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Professional Sports:
More Than a Game

By Mark Johnston
Photography by Jeff Hage/Green Frog Photo

 

There’s a unique bond between Grand Rapids-area professional sports teams, their fans and the community at large. Yet, you must go beyond the field, off the ice and outside the arena to truly appreciate that relationship and to recognize why this level of athletics is more than a game.

A creature 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 sports scene:

“ 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 the leagues.”

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 Tigers.”

When I phoned Logie this summer and asked him to revisit his predictions, he reiterated that 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 metropolis.

Rather, the more profound question is: “At what price?”

“ Our boys”
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 for fans 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 back.

“ 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 hurt.”

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 deeply gratifying.

“ 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 than the 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 enthusiasm.

“ 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 more than 20 years ago, when he and partner Dennis Baxter joined their independent pursuits of professional baseball for West Michigan in 1984. Ten years and a series of calculated moves later, the duo produced the Whitecaps in Grand Rapids.

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 and mostly to do with, well, something else.

“ 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 itself enough?

“ 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 you would have seen here 125 years ago. In the final analysis, this is about an entire community coming out and interacting with each other and watching the town team play baseball. The game is wonderful and the game is enough.”
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 a then-45-year-old Class A attendance record, going on to break its own record in each of the next two years.

“ 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 sports competitors.

“ What we sell is summer,” he said. “Baseball is summer.”

Who’s winning?
As I leave Chamberlin’s office, the Whitecaps players complete their pre-game warm-up, the starkness of their white home uniforms against the deep-green grass providing even more reason to squint against a blazing sun. Leaning against the centerfield railing, I turn toward the bleacher seats and spot a woman pointing something out on the field to a young girl seated beside her. I introduce myself and ask the woman what brings her here.

“ 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, taking them to the Whitecaps and Griffins and Rampage.

“ 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, whose horizon seems endless now that another school year is done. Maybe she is picturing her grandmother, Val Williams, sitting right 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 interviews conducted 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 if he had any idea who was winning.

“ Nope, don’t care neither,” the man said.

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 to victory.

“ 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 take their turns, Egeler laughs heartily. “This is kind of entertaining for me, too,” he says, watching a young boy wail away on the Corsica’s grill.

Amid the hullabaloo, Egeler looks toward the ballpark. “Say, who’s winning?”

No off-season
Of course, the irony in the statement that “we don’t need (major league teams) here” is that one is already here.

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 season in 2005 and a 1-15 record the year before that.

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. Seeing me waiting in one of the meeting rooms, he indicates, “I’ll 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 team.

“ 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 involved with the community.”

That involvement runs deep for the team and for McEwen, from youth literacy programs, to breast cancer awareness efforts, to Big Brothers/Big Sisters support, to high school football camps, to a contract clause that mandates players sign autographs after home games. Add to that the responsibilities 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 amount of pressure inherent to turning around a 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 do it.”

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 to play a softball game in Kentwood.
McEwen and his wife are right in the eye of their children’s activity hurricane.

“ We’re extremely busy,” he says, chuckling.

And in that laughter, McEwen’s status as professional football coach, hometown high school 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, but 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 basketball game, with some hecklers in the crowd chanting “Rampage! Rampage!” in an attempt to rattle the coach’s son.

“ 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 there.”

Summer sons
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 between them.

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 a stable home environment that would let them do what they needed to do on the field.”

“ But,” Sandi interjects, “back when we started this, I would much rather have read a romance novel than go to a baseball game.”

The only book she is likely to take to the ballpark now is a scorebook to help her track the progress of the players, especially the ones the couple host — the ones they refer to as their “summer sons.”

Early in the summer, the extended family includes Whitecaps players Josh Rainwater and Justin Justice, a pitcher and outfielder, respectively, whose temperaments are as different as their roles on the field. A knee injury hampered Rainwater’s 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 says.

“ You have to stay focused on baseball,” Rainwater quickly adds.

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 furnished with nothing more than lawn chairs.

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 and fun it still is to give autographs, how they enjoy the atmosphere at Fifth 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 says.

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 thought.

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 day.

“ 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.”

Tradition
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

   
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