Than a Game
Photography by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo
a unique bond between Grand Rapids-area
professional sports teams, their
fans and the community at large. Yet,
must go beyond the field, off the
ice and outside the arena to truly
that relationship and to recognize
why this level of athletics is more
than a game.
called BirdZerk! just stole the third baseman’s
glove and mischievously pitched it over
the left-field wall. A pig in a life preserver
is merrily skipping around the on-deck
circle. The home-plate umpire is madly
gyrating in an impromptu dance for the fans along
the first-base line.
And somewhere in the chaos that
is a typical night at Fifth Third Ballpark in
Comstock Park, a baseball game breaks out.
Just what is going on here?
I spent the summer finding out,
digging beneath the Grand Rapids area sports
scene — deeper
than the play-by-play, the records and the venues
of the Whitecaps baseball, Griffins hockey and
Rampage arena football organizations. I wanted
to plug into the relationship between those teams
and their fans, and find out what is so special
about this community level of professional sports
to the people who support it, play it, live it — and
some of whom resist the possibility that as Grand
Rapids inevitably grows, they might lose it.
I began this immersion when a
fellow staff writer mentioned an interview he
conducted last year
with John Logie, immediate past mayor of Grand
Rapids and an attorney at Warner Norcross & Judd.
On the occasion of Grand Rapids Magazine’s
40th anniversary, Logie was asked to reflect
on the past four decades in Grand Rapids and
also look ahead 40 years. In the interview, he
made several predictions regarding the local
In the year 2044 … the fourth quadrant
of the Van Andel Arena will have built out by
then, so it will house 16,000 for both sports
and entertainment, and at that number we will
see the Grand Rapids River Rats, or something
like that, which will be a successful NBA franchise,” he
said. “And they will have to share the
space with the Grand Rapids Griffins, which by
then will be an NHL franchise. I have something
in one of my files that says they were looking
at both options five years ago, ‘they’ being
He continued: “Also by that time, the Rampage
will be an affiliate of the Detroit Lions. They’ll
be, in effect, a farm team. There will be a solid
connection just like there is a solid connection
between the Whitecaps and the Detroit Tigers.
The Whitecaps by that time will be Triple-A,
but they will still be an affiliate of the Detroit
When I phoned Logie this summer
and asked him to revisit his predictions, he
building out Van Andel’s fourth sector
will pave the way for attracting major league
hockey and basketball franchises, adding the
concomitant increased national exposure would
help this part of the country’s image,
convention drawing power, and so on. Within that
scenario, he said the only thing he would continue
to find objectionable in a local sports evolution
would be the use of public subsidies for the
private sector — for example, using tax
dollars to build a new stadium.
So it may truly be a matter of “when” rather
than “if.” But I discovered on this
journey that for many in the community, the question
is not “How much would it cost?” for
Grand Rapids to become a major league sports
Rather, the more profound question
It’s a sweltering late afternoon at Fifth
Third Ballpark. Former Detroit Tigers legends
Mickey Lolich, Bill Freehan, Willie Horton and
John Hiller — members of the 1968 World
Series championship team — are signing
autographs for people who, in some instances,
stand in line for three hours, forming a human
snake winding down the first-base concourse,
around the right-field concessions and into the
center-field bleacher area.
I’m standing just behind Lolich’s
chair, listening to the repartee between the
gregarious pitcher and the fans who still adore
him and marvel over his exploits in the ’68
Series, in which he won three games, including
a deciding seventh-game duel against St. Louis
Cardinals Hall of Fame hurler Bob Gibson.
How did you do that on just two days’ rest?” a
fan asks, handing Lolich a baseball to sign.
Back then, they handed you the ball, told you
to go out there and pitch, and you did,” Lolich
says with a modest shrug, scribbling his signature
across the sweet spot. “Nowadays, you have
to talk to your agent first.”
Back then.” It is fitting that on this
night the ’Caps pay tribute to the ’68
version of its Major League parent club by wearing
replica Tigers uniforms from a bygone era, symbolically
linking two generations and brands of baseball
in which the game is stripped to its bare essence,
the distance between fans and players peeled
away like wax paper from a ballpark hot dog.
I walk down to the field railing
and study the players, who freely sign autographs
right up until game time (some fans are even
invited onto the field to obtain the signatures).
It’s when an usher asks me if I need help
finding my seat that I meet The Twins.
Sisters Joan and Marion Harwood are die-hard
Whitecaps supporters, long-time season ticket
holders and forces to be reckoned with if you
bring negative vibes into their section behind
the first baseline, not far off home plate.
