Yet another home run

February 16, 2009
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Call it an ongoing process. The West Michigan Whitecaps do.

The Class A baseball franchise, which has captured five Midwest League crowns in its 15 seasons, has annually tinkered with its home, Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park.

"The way we kind of look at the ballpark and the way we've reinvested in the ballpark almost defies a description of time — it's an ongoing process," said Lew Chamberlin, CEO, managing partner and co-founder with Dennis Baxter of the Whitecaps.

"In between and all along, there has always been something done to the ballpark."

But among those "in betweens and all alongs," three years stand out when the club made major, experience-changing improvements.

The first was back in 1996, when the three-year-old Whitecaps added the center-field bleachers and other seats and suites that raised the park's capacity to 10,000, a relatively astronomical number for a Class A franchise.

Then in 2006, the team replaced the right-center field bleachers with a two-level stadium club. The club has an enclosed and climate-controlled lower level that seats 200 for games, receptions and business outings, and an open-air, tent-covered upper deck on the roof for watching the 'Caps play. The Whitecaps also added outdoor seating for each of the 24 suites in the park that year.

"We need to keep investing in the facility to keep it fresh and up-to-date and fan friendly, because the facility is a big part of what leads to our success. We want folks to walk into the ballpark and go, 'Wow,'" said Chamberlin. "That's our goal."

To that end, the franchise invested another $1.5 million into a long list of physical improvements and business-related upgrades this past off-season.

Whitecaps Vice President Jim Jarecki said the spending was again designed to maximize the fans' comfort and to sustain the park as a top stop for the long run.

"These improvements will allow Fifth Third Ballpark to be a viable entertainment destination for the next 15 years," said Jarecki.

"This ballpark has aged well with the work we've put into it over the past 15 years, and with this major undertaking, Whitecaps fans will continue to enjoy a top-notch facility in the future."

A key component of the latest investment was a complete renovation of the playing field. The Whitecaps replaced the sod prior to the 2008 season, as it does every seven years or so. But they discovered last year that the drainage and irrigation systems also needed to be replaced, as both broke down a bit last season.

"We did have some difficulty with drainage this past summer. We needed to go all the way down and build it from, I guess, below ground. So we put in a new drainage system, a new irrigation system, a new sand-based subsoil, which will make it drain even better, and new sod," said Chamberlin.

"So it is indeed a completely replaced field and was quite an undertaking."

Because the work started in October, which is fairly late in the landscaping season, the franchise covered the field with a thin plastic blanket that should hold some of the warmth in this winter and let the roots grow a bit deeper before the Whitecaps open their 16th home season April 9.

"Hopefully, that (blanket) will give us a leg up this spring," said Chamberlin.

The Whitecaps also replaced every red-colored box seat with a new wider blue one. Both were made by Irwin Seating Co. With a big laugh, Chamberlin remarked that the switch from red to blue seating had nothing to do with the outcome of last year's presidential election.

"We decided we kind of wanted to create a premium-seating area behind home plate. In most ballparks, the real premium seats are behind home plate," he said.

So three box-seat sections behind home got padded seating. Each seat features a 3-inch upholstered cushion and a vented back. Then the Caps removed two of the four poles that held the backstop net behind the plate and hung a thinner netting for better visibility from those seats.

"The padded premium seats, combined with the visibility improvement of the new netting, will convert the home-plate area to the most desirable seats in the ballpark, as they are at most other major league and minor league ballparks," said Jarecki.

"When you put those two initiatives together, we wind up with a pretty nifty seating area right behind home plate," added Chamberlin.

Changes were also made to the park's technology. New cash registers have been installed everywhere, replacing those that debuted with the park. And that means every concession and souvenir stand has become more high-tech and able to contribute to a more sophisticated point-of-sales system, which, in time, will give the business a worthwhile return on its investment.

Chamberlin said the new registers integrate credit cards with Whitecaps gift cards, an item the team is looking to sell more of, and will make both transactions faster and more convenient for cardholders.

"That's going to speed up our ability to service the customer, which will not only add to greater customer satisfaction but give us better revenue flow than we have had," he said.

The registers will also track the team's concessions and merchandise inventory and give the club a sophisticated understanding of what is selling and where in the ballpark it is being sold. Now the franchise will know almost instantly which item is a best seller and which is a dud.

"We will be able to control our inventory better and our wastage better, and, as you know, that all has impact on the bottom line. And also to be able to make some strategic decisions about where things sell the best to match it up with the demonstrated preference of the fans," said Chamberlin.

These capabilities are vital for the Whitecaps, which introduces new concession items and merchandise products every season.

"That's part of our DNA and it always has been. Everything we do here is about baseball. But everything we do here is also about the experience, about the entertainment value," said Chamberlin.

"Over the years, we reinvested literally millions of dollars into improvements at Fifth Third Ballpark. This latest project is just another example of our philosophy of reinvesting in our facility to maintain and improve the fan experience."

Covering the park's bases

Here are the other improvements the West Michigan Whitecaps are making to Fifth Third Ballpark, as part of the franchise's $1.5 million investment:

  • Replacement of the roof that covers the front office and the concourse.

  • Repaving of entrance road and parking-area road, along with repairs throughout the parking area.

  • Addition of tent coverings over the picnic areas at the first- and third-base ends of the concourse.

  • New carpeting in the luxury suite hallways and upgraded air conditioning along the third-base suites.

  • Electrical improvements along the concourse for more concessions carts with new food and beverage items.

  • Repairs to the concrete and railing throughout the park.

  • Re-lamping and re-aiming of the field's lights.

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