“A lot of people thought we were crazy, didn’t think we had a chance,” said Denny Baxter, CFO of the West Michigan Whitecaps, of a “fantasy” he and Lew Chamberlin, co-owner and CFO of the Whitecaps had of bringing professional baseball to West Michigan. Fortunately for baseball fans, the two ignored the naysayers and pursued their vision.
Now some 400,000 baseball aficionados come out to Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park every summer to enjoy a Whitecaps game. Not only did the team make history their first season in 1994 by being the first professional baseball team to play in the area in fifty years, they set the all-time Class A attendance record boasting 475,212 fans, and they then went on to break their own record the following two years. By the way, the Whitecaps beat the Burlington Bees 5-2 that first game.
In 1992, a 47-acre property at 4500 West River Drive along the Grand River became available, and Chamberlin and Baxter settled on the site as home to their dream. “We thought the location was a very good location for the scenic value, right by the river,” said Chamberlin. “It’s right at the crossroads of two major highways in Michigan, as good a regional spot as you could get,” said Baxter, adding the space for ample lighted parking was attractive for the family oriented venue.
“They’re (Whitecaps) a huge asset to Comstock Park and to the businesses…bringing people to the area,” said Michael Bass, treasurer of the Comstock Park Downtown Development Authority. “They’re great partners in Comstock Park with their facilities and programs they put on…it’s added a huge stability…helped Comstock Park become a destination."
The organization was recognized as a class act from its beginning. In 1997 the Whitecaps was named Minor League Team of the Year, and in 1999 was named the Class A Minor League Franchise of the Decade by Baseball America. “I think when we were named organization of the decade right from the get-go when we hadn’t even cleared a decade, it had such an impact,” said Baxter. “It said we were a model franchise, showed the respect from the industry.”
In the mid-1980’s Chamberlin, who had practiced law, was working in his family’s business when the business was sold. He began exploring his dream of minor league baseball in West Michigan. At the same time, Baxter, who was a CPA working in financial and managerial positions in West Michigan, was investigating the same idea.
Chamberlin saw a story in the Grand Rapids Press about Baxter’s pursuit and contacted him. The two “hit it off immediately…our visions aligned,” said Baxter of their synergy, adding that his accounting skills, and Chamberlin’s legal and business background complemented each other. They formed West Michigan Baseball Development Inc., “the entity that lead the effort to bring baseball here, and is now the managing entity,” Baxter said. Their ten-year collaboration led to the purchase of the Madison Muskies franchise in 1993. The team was named the Whitecaps through a Name the Team contest.
In 1993 work began on what was named Old Kent Park (for Old Kent Bank that bought the naming rights and was the first funding partner), a $10 million state-of-the art facility which now has a seating capacity of 10,000 including box seats, luxury suites, bleachers and lawn seating. The facility was renamed Fifth Third Ballpark in 2002 when Fifth Third Bank purchased Old Kent Bank. It is a source of pride for Chamberlin and Baxter that the Ballpark is one of the only privately-owned stadiums in the country to be constructed without taxpayer dollars. The independence of private ownership has given them the ability to make decisions and changes quickly and efficiently, said Chamberlin.
FIFTH THIRD BALLPARK
There’s lots more than baseball happening at Fifth Third Ballpark. It is the site of concerts, annual events such as Taste of Grand Rapids, a winter beer festival, and a lighting display in the parking lot during the holidays. The Stadium Club, an indoor party area, is available year round for business meetings, family celebrations, and the like. Many charitable events and fundraisers are also held at the Ballpark. “We try to get as much use out of facility, derive as much revenue as we can,” said Chamberlin. “The facilities at Fifth Third Ballpark have given us a wonderful opportunity to assist many non-profit organizations with their fundraising efforts by making the Ballpark available to them for special events on nongame days.”
And oh the food. Besides the usual ballpark fare like the 150,000 hot dogs (that’s more than 14 miles of hot dogs if placed end to end) served each season, there are specialty items such as The Fifth Third Burger – five one-third pound hamburger patties on a sesame seed bun made of one pound of dough all covered with five slices of American cheese, salsa, nacho cheese, Fritos, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream. That colossus was suggested by fans in a contest in 2009 and became a national hit, so the contest has continued.
There are 40 full time and 200 part-time and seasonal employees. “It’s the greatest sort of first job experience there is,” Chamberlin said of the seasonal jobs. “They kind of get their feet wet, learn about what it’s like to have a job, and working at the ballpark is a lot of fun.”
On January 3, 2014, a devastating fire destroyed the entire first base side of the ballpark. Both Chamberlin and Baxter said the entire organization was overwhelmed and gratified at the outpouring of community support.
“It helped us pick ourselves up…get on with the work that needed to be done,” said Chamberlin. “I can’t overstate what that did for us.” “You work very hard to think you made a connection with the community, and that fire certainly reinforced that good, deep, emotional connection,” said Baxter. “It’s not our team, it’s the community’s team, and we’re the stewards.”
The demolition that took place after the fire became an opportunity to make changes like expanding the souvenir shop by almost fourfold, said Baxter.
LEW CHAMBERLIN AND DENNY BAXTER
Chamberlin and Baxter consider themselves a couple of lucky guys to own and run a baseball franchise. “What’s not to love here,” said Chamberlin. “You work in a baseball park, work with baseball players. “I get to watch these kids that play for us go on to star in the majors,” he said. “And there’s nothing I love better than watching mom and dad and their kids come out to the ballpark.” “Make no mistake, for all the fun it is a business…a job…but if you handle the business there is a lot of enjoyment,” said Baxter. “We truly are fans of the sport, and I think the fact that we are so enthusiastic helps us relate to our customers.”
Chamberlin grew up in East Grand Rapids, graduating from East Grand Rapids High School. He attended Alleghany College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and then the University of Toledo College of Law. He has two children and four step children, ages 29-14, and lives with his wife Anne in Cascade. Chamberlin serves on numerous community service boards including the Convention and Visitor Bureau, Convention/Arena Authority, and the First Steps Commission dedicated to early childhood support.
Baxter grew up in Muskegon, graduated from Muskegon Catholic Central High School, and attended Michigan State University where he earned a degree in accounting. He and his wife Cheryl live in Muskegon and have three grown children and a 15-month old grandson. Baxter is the President of Blue Cap Entertainment, a concert promotion business.