It’s here, in these two sisters, where
baseball as a game is secure. It’s in the
fact that, at most, they miss only two or three
home games a year. It’s in their dismay
that the stadium isn’t at full capacity
tonight, never mind the suffocating humidity,
a televised Detroit Pistons playoff game and
a late-inning Whitecaps deficit. And it’s
in their collective pride over a plum-colored
bruise on Joan’s leg — courtesy of
a foul ball hit by ’Caps outfielder Jeff
Frazier a few games earlier.
Uh-oh, uh-oh — get it!” Marion says,
urging a Whitecaps outfielder to reach a ball
hit toward the left-field gap.
“Hey, hey! There’s no booing here, uh-uh, there’s no booing
our boys,” rejoins Joan, quickly shooting a mock-menacing glare toward
some hecklers reacting to the base hit her sister unsuccessfully tried to will
into an out.
That’s OK, our boys will be back.”
Joan is talking about the team’s chances of making up the scoring deficit.
But that rallying confidence takes on an alternate, bittersweet meaning for 10-year
season ticket holder Sally Groters, who sits a few seats away from The Twins.
Groters says loyal fans are all proud when Whitecaps make it to the Major Leagues.
She spends 45 minutes a night, poring over the newspapers and box scores to track
the progress of “her boys,” like current Tigers Brandon Inge
and Nook Logan.
But that success also means “the boys” likely will not be coming
We feel bad because we feel like they are ours,” she laments.
The local team
That investment goes both ways.
During the 2004-’05 American Hockey League season, the Grand Rapids Griffins’ community
programs and charitable efforts generated $234,540 for various schools,
organizations and nonprofit groups throughout West Michigan.
The Griffins aren’t alone. The Whitecaps assist dozens of charities and
host several community youth programs. Among its many support efforts, The Rampage’s
community outreach program sends players, coaches, staff and the team’s
mascot into schools to speak with students about values such as
staying in school, avoiding drugs and alcohol.
But what do the myriad programs really mean, beyond savvy public relations? I
found the answer in Kentwood.
Michael Stark is 6 years old and all boy. As I sit next to him at the kitchen
table in his home, he talks earnestly about having been struck by a pickup truck
a few weeks earlier. The driver did not see Michael racing his bike through the
streets of his neighborhood.
Well, I didn’t see the truck coming either,” Michael says, rubbing
his still-scraped ankle, absorbed in the memory and drama of the accident. “I
really didn’t have time to know what was happening.
I just felt my helmet bump down on the ground.”
He dashes from the table to retrieve
the helmet, pointing out a small dent — barely
noticeable but frighteningly located just inches above
the left ear opening.
The helmet is a prize Michael
won during his neighborhood’s “National
Night Out” celebration a year ago, which featured a raffle related to the
Griffins’ “Put A Lid On It” helmet safety program, co-sponsored
by DeVos Children’s Hospital on behalf of the Greater
Grand Rapids Safe Kids organization.
Michael’s mother, Rachel Howell, says that she has always insisted that
her son wear a bike helmet. Sometimes he did, other times (unknown to her) he
didn’t — but on the night she received the phone call that rings
in the nightmares of every parent, he was wearing that “Put A Lid On It” helmet.
I got a call from our old babysitter who said, ‘You need to get down here
right away. Michael was just hit by a truck,’” Howell recalls. “My
husband and I jumped in the car and drove to (Michael’s) friend’s
house, because I thought he was there. But we didn’t see him. We continued
to drive around and we saw a police car turn in. That’s when I saw Michael
sitting on the curb … We took him to the doctor to get checked and I remember
something the nurse said to him — ‘We can get you a new helmet but
we wouldn’t be able to get you a new brain.’ If he didn’t have
that helmet on …”
Howell pauses for a moment. “If he didn’t
have that helmet on, he would have been more seriously
A few days later, I share that
story with Randy Cleves, the Griffins’ media
relations director and founder of the “Put A Lid On It” program.
Wow,” he says. “I can appreciate that because I have a child who
is going to be 2 in October and I’m getting to know all the dangers kids
face. You do all this work and go to all this effort and then you hear a story
like that — it’s just personally and
It’s a privilege to use my position with the Griffins to help spread a
very important message. If we don’t do these community-outreach programs,
at the end of the day, we’re just a hockey team. Don’t get me wrong,
I love hockey. I’ve been involved in it for 15 years and it’s a great
thing. But if that’s all we do in the community — host 40 hockey
games a year — I don’t know if that
justifies any of us being here. We have to be more
local hockey team.
“ We have to.”
The total experience
My introduction to the “local team” concept came when I attended
my first Minor League baseball game 10 years ago, on a brutally chilly April
afternoon in Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva, Ill., home of the Kane County Cougars.
