Workers ready fire-damaged 5/3 Ballpark for opener

COMSTOCK PARK, Mich. (WOOD) — No doubt about it: The umpire will holler “Play ball!” on April 8 at Fifth Third Ballpark.

The West Michigan Whitecaps Wednesday announced some new features and showed the progress of reconstruction following a devastating January fire.

“First you look at it and you grieve,”  Whitecaps CEO and Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin told 24 Hour News 8 Wednesday afternoon.

But then the community support poured in. It seems everyone who had ever seen a game at the park and felt that emotional tug you get from baseball wanted to help.

Chamberlin recalled the electrician who volunteered to rewire the park and the woman who brought him a $5 check to use toward the rebuilding effort as just a few examples of the offers from the community.

“You turn away from ‘Boy, that sucks’ to ‘Hey, how’re we going to fix it.’ And support from the community really helped us get there,” Chamberlin said.

Now, an army of workers — between 115 and 120 at any given time — is putting Firth Third Ballpark back together and adding some improvements, most of which will be done by Opening Day.

An artist's rendering of the new souvenir shop at Fifth Third Ballpark, March 19, 2014, (photo courtesy www.whitecapsbaseball.com)
(An artist’s rendering of the new souvenir shop at Fifth Third Ballpark. Photo courtesy http://www.whitecapsbaseball.com)

“The souvenir shop will be three times bigger than what we had before,” Chamberlin said.

Fans will also notice a larger concession area.

The rebuilt first baseline suites, gutted by the fire, will be completed by the Midwest League All Star game on June 17.

A layout of the new concourse at Fifth Third Ballpark, March 19, 2014, (photo courtesy www.whitecapsbaseball.com)
(A layout of the new concourse at Fifth Third Ballpark. Photo courtesy http://www.whitecapsbaseball.com)

In 2015, the Whitecaps’ front office will move to an office building built down the right field line, complete with rooftop viewing. The fire actually helped to clear space that would have required demolition.

“Now that we’re in this construction state, we can realize economies that we wouldn’t have been able to realize if it hadn’t been for the fire. Some of these projects we can do for a lot less than they would cost if we built them from scratch in the future,” Chamberlin said.

There’s still plenty of work to be done. Remnants of the fire’s aftermath, like the charred remains of a bundle of scorecards, are still piled up on the concourse along the first baseline.

But the park will be ready in 20 days when fans crowd the stands to watch America’s pastime. Much of the credit for the will to get it done goes to the support of the West Michigan fans.

“It’s baseball because everybody loves baseball. But it’s unique because it’s the way West Michigan works,” Chamberlin said.

The field itself was not damaged by the fire, and the grass was protected from the winter elements by a special blanket. It should be green on April 8.

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