When I arrived at MiLB.com headquarters late Friday morning, I was expecting it to be a rather slow news day. The weekend was imminent, after all, and the world of Minor League Baseball seemed to still be suffering from a post-holidays hangover. But, a little after 11 a.m., the tone of the day changed drastically as news broke via Twitter that West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark was on fire.
As the above photo immediately makes clear, this fire caused major damage. A space heater located in one of the first base-side suites started the blaze; it had been left there by a work crew. The work crew apparently had been present when the fire first started, extinguishing it and then leaving the premises under the erroneous assumption that it had been completely put out.
But when I first heard about the fire, I (and I am sure many others), weren’t thinking about what the cause might have been. The photos and video provided by local Grand Rapids media were frightening, and information was scarce. Was everyone okay?
Fortunately, I was able to reach Whitecaps director of media Mickey Graham on his cell phone just before noon. While he understandably didn’t have much information to share at the time, he did say that he and his co-workers had evacuated the stadium safely and that, to his knowledge, no one remained inside. This was an extremely significant silver lining, but as for the stadium itself the news was dire. Firefighters had to battle the blaze in frigid weather and with access to just two fire hydrants, and by the time they got it under control the first base side of the stands (representing approximately 40% of the total structure) was decimated.
— WZZM 13 On Your Side (@wzzm13) January 3, 2014
With the worry of human injury or death vanquished, speculation then turned to the comparatively unimportant matter of the Whitecaps’ ability to operate in 2014. Opening Day is only three months away, and on top of that the team is hosting the 2014 Midwest League All-Star Game! How would this be possible, given the state of the stadium? I began to envision a “season on the road,” ala the 2012 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, as the team underwent an extensive re-building process. But the Whitecaps took the first opportunity to refute these assumptions, with co-owner Denny Baxter emphatically stating during a mid-afternoon press conference that his team would be ready for Opening Day (perhaps at a temporarily reduced capacity, but still).
“We’re going to be playing baseball again come April 8 — that I can absolutely promise everyone,” said Baxter. “We’ll be seeing baseball in April.”
This message was energetically and persistently stated throughout the remainder of the afternoon and over the weekend, perhaps most poignantly via this Facebook photo. Clearly, Crash made it through the fire with nary a singe!
As far as I know — and I could be wrong here — this was the most liked/shared Facebook update in Minor League Baseball history. (As of this Monday afternoon writing it had received 3,432 likes and 894 shares.) While social media popularity may not directly correlate to on-the-ground fan support, I believe that this massive response serves as an indication of the esteem in which the community holds the Whitecaps. Fifth Third Ballpark was a labor of love from the start, privately funded in an age of public subsidies, and year in and year out the Whitecaps are at or near the forefront when it comes to promotional, technological, and, of course, culinary innovation. I had a great time when I visited there last season, and if you have the opportunity to do so in 2014 then I’d highly recommend making the trip.
Friday will go down as one of the most harrowing and horrible days in franchise history, a nightmare come to life.. But all things considered it could have been much, much worse, and soon enough it will be back to business as usual. In that spirit, please allow ME to return to business as usual. As fate would have it, I actually began my work day on Friday by emailing Whitecaps promotions manager Keith Roelfsema (little did I know that, at the time I hit send, he and his co-workers were outside in the freezing cold having just evacuated a burning building). Roelfsema had contacted me the day before, in regard to the fact that footage of the Whitecaps had made its way into a little-publicized indie comedy with the name of Anchorman 2.
MLive was the outlet that first broke this internationally important story, so I’ll defer to them for a moment.
To put it in context: the movie stars Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, a TV-news anchor. His buddy Champ Kind, played by David Koechner, is the sports reporter (his catchphrase is “WHAMMY!”, used to punctuate home runs). In the midst of a tense ratings battle, and in a quest to make their program more exciting, Champ decides to show only home runs in his highlight reel. Cut to several Whitecaps players, pounding balls out of the park.
Click HERE to find out how this all came to be, and click HERE for an amusing local news story on the Whitecaps’ Hollywood cameo. Clearly, the team has bigger things to deal with at the moment, but some sort of Anchorman-related promo seems inevitable…
As the offseason progresses I’ll make sure to check back with the Whitecaps on how the re-building efforts are progressing. It goes without saying that it’s going to be a very interesting — and challenging — 92 days, but I have full faith that the team will persevere and come back stronger than ever. In the meantime, I leave you with this math problem: If 40% of Fifth Third Ballpark was destroyed, and 5/3 = 167%, then how much of the stadium does the team have to re-build?