Thursday, April 10, 2014

Through the Fire and the Flames: Resiliency, Dedication, and Opening Day for the West Michigan Whitecaps

What is mankind without its challenges? While there are opportunities where we may strive to do things once thought impossible, the most difficult tasks are those thrust upon us without warning. On January 3rd, 2014, a fire broke out in the administrative building of Fifth Third Ballpark, the home of the Detroit Tigers' single-A affiliate West Michigan Whitecaps. The blaze engulfed the entire first base side of the building. Almost immediately, Chief Financial Officer Denny Baxter declared the team would play baseball in their home park on opening day, April 8th. A short schedule and brutal winter stood in the way of keeping that promise, but as I witnessed Tuesday night, the challenge was no match for the team and its devoted community.
Long before first pitch, there was a lingering doubt. The sentiment wafted high in the form of black smoke and ash from the ruins of Fifth Third Ballpark. On Jauary 3rd, I read about the fire almost immediately and decided soon thereafter to attend the home opener. Fortunately, Comstock Park, Michigan is under three hours from where I live. The premise was too great to miss. Despite the otherworldly cold, the Whitecaps organization was going to play as planned, and rebuild as if to merely roll with the punch thrown their way.

As I pulled into the parking lot of the ballpark, the immediate reaction was disbelief. The building appeared as if not a fiber was out of place. The seamless reconstruction and connection to the rest of the complex was borderline miraculous. The gates were to open at 5:30pm. An hour and a half prior to then, the parking lot began to fill. Opening Day is an event, sure, but this was much more to the Whitecaps faithful. Entire families draped in Whitecaps and Tigers paraphernalia marched toward the concourse, only to stand in line after those who arrived sooner. I faded into the background and listened to small talk between friends, some who had not seen each other since last season ended. It was a community in and of itself. Promotional vans from every radio and television station in the surrounding area set up base camp. An old-timey brass band set a mood cast ages ago in the whimsical, halcyon days long before baseball came to Comstock Park. The Whitecaps were to begin their twenty-first home schedule that night, and in the face of an unprecedented challenge, they did just that.

The gates opened, tickets were scanned, and the ballpark flooded with patrons just as it had hundreds of times before. The familiar aroma of ballpark food swelled and lured in the hungry hearts of those anxious to experience the flavors of summertime. Seats slowly filled. As the sun quickly raced beyond the left field wall, the time had come to begin Opening Day festivities. In most parks across America, the crowd is riled up with a promotional video or perhaps a stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Tuesday night had that, but it began with a subdued sense of accomplishment. Members of the five districts of firefighter first responders threw out ceremonial first pitches. Upon the large video screen beyond the left field wall, the story of the last three months unfolded once again. Baxter appeared with team CEO Lew Chamberlin on screen as they each told the events of that fateful day from their perspective. That faded into a time-lapse montage of the rebuild. Then, Chamberlin and Baxter walked out to home plate to address the crowd. Chamberlin spoke on the support from Detroit that came immediately from Tigers Presitdent Dave Dombrowski. Under the gravity of the moment, Chamberlin choked up. He collected himself and passed the microphone to Baxter, who, in holding back his own overwhelming emotions, thanked the community for their support. In a tone filled with pride, Baxter declared, "We're gonna have a hell of a time this year, now lets play some baseball." After all, that's what it all comes back to- the reason we were all there- baseball.

At 6:52, the promise was realized. First pitch came from hard-throwing right hander Jeff Thompson, who despite the occasional slip in control, punched out six members of the visiting Wisconsin Timber Rattlers over three and one third innings. On an errant throw to second, Wisconsin center fielder Omar Garcia advanced to third before being sent home on a sacrifice fly from right fielder Michael Ratterree. West Michigan matched the score in the bottom half of the first. Second baseman Javier Betancourt advanced from first to third on a single by left fielder Ralph Rhymes. Then, into the box stepped Ben Verlander, a clear fan favorite. Ben, the younger brother of American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, was out to make a name for himself in baseball. The younger Verlander plays right field and has a slight frame that immediately conjured up memories of Craig Counsell many years ago. Verlander singled up the middle into center field, driving in Betancourt to immense cheers and applause. Tied one apiece, the teams settled in and whipped through the next three innings.

