Text: R. Collins
What makes the West Michigan Whitecaps’ new upgrade to Advanced A affiliate for the Detroit Tigers so special? It means nearly all the top-tier player prospects for the Detroit Tigers will filter through West Michigan—and the eager hearts and eyes of the fans here. The advancement comes as a restructuring of the Minor League Baseball player development system that changed the affiliation status for many Minor League teams this past year.
The Whitecaps, a successful Michigan franchise that has been in the Low A division since its inception in 1994, was notified in December of their new station in the world of baseball, and the news came as a welcome notification in the wake of a missed season and all-around strange year for West Michigan businesses.
“I think it’s a recognition of the success that we’ve had over the last 27 seasons and the way that West Michigan Whitecaps and this community are viewed by the Tigers and Minor League Baseball,” said Joe Chamberlin, chief executive officer of the West Michigan Whitecaps.
“[We have] a ballpark and a market that their players love playing in, and I think our ability to be as successful as we’ve been as a franchise and building a fan base over our history helped bring this about. We certainly view this as a recognition for that and it’s something that we hope everyone here in West Michigan is proud of,” Chamberlin added.
Fifth Third Ballpark, located in Comstock Park, is West Michigan’s largest outdoor stadium and has typically held around 200 events per year. Apart from regular large crowds, its award-winning grounds are already maintained near or at a level that Major League Baseball seeks from the affiliate, farm system moving forward, according to a Whitecaps press release.
Generally, the larger Midwest League that the Whitecaps are a part of has long been recognized as a leading maintainer of top-tier facilities as well as desirable markets and consistent attendance. In 2019—the Whitecaps’ last season—the team had the third highest attendance rate in the entire Midwest League of 16 teams.
This attendance factor is something Chamberlin looks forward to in 2021, as the Whitecaps plan a robust first season as the Detroit Tigers’ Advanced A affiliate. It will be a welcome reunion between fans, players, and Fifth Third Ballpark personnel who helped the Whitecaps endure a lost season and pandemic, Chamberlin said.
“I’m equally as excited to invite fans back into this ballpark. We had a few occasions to do that last summer with ‘Movies from the Mound’ and a few other events that we were able to roll out, but the warm, fuzzy feeling that I’m going to have, and everybody associated with this organization is going to have, when we open up those gates and watch those kids’ faces when they walk back in and get ready for first pitch—that’s going to be a great feeling when we get there in 2021,” Chamberlin said.
The West Michigan Whitecaps have won five Midwest League championships since their formation in 1994 and have regularly broken Class A attendance records since then as well, as a Low A affiliate. Now as an Advanced A affiliate, the Whitecaps are eager for another hot attendance season, but won’t raise ticket prices in accordance with the change. The team seeks to continue providing affordable family friendly entertainment for nearly 11 million fans while putting an even higher caliber of play on the field for them to enjoy.
Photography: West Michigan Whitecaps