Normally when a baseball ownership group buys another team, it’s a Major League Baseball organization.
But last month, it was a minor league organization making a major purchase.
An investment group led by the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Detroit Tigers’ Single-A affiliate, bought Wuerfel Park in Traverse City, Michigan — and along with it came the Traverse City Beach Bums of the independent Frontier League.
The Whitecaps recently finished their 25th season and are in the midst of a leadership transition, which sought to take another step with the business. With the new asset, the ownership group will look to diversify and build a community asset in Northern Michigan, about two and a half hours north of its suburban Grand Rapids home.
“We looked at our success down here in West Michigan, what we’ve been able to do in the last 25 years, and internally we’re shifting gears, looking what comes next,” said Joe Chamberlin, who is transitioning into the CEO role from his father and team co-founder, Lew Chamberlin. “We’ve known about [the possibility to buy this team] and it got to the point the opportunity became something we could take a look at.”
“It’s a business we know, it’s a beautiful ballpark and a setup we’re accustomed to.”
Chamberlin said both the ballpark and team will be renamed, with a corporate sponsor expected for the 3,500-seat stadium and a fan naming contest for the team, which will move to the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer league.
Due to the Whitecaps affiliation with the Tigers, the acquisition necessitates a league switch from the independent Frontier League. Traverse City will be one of two new teams in the Northwoods League, which has teams across the Upper Midwest and had more than 80 alumni in Major League Baseball this year.
“We could not be more excited to have Traverse City join the Northwoods League,” Northwoods League President Gary Hoover said. “This ballpark and this market have the potential to set the standard for top-tier collegiate summer baseball.”
Chamberlin is excited about the prospect of having some say in the roster makeup — not that the Whitecaps have had much difficulty with rosters, having won three Midwest League championships in their 25 years.
“We’re really excited about that league,” Chamberlin said. “It’s growing pretty fast and it’s an exciting brand of baseball. We’re affiliated baseball guys, so we’re used to taking what we can get. The caliber of talent and careers of these guys who have moved on is incredible.”
The Whitecaps didn’t disclose terms of the deal, but reports have suggested a Northwoods franchise is worth a $1 million fee, while the stadium is worth much more. The potential of Wuerfel Park, built in 2006 with a $6 million price tag, might be the most exciting piece of the deal for Chamberlin. Traverse City officials told the local paper it’s an “underutilized facility” when the deal was announced.
“It has a ton of potential,” Chamberlin said. “It’s an underutilized regional and community asset, and if we move in and change a few things around, it’s a place that can really be a great addition to Traverse City, not just for baseball games.”
A quick glance at events held at West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark help showcase the possibilities at the Traverse City facility. Along with an annual two-day beer festival in the heart of winter, West Michigan has also hosted a slew of football and soccer games, as well as concerts. They’ll also add to the food offerings like they do in West Michigan, which has been featured nationally.
A short summer season baseball league and an artificial turf field provide even more possibilities in Traverse City.
“We’ll look at taking anything we’ve done down here up there,” Chamberlin said. “There’s a good portion of the year to do other stuff, so we’ll take a look at concerts, a big beer festival; we’d love to have that kind of foundational offseason event.”
Following 25 years of minor league baseball in West Michigan, Chamberlin said one of the things they did best was creating a community asset — the team has brought more than 10 million fans through the gates. He said 85 percent of those fans leave without knowing the score, and that’s OK.
“They came out and had a great time,” he said. “One reason we’ve lasted 25 years is we’re more than just baseball; we’re connected and integrated into West Michigan. We’re really excited to duplicate what we achieved. A big push will be connecting with the community and becoming a part of what Traverse City and that region are all about.”