The Kalamazoo Growlers are bringing baseball back to Southwest Michigan, and the organization is making up for lost time in a big way.
On June 15, the Growlers, which are a part of the collegiate summer wooden bat Northwoods League, announced that they would kick off the abbreviated 2020 season on July 1 alongside the Battle Creek Bombers.
In addition to the duo, the Growlers organization announced the formation of a second team, dubbed the Kalamazoo Mac Daddies, a homage to the popular side dish of macaroni and cheese.
The Growlers, Mac Daddies and Bombers will play one another in a 60-game season featuring a round robin format. The season will see 40 games at Homer Stryker Field in Kalamazoo, home to both the Growlers and the Mac Daddies, and 20 at C.O. Brown Stadium in Battle Creek. Both facilities will be filled to far less than half capacity.
The Traverse City Pit Spitters, under the same ownership group as the West Michigan Whitecaps, made a similar announcement. As well, the Pit Spitters formed two additional new teams — the Great Lakes Resorters and the Northern Michigan Dune Bears — to fill out its pod.
All 57 season games will be played at Turtle Creek Stadium in Blair Township, south of Traverse City. When the season kicks off, the Traverse City organizations will only allow 500 fans per game.
“I’m really excited about what we rolled out in Traverse City today,” said Pit Spitters CEO Joe Chamberlin, whose team will now oversee the Resorters and Dune Bears. “I think it’s a creative way to make baseball work this summer. So far, the reaction has been really positive and really strong.”
The winners from the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek and Traverse City pods will meet for an end-of-the-season playoff series.
All the organizations have extensive COVID-19 preparedness plans in place and will feature measures ranging from the elimination of self-serve drinks and buffet food to strategic seating arrangements to ensure fans can properly distance themselves from one another.
Creating new teams
For the Growlers, creating a new team from the ground up fell into place a little more seamlessly than many might expect.
The Kalamazoo Mac Daddies brand already existed, but only as a novelty that the organization was planning to use for a Father’s Day promotion. Because many of the components of a team were already in place, Growlers Managing Partner Brian Colopy said that it made sense to scale the idea into an actual functioning team.
“Luckily we had this all moving and the jerseys and the plans in place,” he said. “I’d say it was really natural to make that our third team in this area and go with it. Everything was really built for it — now we’re building the rosters, which is a process and getting players in and talking to coaches.
“We get our players from recruiting schools from all over the country, but mainly we’re starting here locally — Western Michigan, (Kalamazoo) College — and expanding out to places like Central Michigan (University). We want to start with players and colleges within the state to do our duty and help our local teams to get experience. They’re all amateurs and hoping to get to the next level. We wanted to help the teams in our own backyard.”
Still, creating and managing yet another baseball team comes with plenty of logistical difficulties, but those are challenges that Colopy said are worth it, not only to the collegiate players that get to showcase their talent, but for the 100 part-time staff members that use both ballparks for summer employment.
“There are budgets built into that, where we’ll have to pay for equipment and pay to get players fed and housed — it’s a big undertaking but we have a duty to do that, that’s why we’re here,” Colopy said. “If we can do that in a limited capacity this year, we’re going to.”
The Growlers will welcome fans in reduced capacity and grow that number throughout the course of the season. Never will attendance reach more than 30 to 33 percent of capacity.
The Growlers, Mac Daddies and Bombers have invested in additional cleaning, staffing and training to aid in fan safety. New features include designated entrances for each seating area and limited concession menus. Fans must also wear masks when walking around the park.
“We’re always talking to our health department and other officials here, and we have the opportunity to be a place to showcase that things can be done the right way and done in a safe environment,” Colopy said. “We’ll change and adapt to regulations and CDC recommendations — those can change sometimes weekly.”
‘A 57-game home stand’
The Pit Spitters organization is now solely responsible for baseball in Traverse City this year, operating all three teams.
“It’s been a lot of work in a short period of time,” Chamberlin said. “The creative stuff — the branding and the … business side of the equation — we were able to control and felt comfortable pulling that off. We had a great creative team that really jumped on these brands and worked out what I think are pretty cool concepts.”
In an earlier interview with MiBiz, Chamberlin said that, because the team is so reliant on ticket revenue, the decision to return would be based on how many fans are allowed in per game.
When the trio of teams kick off on July 1, 500 fans are allowed in the ballpark for each game, a number that will likely grow as the season progresses.
Chamberlin said that as a second-year organization, Traverse City saw value in not going dark for the whole year and staying in the line of vision for area baseball fans.
“When you’re in this business, there are always so many factors outside of your control whether that’s weather or if the team is any good,” Chamberlin said. “There are a lot of things that us as operators can’t control that always make any season a little bit of a gamble, but we would not have made these decisions if we didn’t think that financially this could turn out positive for us.”
Also, with similar collegiate leagues across the country folding up shop for the year, many highly talented college baseball players are up for grabs and looking for a place to showcase their talents.
“We want the baseball to be good,” Chamberlin said. “I think the fact that there are a lot of other leagues that aren’t going this year, that this late in the game we could still put together competitive and high-talent rosters. I think you can always throw a roster together, but this summer we were uniquely positioned to deliver on the promise of putting prospects on the field.”
In 2021, Chamberlin said the Traverse City operations plan to return to life as a single baseball team. But for this year, his staff has a daunting task ahead.
“It’s essentially a 57-game home stand that we’re signing up for, and operationally, that’s going to take some work to pull off,” Chamberlin said.