Baseball is back at Fifth Third Ballpark

A Whitecaps fan holds her tickets for the home opener. (April 8, 2014)

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — If you were watching 24 Hour News 8’s coverage or drove past Fifth Third Ballpark on Jan. 3, you probably had doubts about opening day. But three months later, the park is back, and so is baseball.

Tuesday, 7,128 fans watched as the West Michigan Whitecaps beat the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers 3-2 in their home opener.

Fred Gilbert couldn’t be more relieved that the ballpark was ready for the game.

“After the fire, after the cleanup, everything from here that way was completely gone,” Gilbert said as he walked the concourse along the first base line.

Gilbert is Wolverine Construction’s clutch player when it comes to getting Fifth Third Ballpark back in action.

And this isn’t Gilbert’s first stint with the Whitecaps. He was here when the ballpark was built in 1994. Hos was one of the first phones to ring on Jan. 3.

“I was here the day of the fire. Had a call from the office asking to see if we could come down and help them out,” said Gilbert.

At the time of that call, he thought it was a small fire in a suite; a minor cleanup and rebuild job.

But the fire roared through the first-base suites, gutting that portion of the park.

While the stands and field avoided major damage, the third-base suites also suffered smoke and water damage.

Seventy-six days later, the first base side has been rebuilt. There is a new concession area and new and expanded souvenir shop.

Crews are still working on a few of the suites along the first baseline. They’ll be done in time for the Midwest League All-Star game in June.

Were there any doubts the park would get done?

Gilbert says there were a few. The weather put things behind schedule at one point, but they got it done.

“Just a lot of experienced people doing their things and making sure it got done right,” Gilbert said.

No one was hurt in the fire. The owners have insurance. And the flames actually cleared space and helped moved up the timetable for planned renovations.

But for West Michigan baseball fans, seeing the fire burn was like losing a friend. Tuesday, that friend is back.

“This will be the biggest and most emotional opening day for us since 1994,” Whitecaps Managing Partner Lew Chamberlin said.

It was also emotional for the fans who stuck by the team.

Sandy Garland is a longtime Whitecaps fan and a Texas snowbird. She was glued to her computer on Jan. 3 for news of the fire.

“I thought, ‘What are we going to do? And then the word came: ‘We’ll be open,'” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I’ll be there.'”

Garland wasn’t about to miss this opening day. She was at the park early to pick up tickets for her family, including her grandson William.

“So glad that it’s back. And he wanted to see the field, so we decided we’d sneak in and look. So here we are, ready to go,” Garland said. “Good feeling all around. I just can’t rave enough about what’s here.”

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