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Whitecaps nurture young Tigers in ideal baseball setting

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Cam Gibson

Comstock Park, Mich. — In a semi-secluded hollow surrounded by hills, highways, and just enough trees and greenery to offer a taste of Up North ambience, sits a park dressed in blue and white.

It is home not only to the West Michigan Whitecaps but to 400,000 customers who each spring and summer consider Fifth Third Ballpark to be a kind of retreat.

It comes with all the trappings.

There’s a hometown Single A team, often stocked with a handful of quality prospects, and all property of the Tigers, which carries clout with the home crowd.

There are inexpensive tickets: $7-$15, which can put you on a lawn blanket along the first- or third-base line, or a comfortable stadium box seat. Pop by when school’s out and the weather is pleasing and you’ll see 9,000-plus, a full house, at weekend games, with heavy mid-week turnouts to boot.

There are patios and decks and suites if you want bigger or more sophisticated nights at the park. There is in-game entertainment beyond baseball. And there are concession goodies affordable and colorful, and maybe intentionally grotesque.

Or haven’t you yet tried the Fifth Third Burger, a 5,000-calorie warhead that’s essentially nachos on a mountain of beef patties?

Should your cardiologist offer a weekend pass, brace yourself for a new menu item in 2016, Dutch Love, a pita pocket filled with pot roast, turkey gravy, cheese curds, and French fries. It goes for $5.75 and was the fans’ daring choice among eight items offered for a vote last January, when, presumably, next of kin also were notified.

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These referendums on new concession treats are simply one more Whitecaps tradition, much as players annually are invited to stay with local families and enjoy a semblance of home life during a long, and often lonely, season.

This all has been going on, a few miles outside Grand Rapids, since 1994, when minor-league baseball arrived. For the first three years the Whitecaps were an A’s affiliate. But the Tigers became West Michigan’s parent in 1997, and that relationship has added cachet and a deeper bond between players and the Whitecaps community.

“It’s a real baseball town, the whole community,” said Andrew Graham, the Whitecaps manager and a Sydney native who played in the Tigers minor-league system as a catcher before turning to managing. “And that’s pretty unique, for an A-ball team, that people most of the time know who you are, and want to get to know you.

“But the fans are great, and the Whitecaps do such a fantastic job of getting out into the community — promotions, appearances, Children’s Hospital visits every couple of weeks. It’s a great atmosphere, and the ballclub in turn tries to give back to everyone.”

Rising stars

The Whitecaps also win their share of games. And that’s all because of West Michigan’s players, some of whom you’ll likely see in a few years at Comerica Park. They could, at that point, join other Whitecaps alums, such as Nick Castellanos and James McCann, each of whom had at least a splash of time at West Michigan en route to Detroit.

Among the cream of this year’s Whitecaps class are three outfielders: Jose Azocar, Derek Hill and Cam Gibson.

Azocar runs and throws — and hits. He has dazzled on a couple of highlights shows thanks to his glove and powerhouse arm, as has Hill, a first-round pick in 2014. Like Azocar, Hill is 20, and, like Azocar, he has accounted for some spectacular defensive video six weeks into a season.

Jose Azocar, at age 20, is hitting .299 for the Whitecaps and is a stellar defensive outfielder.

Gibson is another reason why West Michigan’s outfield is best attacked by hitting a ball over the fence. He was playing at Michigan State last year until the Tigers took him in the fifth round of the draft. Now, he teams with Azocar and Hill as something of an interchangeable racehorse and center fielder in the fashion of his dad and former Tigers great, Kirk.

West Michigan’s infield isn’t as strong by comparison, but a handful of pitchers have a serious shot, if not expectation, of working in the big leagues.

Begin there with Texas native and right-handed starter Beau Burrows. He was last year’s first-round Tigers pick and is doing just fine at age 19: 2.70 ERA, handsome 0.99 WHIP, with 27 hits allowed in 33 1/3 innings, alongside 26 strikeouts and six walks. He’s started six games and has one relief appearance.

“Power arm, very coachable, and has a feel for his delivery, which is nice when you’re 19,” said Mark Johnson, a one-time Tigers reliever who is West Michigan’s pitching coach.