As customary in the Minor and Independent Leagues, every half inning is a reason to engage the fans. A toddler raced a bumbling mascot around the bases. Fans participated in a game show style game centered around team trivia. Much as I witnessed last year in Gary, the fan experience is still top priority. After all, without the community, the team doesn't have a chance to survive. Mascots threw out candy from atop the dugouts. A small child helped sweep the infield dirt from each base. Those in the crowd laughed as she made sure to thoroughly made certain the base was clean. Not a second between innings was left bare for boredom to creep in.

With the game still knotted at one, the Whitecaps sought to break it open in their half of the fifth. Infield singles and errors are much more common in single-A ball than they are in the Majors. The phrase "raw talent" comes to mind. While they do not have the seamless, fluid fielding ability of Andrelton Simmons or Robinson Cano, the idea is to hone their craft against equal-strength talent. An error allowed shortstop Curt Powell to get on with one out. An infield single for Betancourt put two on, and after Rhymes walked the bases were loaded for first baseman Dominic Ficociello. A short single to center field moved the runners station to station and put the Whitecaps ahead. Again the bases were loaded. The crowd began to swell with anticipation as Verlander stepped into the box. In the Majors, a moment like this is expected to result in some sort of climactic double down the right field line, clearing the bases, or something of that nature. Yet at this level, the players are still learning the professional style of ball. One lesson that is taught from childhood on- productive outs can be just as valuable as hits. Verlander lifted a 'can of corn' to center. He was out, but the distance allowed Betancourt to score again, pushing the lead to 3-1.

Nightfall came, and with it the not-so-pleasant reminder that early April can be just as harsh as late March. The temperature dropped from a comfortable 56 degrees to an obnoxious 34. After sitting in one place for two hours, I needed to walk around the park to stop from shivering. Normally at a ballgame, fans are conversing or walking around somewhat aimlessly, just enjoying the atmosphere. But as I looked around, nearly every set of eyes not waiting in and concession line was trained on the diamond below. I was more than impressed at the volume of people able to recognize a very good baseball game when one is laid out before them. The sixth, seventh, and eighth innings passed without any runs. Kids participated in a game that involved catching velcro ping-pong balls on "gelled hair" helmets. Three inflated eyeballs, sponsored by a local optometrist and worn by grown adults raced from center field around to a finish line along the first base side. A local brodcaster led the crowd of more than seven thousand in the familiar baseball hymn, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

Up two runs and headed to the ninth, the Whitecaps were in control of their home opener. But as I have learned in my many years of watching the game, no lead is safe and no challenge is insurmountable. In came Montreal Robertson, the fastball monster of a closer for West Michigan. The "raw talent" I mentioned earlier is definitely present with Robertson. With each pitch, more and more eyes in the crowd shot from the action on the field to the manually-operated scoreboard in left. Robertson reached 96 miles per hour. Then 97. Speed can only get a man so far, however. The first three batters got on base following an infield single, a walk, and a bunt for a hit that was mismanaged by the Whitecaps catcher Bennett Pickar. Bases loaded, nobody out. The challenge was clear and present. In a way, their task was as simple and as difficult as that which faced the organization three months prior. They had minimal margin for error if the home team was to pull out a victory. A soft ground ball to Robertson is returned home for the force out at the plate. One out. The closer then walked Ratterree to cut the lead to one run. With bases loaded for the third straight batter, Robertson forced third baseman Tyler Brennan to pop up in the infield. Two away, bases still loaded. In stepped Wisconsin catcher Clint Coulter. Tension caused everyone present to rise from their seats. This was the climax. Given the uncertainty of fielding prowess, no ground ball was a certain out. As Coulter cracked the ninety-eight miles per hour fastball back across the infield, the crowd quelled to a chatter. The ball was fielded and delivered to second base for the force out and the nearly frozen fans let out a cumulative yell of relief.

The Whitecaps had won the ballgame. They had staved off the Timber Rattlers rally and taken their home opener. Baseball was back in Comstock Park, Michigan. Despite the grave nature of their situation, the team managed to play baseball in their own confines as scheduled. Baseball finds a way to move on; to adapt. There will be struggles along the way for the West Michigan Whitecaps, but baseball was back for the team and for the community that so warmly embraces them. It was as if nothing had happened that cold, awful day in early January.

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