He was drafted in the 28th round of the 2001 Draft, out of Oneonta (NY) High School. Connolly was probably familiar with the organization, as Detroit’s short-season single-A team was the Oneonta Tigers at the time, and where he played in 2001-02. He bounced around all levels of the minor with both the Tigers and Cubs organizations until 2008, when he ended his career with the Newark Bears of the Independent Atlantic League.
Spring Training Invites: The Detroit Tigers have invited 16 minor league players to their major league camp, come February. The list includes some former Whitecaps, like Duane Below, Devon Travis, and James McCann. Below is back with the organization after spending the last season with Miami and the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. Below was 12-3 with West Michigan in 2007, and carried a 2.97 ERA. McCann spent last season with the Erie SeaWolves last season, hitting .277, with 54 RBI, and a .731 OPS. He suited up for the Whitecaps for only nine games back in 2011. Travis was awesome last season, hitting .351, with 16 home runs, and 76 RBI’s between the ‘Caps and Lakeland Flying Tigers. He was the MVP of the Midwest League All-Star game, post season All-Star, Tigers Minor League Player of the Year, and won a MiLBY for Offensive Player of the Year. Here’s wishing these guys luck this spring!
Connolly photo courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps/MLive.com
The day after fire decimated a portion of Fifth Third Ballpark, it’s time to step back and see what was really lost. The Belfor Restoration company arrived at the ballpark early this morning, to begin removing debris from the burnt areas, and determining just what might be salvageable out of the mess. The Whitecaps’ co-owner Lew Chamberlin also arrived at the ballpark today to take in the damaged areas and reflect on what might be lost. After 20 years of baseball, many signed items, artwork, and personal mementos were damaged or lost.
“I can’t say it’s a life’s work, because there’s a lot more to life than just one profession or achievement or items”, Chamberlin stated to MLive. com. “Nonetheless, everything that’s in here represents a lot of my life, and in that case, it’s sad. But, you know what? We’re just going to do it all over again and build new memories.”
Chamberlin’s office is located behind home plate at the ballpark, but still sustained some water and smoke damage. Some items that are in jeopardy are autographed baseballs from players and coaches, original programs and schedules, signed baseball cards, as well as some original artwork featuring the Whitecaps that became program covers. Chamberlin is also fearful that some very personal items that his son made may be lost. According to Whitecaps’ vice president Jim Janecki, memorabilia that is confirmed to be destroyed includes photos from Opening Day in 1994, and autographed Matt Walbeck jersey, and a signed picture of former manager Tom Brookens and Ryne Sandberg (Peoria Chiefs).
It’s a shame that those items are gone, I love baseball history and memorabilia, and this loss really seems pointless. Again, though, at least no one was hurt in the blaze, and that’s the important thing. We’ll be keeping updates on the progress on the re-building of Fifth Third Ballpark the next few months until opening day. We’ll be down that way for a Griffins game soon, and for the Whitecaps game on April 12.
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.
Photos courtesy of Cory Morse/MLive.com/MiLB.com/WOODTV8