It was the team’s home opener in a season that started with the news that
the Major League baseball players who had gone on strike the year before — forcing
the first-ever cancellation of the World Series — would
be returning to work that spring.
I attended the game to see the ceremonial first pitch thrown by a woman named
Felicia, the young widow of a baseball player who was shot to death two weeks
earlier during a robbery attempt outside the Atlanta Braves training hotel in
West Palm Beach, Fla. Her husband, David, 30, had toiled in the minor leagues
as a pitcher for nearly a decade and was trying to make the Braves as a replacement
player, in the event the Major League strike continued into the new season. He
did make the team but did not know it before he died.
Just before she strolled out to the mound, I walked up to Felicia to say hello.
She clutched my elbow and looked around the packed stadium, full of excited fans
and eager players fighting off the wind chill with the sheer warmth of their
This is what baseball is all about,” she said, her eyes watering from the
wind and her emotions. “They’re playing
from the heart and for the fans.”
Whitecaps CEO and managing partner
Lew Chamberlin co-owned the Cougars in the early ’90s. When I mention Felicia, what happened to her husband a decade
ago and how the minor leagues symbolize “what baseball is about” to
her, Chamberlin clasps his hands behind his head, looks thoughtful and says softly, “That’s
a good story.”
It’s an hour or so before the Whitecaps play the Lansing Lugnuts and we’re
sitting in Chamberlin’s Fifth Third Ballpark office. Outside the office’s
open door, staff members are bustling about, tending
to myriad pre-game preparations.
The open door is symbolic of Chamberlin’s
accessibility, as is his willingness to listen
to and share baseball
stories. His started
20 years ago,
when he and partner Dennis Baxter joined their
independent pursuits of professional baseball for
in 1984. Ten years
moves later, the duo produced the Whitecaps in
I want to discuss with Chamberlin
the “experience” at Fifth Third.
Because the endless promotions, the often-bizarre shenanigans by mascots, the
game seemingly an afterthought at times — it
all appears to have little to do with baseball
to do with,
There’s more here than just baseball,” Chamberlin readily concedes. “Fans
come here to enjoy the food, the ambiance, the excitement — it’s
about the total experience, spending time with
your families in a safe, outdoor environment.”
But why, I ask, isn’t baseball
We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for baseball,” he counters,
dismissing my premise immediately. “What
you see here is not entirely different from what
In the final
is about an entire community coming out and interacting
with each other and watching the town team play
game is wonderful
I ask him if it’s possible the Whitecaps might one day be Detroit’s
Triple A team.
It’s absolutely possible,” he said. “Is it likely? That’s
more difficult to say. I know this community
will support any kind of Minor League baseball.
But there’s something about the pure joy of Single-A baseball. A lot of
these guys are making $1,200 to $1,500 a month to play almost every day. They’re
clearly playing for the opportunity and they’re playing their hearts out.
You go up to Triple-A — the players are older, they’re
moving more often, their family situations change.
The accessibility to the
ballplayers changes, too.”
That’s due, in part, to the reality that professional baseball is also
a business, and in the Whitecaps’ case,
a good one. In its first year, the team broke
going on to
break its own record in each of the next two
I can tell you we are profitable and we need to be, in order to reduce our debt
(on the ballpark) and to provide a return for our investors,” he said. “But
what’s more important is we continue to provide a product that is valuable
to the fans — one that is fun, entertaining,
fresh and most important, inexpensive.”
Chamberlin concedes that that challenge grows proportionally with competition
for entertainment dollars. But his affability borders on wistfulness when he
talks about the biggest marketing advantage he has over his local professional
What we sell is summer,” he said. “Baseball
As I leave Chamberlin’s office, the Whitecaps
players complete their pre-game warm-up, the
starkness of their
white home uniforms
providing even more reason to squint against
a blazing sun. Leaning against the centerfield
and spot a
something out on the field to a young girl seated
beside her. I introduce myself and ask the woman
We’re a sports family,” says Susie Williams, an East Grand Rapids
mother of three. “We recently went to an
NBA game and it was great, but this is better,
We love it because the kids are always asking questions the whole time. They
don’t care that it’s Minor League baseball — it’s a game,
it’s an event. It’s time to spend together as a family. If major
league sports came here, it would be great and we would support it. But we don’t
need it here.”
I glance at 8-year-old Carolyn
Williams, leaning against her mother’s arm.
The game has begun but Carolyn’s thoughts
seem elsewhere. Maybe she is thinking about summer,
endless now that
another school year is done. Maybe she is picturing
her grandmother, Val Williams,
behind her, working in one of the Whitecaps concession
areas, which she did one summer just for fun.
