Jim Jarecki heard plenty of praise for Fifth Third Ballpark during the Midwest League all-star game earlier this week and for the tremendous job the West Michigan Whitecaps did to get it up and running after a fire nearly destroyed the 20-year-old venue in early January.
There was one compliment, however, that made the Whitecaps’ vice president particularly proud.
“The biggest compliment I got, or question I was asked, was people asking, ‘What burned?’ ” Jarecki said. “They couldn’t tell.”
That is no small feat. West Michigan’s season, much less its ability to the host the all-star game, appeared in doubt on the morning of Jan. 3, when a fire spread from a space heater in a luxury suite being renovated and gutted the first-base side of the stadium.
Most of the suites collapsed onto the concourse below. The home clubhouse and front office were ruined. Water and smoke damage were prevalent throughout the ballpark.
“There will be better days,” Jarecki told reporters on Jan. 3 after the fire had been extinguished. “Just not today.”
The all-star game was the better day Jarecki had in mind. Along with team owners Denny Baxter and Lew Chamberlin, the Whitecaps vowed to save the season and gave themselves two deadlines to have the ballpark ready. The first came on Opening Day, when the concourse, concession stands and restrooms were completed. Everything else was to be done by June 17, for the all-star game.
And it was. The Whitecaps moved into a new and improved clubhouse on May 15 after spending the first seven weeks of the season in the visitors clubhouse (opposing teams and umpires were forced to make do in temporary trailers).
The suites were back in business on May 28 and all the remaining fixes were finished by the morning of the all-star game.
“It was awesome to show it off to the Midwest League. I’ve known these guys for a long time,” Jarecki said. “It was pretty cool to see, figuring that it was 166 days ago we were sitting there watching half of it burn. To get to this point was quite an achievement and close to a building miracle.”
Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner seconded Jarecki’s assessment, noting that “if you didn’t know there was a fire there, you would have never known there was a fire there.”
“The people in the community love that ballpark,” O’Conner said. “And in an ironic and almost macabre twist, this was a way for the community to reconnect emotionally with the Caps and the ballpark, because it was devastating for them. They felt the club’s pain.”