Video Chat: Whitecaps CEO Lew Chamberlin tells story of minor league baseball in West Michigan
During a live video chat Wednesday at grbj.com, Lew Chamberlin fondly recalled going to Tiger Stadium as a child, walking out of a dark tunnel and seeing the bright green field staring back at him.
Those days stuck with Chamberlin as he grew up, and now he gets to look at a field every day as the CEO and managing partner of the West Michigan Whitecaps.
“I can’t always remember which player played on which club, but what I remember is the feeling I get from being at a baseball game,” Chamberlin said. “That’s what makes my job so great.”
At Fifth Third Ballpark, Chamberlin covered a number of minor league baseball topics: his job, the inner workings of the minors, the process of bringing the team to West Michigan, how rosters work while tied to the Detroit Tigers and the basic finances of a day at the stadium — among others.
Eight-year road to bringing baseball to West Michigan
It all started in 1985, when Chamberlin and business partner Danny Baxter decided it was time for West Michigan to have a baseball team.
But first came a perplexing dilemma: a team needs a stadium, and a stadium needs a team.
“We struggled with that chicken or egg for eight years,” he said, “looking for public funding, trying to get our feet wet in baseball to give ourselves some credibility.”
But with no luck, they decided to privately finance the stadium themselves, going from Grand Rapids to Wyoming to Byron Center, before finding a perfect slice of land in Comstock Park.
With the ballpark on its way, all that was needed was a team.
The Midwest League’s Madison Muskies were floundering in what was “essentially a high school stadium,” and the franchise was available for purchase.
With the first pitch thrown in 1994, initially as an affiliate of the Oakland A’s, the rest is history, including five Midwest League championships.
Grand Rapids as a Class A market
But don’t look for a higher level than the Whitecaps’ Class A status coming to Grand Rapids soon.
Baseball leagues work geographically, and aside from the Majors, the closest league to Grand Rapids is the Midwest League.
“I never say never. We always look at different possibilities,” Chamberlin said. “Geography is a real challenge for us. What really will be required if we were to make a move would be if Minor League Baseball were to completely realign.”
Watch a recording of the live video chat below.
Editor's note: Reporter Pat Evans moderated the chat on-site at Fifth Third Ballpark.