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MWL Preview: Whitecaps keep their promise

Tigers affiliate stays on target for Opening Day following ballpark fire
April 2, 2014

It would be easy to play up the Hollywood comeback cliché regarding the fire that devastated Fifth Third Ballpark on Jan. 3 and paint the picture of a team destined to win. Instead, let's focus on the incredible fact that West Michigan will even play baseball there this year.

No one was hurt in the blaze, but the stadium suffered enormous damage as the stands on the first-base side of the field were destroyed. With Opening Day slated for April 8, it seemed a safe assumption that at least part of the Whitecaps' schedule would be played away from Fifth Third Ballpark. From the beginning, however, that was not an option.

"The focus was that we were going to play," said Jim Jarecki, the club's vice president. "'Never a doubt' has been our theme. We know this is a staple and that this was something we had to do. When you lose a third of your park, it's hard to fathom. You try to focus, you see the deadline and you set the target date. We've got to be able to do this because we've got to be able to give this back to the community."

Though the park isn't going to be fully restored by Opening Day, much of the repairs will be finished, including the stands, first-base concessions and two bathrooms. According to Jarecki, the home clubhouse and two locker rooms will be completed in time for the Midwest League's 50th All-Star Game on June 17.

"That's basically going to be our second Opening Day," Jarecki said. "We'll have pomp and circumstance. We're trying to get some acknowledgment of what we're trying to do. It's a 20-year-old facility, and this is the biggest change we've done. We feel like we need to do the celebration."

In the meantime, the club is making sure all outstanding issues are accounted for. For example, Whitecaps players will use the visitor's clubhouse, while visiting teams will use a trailer that is being set up in the parking lot and shower at a nearby high school after games. In short, the club has taken lemons and tried to make a pitcher of lemonade.

"It happened, it's terrible, but you have to move on," he said. "Day by day, it's gotten a little easier and as we work through, we've gotten even better. The fans are the ones who are going to benefit from it. As you see the rebuild, people are getting more and more excited that they are going to be able to get back into Fifth Third Ballpark."

A Tigers affiliate, the Whitecaps have gotten a terrific response from the Detroit front office as well.

"They've been with us all the way," said Jarecki, a 21-year baseball veteran. "They understand -- they are all on board. The working relationship with the Tigers has been outstanding, and I couldn't ask for two better people to work with than [director of Minor League operations] Dan Lunetta and [director of player development] Dave Owen."

The support has come from all corners: fans, the Tigers, even the builders.

"The contractors have been unbelievable, especially with this brutal winter we've had," Jarecki said. "I know a lot of these guys dropped a lot of stuff to get this rolling."

The ending to the Whitecaps' 2014 season has not been written, but the beginning has already made its mark in a positive way.

"It's basically a story about coming together," he said. "It shows the strength of what a ballpark can do for a community."

River Bandits take to the skies 

While Quad Cities will be trying to repeat as Midwest League champions on the field, the action off the field will be just as intense. Starting in May, a 90-foot Ferris wheel will be in operation behind the left-field wall.

The ride is just the latest addition to a "park within the park" theme going on at Modern Woodmen Park. Currently the park also features bounce houses, a zip line and a jungle gym, among other attractions -- the idea being to make the ballpark not just a baseball experience but a family experience.

"We really wanted to do something to make the ballpark the central gathering point of the community," team owner Dave Heller told "Baseball is one important aspect, but it's just one aspect."

In brief

  • If you're a fan of the 1989 film Major League, mark Aug. 1 on your calendar. The Lake County Captains will celebrate the film by giving out bobbleheads of Jobu, the spiritual totem of outfielder Pedro Cerrano. No word if it comes with chicken.
  • While the Bandits are busy trying to repeat, the Lugnuts will be seeing whether some title magic will follow them to Lansing. Several members of the Northwest League champion Vancouver Canadians are expected to be part of the club, including Mitch Nay, the Blue Jays' No. 6 prospect. The club's No. 5 prospect, D.J. Davis, should see some time there as well.
  • Want to catch a Minor League game in a Major League venue? You'll have your chance May 24 when the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers take on the Beloit Snappers at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
  • If you're heading to Dozer Park on June 14, you'll be off to see the Wizard. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith will make an appearance at the Peoria Chiefs' home, just one night after the club gives away bobbleheads honoring the spectacular former Cardinal.

Last things last

Here's a look at some of the significant lasts around the Midwest League:

Robert Emrich is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.