Monday, August 28, 2017

Bowling Green Hot Rods 0 at West Michigan Whitecaps 3 (Midwest League) - August 26, 2017


The final stop on my quest to see all 160 active minor league stadiums was Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps. The stadium is located in Comstock Park, a town just northwest of Grand Rapids, which happens to be the hometown of Floyd Mayweather, who fought Conor MacGregor later that night. Sharpy had left the trip to get home to watch that bout, but Duncan hung around to accompany me to the historic final game.



Parking here is $7 in two lots that look like they could take a while to clear out after the game. One is in front of the stadium, the other behind. I did not see any other parking options either, so arrive early and park near the entrance to speed your exit. We parked in the second lot behind the ballpark, which is where the above photo was taken.



Moving around to the front, you will have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the main entrance. The trees block a picture of the whole ballpark.



At the top of the stairs is the box office, along with plaques representing the championship years for the franchise. Note that the team store is named CapSized, a double pun on what they sell and the team name. Tickets here range from $16 for premium box seats behind the plate to $8 for lawn seats. I was very surprised at the crowd on hand, and as we approached the window, they put up a sign that only lawn seats were available. We decided to see if someone had extras, and our patience was rewarded when we were handed a couple of tickets for the Miller Lite House Deck. Free baseball! Or so we thought. Turns out the tickets had already been used, which begs the question: why give them away? Anyway, we shamefully returned to the ticket window, where Duncan picked up a lawn seat. I was about to do the same, but on a whim, I asked if they had any singles and they did, selling me a box seat down low near third base for $14.



There were a few empty seats around me and after a couple of innings, Duncan joined me and we moved to the second row next to the dugout, which was clear of the protective netting. You will notice that the upper rows are benches; these are the reserved seats and cost $12.50. The leftmost section above first base (209) is alcohol-free, something to keep in mind if you want a beer.



Before the game, we completed the obligatory tour. You cannot walk the entire way around the stadium, but the aforementioned Miller Lite House Deck is almost directly behind centerfield. We went up with our disallowed tickets, but you needed an additional piece of paper to get in, as the Deck is a private party location. That made it even more confusing as to why we would be handed tickets that had already been used AND for a section that we could not enter. Anyway, the staff was kind enough to let me in to snap a picture that gives a good idea of the full stadium layout.



Walking back towards first base, we saw several concession stands, with portable carts offering steak sandwiches and black bean burgers the most tempting. The most intriguing option however, is the Fifth Third Burger, which comes with its own competition. The behemoth pictured below costs $28 and comes with 4,889 calories and 597% of your daily allotment of saturated fat. If you finish it following the rules (no reversals!) you get a t-shirt, your photo on a board, and several days of indigestion.



There were over 9,000 fans on hand for this one, significantly more than the 5,500 average the team had experienced so far this season. I was grateful that so many came out to honour my achievement.



In reality, this was a great promotion combination that brought them to the ballpark despite the cloudy weather. Not only were fireworks scheduled for after the game, but also it was Harry Potter Night. Signs were all around the ballpark, such as Ministry of Magic (guest services), wanted posters from Azkaban escapees, and labelling a bar as the Leaky Cauldron. Of course, many fans came dressed as their favourite characters along with their wands and other wizardly tools.



As well, Whitecaps player pictures were subtly altered to make them appear as characters from the series of movies (below), and the team wore special jerseys that can be seen in this video, that were auctioned off after the game. The overall promotion was very well done, possibly the most comprehensive promotion I have seen in the minor leagues.



Returning to the tour, the six championship years are also denoted above the press box.



There are high top seats behind home plate that go for $110 for a table of four and come with waitress service.



Down both lines are very spacious lawn sections.



There is an interesting historical plaque along the concourse as well that details how a Grand Rapids federal court upheld the reserve clause back in 1914. I always appreciate these facts that prove that you learn something new every day.



Overall, I had a great time at Fifth Third Ballpark, and am glad it was the final spot on the tour. It was certainly a busy night and a bit of a weird start with the ticket fiasco that wasn't even a scam, but once we settled into our seats, we enjoyed a great game to finish off the trip.



The Game

I finally got a good pitching matchup, as the Whitecaps had Matt Manning, the 9th overall pick in 2016 and Detroit's top prospect (below in the Harry Potter jersey), starting while Bowling Green (Tampa Bay) countered with Willy Ortiz, whose 3.12 ERA would be good for fourth in the Midwest League had he enough innings to qualify.



Both starters were strong through five innings, with Manning showing particularly good stuff in limiting the Hot Rods to a couple of singles. In the top of the 6th, two walks sandwiched a single to load the bases with only one out, but Manning struck out Jesus Sanchez (Tampa Bay's #4 prospect) and induced Rene Pinto to ground out to extinguish the threat. It was obvious that Manning was done, so the Whitecaps needed to score some runs in the bottom half to get him in line for the win, and they did just that. With one out, Saskatchewan native Cole Bauml (10th, 2015) singled and Torontonian Danny Pinero (9th, 2016) following with a base knock of his own. Isaac Paredes doubled them both home and later scored on a fielder's choice to make it 3-0 West Michigan with all three runs charged to Ortiz.

Brandon Sittinger (17th, 2016) came on for the Whitecaps and gave up a couple of walks in the 8th. Manager Mike Rabelo did not want to risk Manning's first win at this level and brought in Trent Szkutnik (20th, 2014) to get the final five outs, which he did, including 3 strikeouts. The final batter in my quest was Adrian Rondon, Tampa's #13 prospect.



It was fitting that the winning run was scored by a Canadian as Manning picked up his first win at this level after three poor starts. It will be worth watching his moves up the Tigers ladder over the next few seasons.

Notes

Not only was this active minor league ballpark #160, it was my 300th baseball venue lifetime. Three of those are sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, with the other two dubbed Fields (Dayton and Toledo).

I asked the Whitecaps for a scoreboard mention, but they were unable to do that as only birthdays are shown there, but they did a PA announcement in the 5th inning, for which a few fans applauded. Always nice to be recognized.

There were three other giveaways on this evening that possibly contributed to the large crowd: ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles were given away to the first 1,000 fans; five TVs were handed to lucky fans based on their seat, and a free loaf of bread was given to every fan upon exit. I picked up a loaf but as I was flying back to NY the next day and really didn't want to carry it around, I gave it to Duncan, who enjoyed it on his drive back.

Next Up

I am going to continue visiting new Club 123 venues, and the next one of those will be Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which I will add to the list on October 1 when the Bills are in town. Until then, I'll be seeing games here and there, so bookmark the site and check back on occasion for more recaps.

Best,

Sean

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