Lynn Henning | The Detroit News
Baseball at West Michigan is adjusting to a seat-upgrade. The Whitecaps have moved from coach to first-class in that broad minor-league sphere known as Class A.
In a lovely hollow at Comstock Park, just north of Grand Rapids, where a summer day or night will pull 5,000, 6,000, or more folks to LMCU Ballpark, the Whitecaps are moving this year from so-called “low A” status to the highest Single-A rung. It’s a move Major League Baseball engineered last autumn when it shrunk the minors and flipped some league designations.
In the case of West Michigan — and its affiliation with the Tigers — the Whitecaps’ heavier horses now are a plane-ticket from Erie, Pennsylvania, and the Tigers’ partner at Double A, which as serious fans know is all but the doorstep to big-league life at Comerica Park in Detroit. Or at some other MLB venue.
West Michigan gets a job promotion, while the new low-A stop is Lakeland, Florida, where the Florida State League has switched tiers with the Midwest League, which is where the Whitecaps continue to compete.
Viewed in more practical fashion, Whitecaps fans can plan on seeing stardust prospect Spencer Torkelson swinging his big right-handed bat in 2021. Potent picks such as Dillon Dingler and Gage Workman, Daniel Cabrera and Trey Cruz — the bluer of the blue-chip pieces the Tigers have been adding during their marathon reconstruction — will be playing in Comstock Park, and not before a couple of dozen friends and family in 95-degree sun at Lakeland, as might have been the case ahead of November’s re-shuffling
That is, once a minor-league season cashiered a year ago by COVID-19 and that’s still in a bit of flux gets the go-ahead to begin games in 2021. The Whitecaps are hoping for a start sometime around May 1, which is what farm teams across America are banking on after 2020’s schedule was zapped by the pandemic.
Lew Chamberlin, along with Denny Baxter, is co-chairman and co-founder of the Whitecaps, which Chamberlin helped bring to Comstock Park in 1994. Chamberlin was talking Tuesday during a phone chat about how high-A prestige has boosted a team and a fan base.
“It’s a bright spot in what’s been a pretty tough past year,” said Chamberlin, whose son, Joe, is the Whitecaps CEO. “It’s something we’ve kind of dreamed about over the years.
“Laughingly, we used to say to the Tigers player-development people: ‘Why don’t you just flip the Florida State League with our teams? You’ll get bigger crowds.’
“And while we knew it would always take a reconstitution by Major League Baseball for this to happen, it did happen, and we’re excited about it. We’ll be seeing a higher level of play, with kids closer to the majors, and with players who we now probably won’t miss when some of those kids might have started at high A.”
Dan Hasty, the energized Whitecaps play-by-play broadcaster, put it in slightly different words during a phone conversation this week.
“Being in high A puts West Michigan much clearer in the consciousness of Tigers fans,” Hasty said. “It used to be, guys who played at West Michigan and who built an identity here would go to Lakeland and maybe fall off the face of the Earth.
“You couldn’t see them at the next stop, there were no highlights, and if they struggled there they might never be heard from again.
“Now, the guys who make it here will go straight to Erie, which greatly enhances their chances at making the big leagues.”
It tends also to bind a big minor-league audience to players, and to a parent team — the Tigers — where there now is a more direct developmental connection.
Hasty made an interesting point. Never has a No. 1-overall draft pick worn the Whitecaps uniform. Matt Anderson, a first-overall grab by the Tigers in 1997, started at Lakeland and never played at West Michigan. Same with Casey Mize when the Tigers took him with the draft’s first turn in 2018.
Torkelson, though, has been ticketed by none other than Tigers general manager Al Avila for a 2021 initiation at high A — which is now Comstock Park rather than Lakeland.
How this loftier perch in the Tigers’ farm pecking-order shakes out, business-wise, at West Michigan is still unclear.
In great part, that’s because it helps to have a schedule when you’re selling season tickets. It also is nice to know if a hometown team’s seats can be occupied by people or by cut-outs, which was the case at MLB games throughout most of 2020 as crowds were verboten and people who were on hand had to keep their COVID-conscripted space. Minor-league ballparks, by comparison, were vacant.
Another issue, a happy one for the Chamberlins and Co., is wondering how many more people might show up when the ballpark, formerly known as Fifth Third Ballpark, tends to be fairly jammed, at least when temperatures are anything above 50 degrees.
Even with those cold-weather weeks in April and early May chopping down the crowds, Whitecaps games are vogue. People go for baseball, sure. They also go for the usual battery of promotions and theater and between-innings stunts. And of course, for carnival-sized concessions, like the Fifth Third Burger, which goes for $20 and carries 4,800 calories — and might as well be accompanied by a cardiologist.
What they go for, ultimately, is an ongoing spring-through-summer party.
“Minor-league baseball is all about inexpensive family entertainment,” Lew Chamberlin said. “It’s about all the goofy things we do with food, and yet I think some people would be surprised by how many hardcore, knowledgeable fans are in this ballpark.”
For serious and less-serious customers so much is yet being assessed and evaluated in 2021. The MLB season looks as if it will be essentially intact, with crowd-sizes and timelines yet to be determined.
The minor-league calendar is, of course, not as urgent, not compared with ironing-out all the fractious issues that must be settled by owners and players.
But that hardly implies a 2021 farm season is secondary in the eyes of owners or their bosses in New York. Not after so much was lost, competitively and developmentally, in 2020.
It’s more a matter of timing. A start-up in early May would be fine with the Whitecaps, especially if — as has been discussed — the 2021 minor-league season would then extend through September rather than shut down Labor Day weekend.
“That’s a concept we, frankly, have felt for a long time would be a good idea,” Joe Chamberlin said Tuesday. “At least in these colder climates.
“Baseball in April — Opening Day is one thing. But the rest of the month is tough.
“If we had an opportunity in 2021 to skip some of the snow — that’s not a bad thing, honestly.”
There also is a business to run. A business that took a pounding in 2020. Minor-league teams traditionally have operated as independent entities. Big-league teams are responsible for player-contracts, but it’s the farm teams, the venues such as West Michigan, that handle transportation and a broad range of overhead that includes scores of staffers.
The Whitecaps survived — that’s an ambiguous word in the pandemic business world — thanks in part to Personal Paycheck Protection authorized by the federal Small Business Administration.
They also got creative. People were ravenous last summer for any kind of fresh-air experience that got them away from a shut-in, socially-distanced world in which COVID-19 held them hostage.
The Whitecaps hatched a “Movies on the Mound” promotion. They would air, on the ballpark’s big scoreboard, a movie — “Field of Dreams” or “The Natural” or “Toy Story” or a host of flicks kids could enjoy without having to cover their eyes or ears — in an open-air, blanket-on-the-grass setting.
It was a relative hit. Crowds weren’t quite of the Whitecaps stature, but it was a nice way for parents and kids to get out of the house. And a means, also, for some bills to be paid at Fifth Third Field.
The show will be truer to tradition in 2021, or so it seems. Baseball will be back. A higher grade of baseball, it should be noted, with more accomplished pitchers, hitters, and names suiting up.
It’s all incumbent, of course, on defeating a beast of a virus. And vaccinations mounting. And life, at last, beginning to resemble its old self, which for West Michigan fans, is life rarely sweeter than during a night at Fifth Third Field.
Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.