A large fire caused extensive damage to the West Michigan Whitecaps' Fifth Third Ballpark on Friday morning as firefighters from five departments battled the blaze for more than three hours in Comstock Park, Mich.
No injuries were reported among the roughly 30 team staff members and dozens of firefighters at the Class A Minor League stadium.
Plainfield Township fire chief David Peterson said the fire was started by a heater in one of the ballpark's suites, according to a report by WOOD TV8. A work crew in the suite believed they had extinguished the flames and left the area, only to return to find the suite on fire.
"It did start in one of the suites, spread into the attic area. Once it gets into the attic it tends to move pretty fast because it has a lot of oxygen and there aren't a lot of fire breaks," Peterson told WOOD. "Everything from the about home plate down the first base side is pretty much destroyed."
"It's a very difficult and emotional day for all of us here," said Denny Baxter, the Whitecaps' chief financial officer and director of accounting. Despite what Baxter called "a disaster," he said the stadium would be open and operational for the team's home opener on April 8, 2014.
"We're going to survive this and come out of this. I'd like to believe, if we rebuild it, they will come," said Baxter, a co-founder of the Midwest League team, during a press conference held at the stadium. His business partner, Lew Chamberlin, was in Chicago at the time of the fire but was headed to the area after receiving news of the incident.
The fire began around 11 a.m. local time as Whitecaps personnel heard fire alarms and evacuated the stadium. Firefighters from Plainfield Township responded along with support from Alpine Township, Rockford, Walker and Grand Rapids.
Early reports indicated the fire began in one of the ballpark's first base luxury suites and spread to an attic area in the roof along the first-base side of the stadium, which opened in 1994 and is a rare example of a totally privately funded facility. Firefighters, battling freezing temperatures and ice, were forced to evacuate the inside of the ballpark and fight the blaze from aerial positions outside. A lack of fire hydrants -- there are reportedly just two at the ballpark -- also caused water pressure problems in containing the fire as firefighters had to extend hoses 1,500 feet from other locations.
"It was really kind of nasty," Peterson told mlive.com. Peterson said the first base side of the ballpark was "pretty much destroyed."
"We had a very significant fire here that damaged the right-field portion of the ballpark," Baxter said. "To see the place in flames was very, very difficult."
The fire appeared to have destroyed close to 40 percent of the stadium, including the clubhouse on the first-base side and approximately 11 suites. Firefighters were able to stop the flames from spreading into the center of the stadium, which likely saved the press box and front offices from further damage. Baxter said those areas may have sustained water damage.
"Everything on the first base side -- the suite level, concourse, clubhouse, some storage areas, things of that nature -- they're all going to have to be replaced," Baxter said. "Beyond that, I don't know. We have not been given permission to go in and assess the damage in the office. The control room -- that controls our audio and video -- I believe that's been severely damaged, if not, could be totally gone. If anybody looks, the first-base side is gone."
Fifth Third Ballpark is home to the Detroit Tigers' Class A affiliate and is scheduled to host the 50th annual Midwest League All-Star Game in June. Baxter was emphatic in his belief that the stadium would be open not only for the All-Star Game but also by Opening Day. He said baseball could be played even if construction isn't completed, noting the field was not damaged.
"They're going to rally around us and help us through our difficult time," Baxter said of the West Michigan community. "We're going to be playing baseball again come April 8 -- that I can absolutely promise everyone. We'll be seeing baseball in April."
The Tigers released a statement of support on Twitter on Friday afternoon.
"The [Whitecaps] are an extension of our baseball family. We certainly hope for the best for all parties involved," the team said. "The Tigers look forward to attending the Whitecaps' annual baseball banquet later this month as part of the annual Tigers Winter Caravan."
"We contacted the Tigers right away to alert them of the situation," Baxter said. "They continued to support us and plan on being our long-term partner. We have a great relationship with the Tigers, and this situation won't damage that."
Tigers players who spent time in West Michigan were also stunned to hear the news.
"The team means a lot to the Grand Rapids area," Tigers infielder Don Kelly told mlive.com. "You hate to see stuff like that happen to a great organization."
"Just saw some of the pictures," Detroit catcher Alex Avila told the website. "Pretty crazy. I'm glad no one was hurt. That is one of the best Minor League Baseball stadiums. Always a packed house and a great atmosphere."
Baxter, who held back tears while speaking to the media from the Pepsi Club in center field, spoke about the community's support and appreciation for the team.
"There are a great deal of emotions. This is a lot more than a business -- it's a community member. Our family, born and raised here -- my daughter works here, my wife works here. It's been a family thing," he said. "The community has appreciated and shared this franchise. We love this place, and we'll do everything we can to make this the most enjoyable place to come watch a ballgame that we can. Our commitment remains the same, and this is a hurdle to overcome. We'll overcome. To see the place in flames was very, very difficult. I'm absolute in my belief that we'll rebuild and be just as strong and vibrant."
Baxter said it would not be an easy task, with just 95 days until the home opener.
"Difficult, no question," he said. "Can it be done? I've heard some early things, but clearly it will be very difficult. We've been receiving an outpouring of support from community partners, family and friends. We're very appreciative of that."
Baxter said he didn't have an estimate on the cost of the repairs.
Early reports suggested the sprinkler system in that area of the ballpark may not have been active or charged -- WOOD TV8 reported that, according to local officials, the stadium's sprinkler system was not working properly at the time of the fire. Peterson said the town would look into adding more fire hydrants to the area as well.
"I think there's been a lot of speculation, and that's kind of natural with a disaster like this," Baxter said of the sprinklers. "We have not been given any information about causation."
Baxter was asked about his message to Whitecaps fans.
"April 8, plan to be here, we will be," he said. "We'll be back, business as usual. We'll just have some construction plans and design work, but we have a great staff and we're up to that challenge. The community will show that support to us. We're gonna play baseball -- we're very determined about that. We're strong in our resolve. We're going to play on Opening Day, we're still going to have an All-Star Game. I'm absolutely confident about that."
On a personal level, Baxter said it had been a challenging day to deal with the news. He said he left behind his wife, who is battling cancer.
"Absolute shock. My wife is undergoing chemo -- we were dealing with an insurance company and I thought, 'Today? Today?' Just stunned. This place means the world to me," he said. "I got over here as quick as I could. I knew the people we had on site, they had things well in hand.
"I have shed a few tears today, it's really been difficult," he added. "More so than I thought. It was very difficult and emotional for me. You get over the initial shock and say, 'What do I have to do?' With our focus of having a great year, the 50th Midwest League All-Star Game -- we have great plans for this season and this does not deter that. Our goals and challenges are the same and we're going to deliver to this community."
Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com.