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Western Michigan Wild For Minor League Baseball

April 2, 1994

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ Lew Chamberlin has dreamed about bringing professional baseball to western Michigan for seven years. Sometimes those dreams turned into sleepless nights.

″I’ve had a few dreams about empty stadiums, waking up in a cold sweat,″ said Chamberlin, vice president of the new West Michigan Whitecaps.

So he had to ″swallow hard a couple of times″ when he saw the line stretching around the block for opening-day tickets.

With the Whitecaps’ April 12 home opener just weeks away, the final touches are being put on a privately built $6 million, 5,500-seat stadium for the Class A minor league baseball franchise. Part of the Midwest League, the franchise is the farm club of the Oakland Athletics.

Grand Rapids is in a baseball frenzy.

Hundreds of people who lined up in the cold, early morning hours of March 5 were turned away after opening-day tickets sold out, and season ticket sales were capped at 1,800 because of demand. About 500 people are on waiting lists. All 20 private skyboxes, which lease at $15,000 a year, have been reserved.

Merchandise, from caps to baby bibs, with the Whitecaps’ blue, yellow and white wave logo has been selling so briskly that franchise officials are having trouble keeping it in stock.

The local ABC affiliate, WZZM-TV, has even committed to televising several games, rare for the minor leagues.

″The response has been very encouraging,″ Chamberlin says, smiling.

″The essence of minor league baseball is that it’s inexpensive family entertainment. And I can think of few things that fit more perfectly in the nature of this community, which is so family-oriented.″

Chamberlin insists he isn’t a baseball ″statistics geek″ but has fond memories of going to Detroit Tigers games with this father. He began seriously researching the potential support for baseball in western Michigan in the mid- 1980s, when his family sold their steel supply company. Then he met accountant Dennis Baxter, who had the same interest.

They soon found that although residents said they would like a baseball team, it was unlikely they would pay for a stadium.

So the partners got together a group of investors - including members of Amway Corp.‘s DeVos family and Steelcase Inc.’s Pew family - and bought the Wausau (Wis.) Timbers. They moved the troubled Class A franchise into a new stadium in suburban Chicago’s Kane County.

What began as a way for the investors to get their feet wet in a traditionally closed industry turned out to be coup: The Kane County Cougars turned out to be one of the most successful franchises in the minors.

″What we hoped all along was that it would lead to bringing a team back here one day,″ Chamberlin said.

It did. In 1993, the investors sold their interest in the franchise, bought the Madison (Wis.) Muskies and started building the stadium in Plainfield Township. They named it Old Kent Park for financial sponsor Old Kent Bank & Trust Co. of Grand Rapids.

″There were some scary moments - there still are - but I never thought of giving up,″ Chamberlin said.

″I don’t know if I’m stupid or stubborn, but I never got a clear-cut signal to stop trying.″

Though the investors say they care more about improving the quality of life than return on investment, minor league baseball has become a big moneymaker in many cities.

Fred Howell, an investor and president of Insight Marketing Inc., said the economic impact of minor league baseball can range from $10 million to $20 million a year.

″First and foremost the franchise has to be operated like a business. If it’s operated like a hobby, it’s not going to work,″ said Howell, whose marketing group conducted surveys to gauge consumer interest in baseball in the Grand Rapids area.

He said surveys have found that basics like convenient parking, clean stadium restrooms and between-inning entertainment were more important to fans than winning and losing.

″The team need not be a championship winner every year as long as the activity is exciting and that you supplement that with fun things between innings,″ Howell said.

His surveys predict that Whitecaps’ home games, at $3 to $6 per ticket, will draw at least 3,500 fans per game.

″We think that’s low now. The interest that we’ve experienced since we’ve announced the team ... has just been fantastic,″ Howell said.

Chamberlin is counting on fans from as far north as Traverse City, about 150 miles away, and as far south as the Indiana border, to attend games.

Late last year, Lansing hoped to get a minor league team, but that fell through even as city officials explored building a new ballpark. The Whitecaps will be the state’s only minor league team.

Having a baseball team should even help draw convention traffic during the usually slow summer months, said Steve Wilson, executive director of the Grand Rapids-Kent County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

″And from a tourism standpoint, minor league baseball is really a family phenomenon,″ he said.

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