Carolyn slips her hand into the
crook of her mom’s right elbow and looks
down at the field, where two Whitecaps are converging on a ball that rolls safely
between them. One of the players has already thrown the ball back into the infield
before Carolyn asks, “What just happened?”
It’s the question that defines the experience.
In July 2001, an episode of the
ESPN series “Outside the Lines” looked
at the state of Minor League baseball upon the league’s
100th anniversary. In the program, Lugnuts co-owner
Sherrie Myers said
after a game revealed that only 50 percent of
the fans left knowing what the score
was. The scene then cut to an ESPN correspondent
who asked an unidentified male fan during a game
had any idea
Nope, don’t care neither,” the man
As I make my way toward the parking
lot, I’m approached by a jovial Whitecaps
employee imploring me to grab a bat and take a whack at a dilapidated Chevy Corsica — a
promotional stunt meant to rally the Whitecaps
I was hired by the Whitecaps on Day 1,” says Orv Egeler, before shouting
out to a group of youngsters walking toward the stadium, ‘You guys want
to bang on a car?’”
They do, donning the gloves and
safety glasses Egeler insists they wear. As they
laughs heartily. “This is kind of entertaining
for me, too,” he says, watching a young boy wail away on the Corsica’s
Amid the hullabaloo, Egeler looks
toward the ballpark. “Say, who’s
Of course, the irony in the statement that “we don’t need (major
league teams) here” is that one is already
The corridors leading to Grand
Rapids Rampage head coach Sparky McEwen’s
office are unlit, and save for an office staffer, McEwen is working alone. The
Arena Football League’s regular season ended a few weeks earlier, which
some might say wasn’t soon enough for the
2001 ArenaBowl XV champions, who endured a 4-12
in 2005 and a 1-15
McEwen, a former star player and
coach at Grand Rapids’ Creston High School,
was not at the team’s helm for that miserable 2004 season. He was the assistant
head coach and offensive coordinator for the Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz of the
arenafootball2 league, three years removed from his role as offensive coordinator
for the Rampage’s championship team.
He has just returned from a recruiting
trip in Oklahoma when I arrive at his office.
me waiting in
one of the meeting
be right with you” as he works his cell
phone, pacing back and forth outside the room.
The guy can play both ways …” I overhear him say animatedly into
the phone, as he walks past the open doorway. “He can make plays and …” he
says, as he walks past in the other direction.
When I sit down with him in his office, his demeanor and tone shifts into a cordial
but more formal register. I ask him if he has found a good prospect in Oklahoma.
Oh, yeah, he can play, but I’ve got to have guys who come in here and buy
into what we’re doing in the community, too,” he says. “This
being my hometown, you know.”
McEwen is entering only his second
year as Rampage head coach, but he already speaks
in the measured
phrasing of a media
veteran. There’s no doubting
his sincerity — it’s clear he believes in what he says — but
he chooses his words carefully, particularly regarding his responsibility as
the leader of Grand Rapids’ true “major” league
I’m not knocking minor league sports, but (arena football) is truly considered
the fifth major — we are Grand Rapids’ major
league team right now, and because of that, there
is a much larger
stake in being
That involvement runs deep for
the team and for McEwen, from youth literacy
programs, to breast
to Big Brothers/Big
support, to high
school football camps, to a contract clause that
mandates players sign autographs after home games.
Add to that
come with being a
head coach, including budgets, salary caps, scouting,
personnel changes …
But there’s a difference between what McEwen
gets paid to do and what he feels compelled to
do. And no
team that has only won five of its last 32 games
will diminish that difference.
I’m judged on wins and losses, but to me, it’s something that I have
to do — to give back to this community,” he says, intently leaning
forward in his chair. “We’re public servants. I really feel that
way, whether it’s the Rampage, the Whitecaps or the Griffins. It’s
our job to communicate to kids that if you want
to do the right thing, this is how you have to
McEwen sits back in his chair, perhaps retreating into that thought, perhaps
appreciating the enormity of the expectations. Not until I inquire about his
family does the consummate professionalism recede into more relaxed informality.
He and his wife, Janelle, have
three children: Charles (“Little Sparky”),
19; AJ, 13; and Ja’nae, 10. AJ is just wrapping up baseball season and
heading to Memphis to participate in a national basketball tournament. Charles
is preparing for college this fall at Delaware State. Ja’nae,
fresh off a dance performance at a local African
American festival, is scheduled
a softball game in Kentwood.
McEwen and his wife are right in the eye of their
We’re extremely busy,” he says, chuckling.
