Fifth Third Ballpark – West Michigan Whitecaps
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The Crest of a Wave
The West Michigan Whitecaps came into existence in 1994 as an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics, and three years later the stars aligned for them to become the Class A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Clearly, this is a geographic affiliation that makes good sense, and leads to greater fan loyalty to the farm club. The team has found solid success in the Midwest League, with six league titles (1996, 1998, 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2015).
In January 2014, a fire broke out and destroyed most of the first base side of the ballpark. The club worked feverishly to have the ballpark ready for opening day that season, and had completed all repairs in time for the Midwest league All-Star Game that summer. In some ways, the fire was a blessing. It allowed the club to move ahead with some renovations that needed to be made including a new team shop, new craft beer area, offices and a new deck area in right field, and improved wi-fi throughout the ballpark.
Overall, Fifth Third Ballpark is a lovely stadium with good food, many comfortable viewing options, and an ideal affiliation with the Tigers across the state.
Food & Beverage 5
The Whitecaps have a tradition of allowing the fans to nominate one concession item each year. In 2015, the winner was “Hot-to-Tot,” which consists of tater tots topped with buffalo chicken bites and crumbled blue cheese. It’s a great tradition, and well worth a try since this concession item will be absolutely unique.
Grand Rapids is known as “Beer City USA, ” so it is only appropriate that there would be a great craft beer selection at Fifth Third Ballpark. Along the left field concourse is a beer cave with several local beers on tap, including offerings from Founders of course.
As far as the food, it’s hard to ignore the Fifth Third Burger. It’s 5/3 pounds served in a pizza box for $20. It is too big to eat alone, orders are generally made for people to share. You get a t-shirt (and three years off your life expectancy) if you can eat it in one sitting, but it would be hard to recommend doing it unless you lose a bet.
Outside of that, they have pretty much every standard item you may be looking for, but also have gyros, wraps, steak sandwiches, and pulled pork.
Other local choices would include Little Caesars pizza ($3), or an elephant ear topped with Michigan cherries ($4.75). The choices are too many to list here. My advice is to be sure to walk the concourse once before you purchase anything, and make sure you get what you want, because it is here.
Soda is furnished by Pepsi, with a large souvenir size going for $4.50. Small and medium sizes can be had for $2.75 and $3.75.
There are many vantage points with Fifth Third Ballpark where you can take in the game. Lower level seats are navy blue plastic with cupholders and better than average legroom. This is where I would recommend sitting due to the comfort. The netting behind home plate is unobtrusive, which is great for purists, but families should be aware of the action on the field if they choose to sit closer to the dugouts.
After that, you’ll find a walkway before finding the bleacher seats. These bleachers are better than others because of the back on each, along with good roominess. Behind the bleachers, you have the main concourse, which is roomy as well. Hopefully in the future the bleacher seats will be replaced and there will be comfortable seats throughout.
There are also large berm seating areas down each line, which are very popular amongst the fans. The high hill makes it ideal for bringing your own folding chair rather than a blanket if you plan to sit here.
It’s an offensively-minded park with little foul territory, and short home runs down each line (317 in left and 327 in right). In center field there is a 54′ x 28′ video board with up-to-date (including in game updates) stats and pitch count. In left field there is an old style manual scoreboard that also has the balls, strikes, outs and pitch speed.
There are plenty of group and party areas at Fifth Third Ballpark. In 2015, they added a new rooftop deck which provides an excellent view of the field.
Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan with just shy of 200,000 inhabitants, so there is plenty to be found in the city. The immediate area however is a bit lacking. I can recommend the Mill Creek Tavern though, both for its proximity and strong menu. They specialize in mussels and a good selection of comfort food. It is comfortable, but with a slightly upscale menu.
If you are a microbrew lover, then you will also want to be sure to make a trip to Founders Brewery, about five miles from the stadium. They serve sandwiches, but you are coming for some of the best brews in the world, including a personal favorite, Red Rye PA. The place fills up quickly, so make sure you beat the happy hour crowd on a week night before the game.
Downtown Grand Rapids has plenty of other great places to visit including The B.O.B., Hopcat, and Grand Rapids Brewing Company. You may also consider visiting the Grand Rapids Art Museum, which has a great collection including interesting rotating exhibitions.
If you’re staying overnight, the nearest hotel is the Comfort Inn and Suites, less than a mile from Fifth Third Ballpark. If you would rather be closer to downtown Grand Rapids, then consider the Courtyard or Holiday Inn, both convenient for walking around downtown.
The Whitecaps had a good season in 2015, not just on the field, but in the stands as well. The team averaged over 5,600 fans per game, good for fourth in the competitive Midwest League. The crowd is interested in the game for the most part, but this is also clearly a social occasion for many.
This is an easy stadium to find, as it is right off of US 131, but the parking lot is deep. If you end up staying for a close game, then there may be a little more frustration leaving the ballpark than you might like. I’m a proponent of staying until the last out, but if you aren’t entirely invested in the outcome, and the game is not in doubt, then this may not be a bad place to cut out an inning early. I was also a little disappointed to find a $6 price tag on parking.
Bathrooms are large and clean, and there are no lines for either gender throughout the game.
Return on Investment 3
Tickets begin at $7 for lawn seats, and top out at just $15 for premium box seats. Avoid the bleacher seats ($11.50), and if you choose the lawn seats, then you may want to bring in your own fold up chair. All children three and under get free admittance.
Parking and food is a little more than some other options within the Midwest League, but the ticket prices are fair, and overall you get what you pay for at Fifth Third Ballpark.
One positive is the free program that you’ll receive when entering. It is better than many of the advertising-laden journals you find at many parks.
The concession items are much more creative and of a higher quality than what you will find at similar minor league ballparks, and the craft beer section is a fantastic addition to the ballpark.
Finally, the Whitecaps are to be commended on making the most of a bad situation. The fire was a devastating event, but the team bounced back and now have an even better ballpark experience to present.
Come for the food, stay for the baseball. Fifth Third Ballpark makes for a great excuse to visit
Food and Drink Recommendations
Swan Inn Motel & Restaurant
Comfort Suites Grand Rapids North
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