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Official Review by Paul Swaney, Stadium Journey Co-Founder
For well over a decade I have driven past Fifth Third Ballpark on US 131 on my way between my hometown (Traverse City, MI) and my current city (Chicago, IL). I've wanted to stop, but just never have. There's a lesson to be learned here. It is almost always a good idea to stop at a ballpark.
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 5 league titles (1996, 1998, 2004, 2006, and 2007).
Most importantly, this is a lovely ballpark with good food, and comfortable viewing of the great American pastime.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Look, I like beer, so offering a good selection at a reasonable price will always help to score well in my book. Each stand has a slightly different beer selection, with some standards mixed in with some unique goodness. Two sizes are available (20-ounce and 32-ounce) with different price points based on macro or microbrew. Pabst, Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Fosters are $4.50 and $6.50 depending on the size. More interesting options like Leinenkugel, Bell's Oberon, Shock Top, and Founders (local to Grand Rapids area) go for $5.50 and $7.50.
As far as the food, you've got to start with the Fifth Third Burger. It's 5/3 pounds served in a pizza box for $20. It was too big for me to eat alone, and I only saw orders intended 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 ($6), wraps ($6), Stehouwer steak sandwich ($6), or pulled pork ($6). I tried the pulled pork and thought it was a bit dry. The steak sandwich was good, and I would recommend going that direction.
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 wasn't anything that I would consider to be overly unique about the atmosphere at Fifth Third Ballpark, but it is a really comfortable place to take in a 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.
After that, you'll find a walkway before finding the bleacher seats. These bleachers are better than others because of the back on each mention, along with good roominess. Behind the bleachers, you have the main concourse, which is roomy as well (see a theme here?).
There were also large berm seating areas down each line, which were very popular amongst the fans. The high hill makes it ideal for bringing your own folding chair rather than a blanket.
It's an offensively-minded park with little foul territory, and short home runs down each line (317 in left and 327 in right). There are two scoreboards, neither real inspiring. In left field, you'll find player information and replays. In center field you can find the line score, and be inundated with advertisements.
They did a good job of keeping the team up-to-date on the parent Detroit Tigers score, and the fans reacted positively on any update that yielded a positive change for the Tigers.
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.
I mentioned I like beer, right? Well, if you are a microbrew lover, then you will also want to be sure to make a trip to Founders Brewery, about 5 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. I was there on a Sunday, when they open at 3pm, and the place was already beginning to fill up around 3:30pm, so this is a popular spot, and with good reason.
I attended on Mother's Day, so there were probably more families than normal, and the Whitecaps staff did a good job of catering to the many little ones in the house. Fans were reasonably engaged, with pockets of ardent supporters and casual sunbathers.
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 $5 price tag on parking.
Bathrooms are large and clean, and I noticed no lines for either gender throughout the game.
My recommendation here is to go with a box seat ($11) over any of the other seating options. Reserve (bleacher) seats are only $1.50 less per seat, so the box seat is definitely the better bargain. Another good option is to bring your own chair and take a seat on the berm ($6). When you add in parking, a sandwich, and a small beer, you can expect to spend $28 per person. This is right on the borderline of reasonability. The food is reasonable, the parking is an annoyance.
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.
I was also very impressed with the game of catch that the Whitecaps allowed before the game.
Come for the food, stay for the baseball. It took me over a decade to find the ramp at Exit 91, and I guarantee that it won't take me that long to come back.
Member Review by Michael David on Nov 03, 2012
This is my 'home' field, so I'll try not to be too biased. This is one of the best Single-A ballparks I've been too, and the capacity rivals most Triple-A ballparks. The food is some of the best in baseball, and the crowds are pretty into the games. The fact that they're affiliated with the Tigers gives them the advantage over some of the other teams in Michigan. My kids have a great time here, and the mascot Crash is awesome with them. The playground is nice, but there are very few other games for them. In all, it's a great minor league experience, and I highly recommend the Whitecaps for anyone in the area.
235 Grandville Ave SW
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
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