And in that laughter, McEwen’s
status as professional football coach, hometown
hero and local
celebrity is consumed
by his visible
pride in being
a husband and father.
I’m just like the guy next door,” he says. “I
speak for every parent when I say my wife and
I want to raise model citizens,
we have normal
kids. There are things taught daily in our house.”
He recalls a time when he watched Charles walk
up to the free throw line during a high school
Rampage!” in an attempt to rattle the coach’s
He hit the side of the backboard,” McEwen says, with a mixture of amusement
and emotion. “My kids are aware of who their dad is. But our family has
bought into the fact that this is what we do. I’m still a public servant,
but I’m a dad, too. There is no off-season
I think about McEwen’s family commitment as I drive to the home of Lee
and Sandi Oppenheimer, who, in serving as a host family for the Whitecaps since
1995, take in a player or two each season. The Oppenheimers’ own
son and daughter are grown with eight children
But for Lee and Sandi, like McEwen, there is no off-season as parents.
Well, I have been a baseball fan forever, but I had never followed Minor League
ball before,” Lee says. “I just
saw it as an opportunity to offer these players
stable home environment
let them do what
needed to do on the field.”
But,” Sandi interjects, “back when
we started this, I would much rather have read
than go to a
The only book she is likely to
take to the ballpark now is a scorebook to help
host — the
ones they refer to as their “summer sons.”
Early in the summer, the extended
family includes Whitecaps players Josh Rainwater
Justice, a pitcher
and outfielder, respectively, whose temperaments
are as different as their roles on the field.
A knee injury hampered
season early but did nothing to dampen his natural ebullience. Justice is personable
but more reserved. Both are 20 years old. And sitting in the Oppenheimers’ living
room a few hours before game time, both see
that as a personal and professional attribute.
We’re young. I’m still learning every day,” Justice
You have to stay focused on baseball,” Rainwater
And that’s where having a host family is invaluable. “It makes it
feel like home,” Justice says. “You have a mom and a dad to take
care of you, and …”
You have furniture, too,” Rainwater interjects,
laughing at the very real image of player apartments
We sit in the Oppenheimer’s living room for a couple of hours, laughing
and talking about what the players do in their free time (mostly hang out with
other players), Sandi’s household rule that the young men pick up after
themselves, and the growing relationship between the ballplayers and the Oppenheimers’ grandchildren.
When the conversation turns to
baseball, Justice and Rainwater express how exciting
it still is
to give autographs,
how they enjoy
Third, how much they absolutely live for the
moment — and how quickly they’d
trade it all for a chance to move on from here.
This is the place to go for a great baseball atmosphere, but don’t get
me wrong — I want to get to Double A,” Justice
I remember something Chamberlin told me, that maybe 10-15 percent of Single-A
players make it to the major leagues.
I ask Justice if he can imagine not playing baseball.
No, I can’t imagine that,” he says softly, shaking his head. “Dude,
without baseball …” His voice trails off without finishing the
As I stand at the front door thanking
Lee for welcoming me into his and Sandi’s
home, Justice and Rainwater push each other as they gallop toward the kitchen,
where Sandi canvasses the refrigerator’s snack inventory for them.
Two weeks after my visit, Justice
was sent down to the Oneonta Tigers — the
Detroit Tigers’ short-season, Class A team. I call Lee at work the next
We didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk to Justin after he got the news,” he
says, of Justice’s demotion. “He only had time to call me at work
to let us know. I just encouraged him as much as I could.
This is the business part of this. The families all get, to some extent, so emotionally
attached to the players, but that’s the way it is. Still, you get a kid
like Justin who is so pleasant and who fit in so well with us — that
bond is forever.”
The seasons are changing. The Griffins open their
home season this month, the team’s 10th
overall and fifth as an AHL member. The Rampage
season will be underway within weeks.
The Whitecaps regular season ended just a few weeks ago.
I’m sitting in a prime box seat just behind the third-base dugout at Fifth
Third. The sun is still warm but there are telltale signs that summer is ending.
It doesn’t take as long for the stadium’s shadow to envelope the
infield, as the sun sets sooner in the west.
But the Whitecaps are tied for
first in their division. And I’m sharing
a 3-foot-long, tubular bag of popcorn with my two young daughters, who enjoy
meeting The Twins, Sally Groters and other Fifth Third stalwarts.
It would be too over-the-top to
ask, “Is this heaven?” But I
do recall something Chamberlin told me.
We want the Whitecaps to become a part of the fabric of this community, and what
I hope happens is that families come out here and enjoy this together as a family
tradition,” he said.
Because then you’ll have today’s kids making it part of their
family traditions tomorrow.” GR