The Whitecaps have a strikeout left-hander in Matt Hall, even if his path to mowing down Midwest League hitters is a bit unconventional. Rather than blow-torch his way past bats with a high-90-mph fastball, Hall slices up the strike zone with an elite curveball, the pitch that made him NCAA strikeouts leader in 2015 when he played at Missouri State, before the Tigers nabbed him in the sixth round.

A bullpen in Detroit always in search of put-away artists will be hoping another West Michigan prodigy develops. Gerson (Her-SAHN) Moreno, also 20, owns a fastball that can push 100 mph and earn a strikeout or so per inning, with few walks. He has a 1.26 ERA in 14 games.

Steering the ship

Overseeing development at this first full-season stop in the Tigers farm chain is Graham, 34, who for the past three seasons has been in charge of the Whitecaps after three summers at Single A Connecticut, a half-season league.

Joining him at West Michigan is Johnson, as well as hitting coach Edgar Alfonzo. They take turns helping kids, some of whom were teenagers living at home a year ago, adjust to professional baseball’s culture and skills demands.

There are easier jobs.

“It’s all about teaching them how to play baseball differently from what they might have known in high school or college, or in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic,” Graham said. “Then, away from the field, it’s getting them to behave as gentlemen, knowing how to dress like a professional, being on time, and playing the game professionally. At the same time, we try to make a cohesive environment where these guys can be themselves and feel at home.”

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Few players, of course, will make the big-league cut. But even here, on a May evening at Fifth Third Field that at different hours has offered rain, sunshine, balmy air, and a cold front’s chill as it slides across nearby Lake Michigan, you can detect pedigrees and potential.

Moreno, for example, a right-hander from the Dominican Republic, is 6-foot and 175 pounds, and has serious big-league qualifications.

“Power arm, with a plus fastball, and he likes to pitch in tight situations,” said Johnson, who has been coaching in the Tigers system since 2007. “Electric arm.”

Consider, also, Sandy Baez, 22, “another guy with a power arm,” Johnson said, “who is learning to pitch.”

Baez, a right-handed starter signed out of the Dominican Republic, is 6-2 and 180, and has a fastball that can run 95-96, as well as a slider and change-up getting some necessary tooling.

Prospects aplenty

But it’s West Michigan’s outfield that probably scores highest with fans.

Azocar is 5-11 and weighs 165. He was signed out of Venezuela as a 16-year-old and needs a few more pounds before the Tigers believe they’ll see a player whose muscle begins to match his speed and arm.

“His instincts and jump are great,” said Graham, who, along with Alfonzo is pushing Azocar more selective. “He’s very aggressive at the plate. He’ll swing at everything, but he’s got skill at putting his bat on the ball.”

Hill is another issue. And it perhaps doesn’t help that so much is expected, given his first-round status.

But the Tigers insisted a California high school star with Hill’s magic in covering ground and making plays, coupled with a fast bat, could make him a potential All-Star center fielder.

No one is saying Hill is a sure thing to make the big leagues, let alone crack an All-Star lineup. He has much work to do, beginning with staying healthy after missing much of 2015 (leg injury) and more than a week this month when his defensive derring-do led to a collision with the outfield fence and to concussion protocol.

“I see signs,” Graham said, with perhaps a glass-half-full appraisal, particularly of Hill’s bat. “He’s trying to find where he’s comfortable with his swing path. He takes too many first-pitch strikes. And he needs to develop bunting skills when he’s a speed guy. And get a better two-strike approach. But he’s got tools and the speed, if he can get the bat working.”

Gibson probably is in the same boat, all because, for any minor-league outfielder, moving up is contingent on hitting. Gibson is a left-handed batter, 6-2 and 195. But he has been fighting to stay above .200 the first two months.

“You get in games here and the game speeds up,” Graham said, speaking of the difference between Single A baseball and Big Ten pitching Gibson saw during his Michigan State days.

“But he’s got power. We’re working on him becoming more balanced so he can stay aggressive.”

Graham will not be watching alone. He, his staff, and the Tigers front office, will be monitoring Gibson and Gibson’s teammates, determining promotions and probabilities some of Graham’s group will someday play in Detroit.

Watching also will be 400,000 fans who again this year are expected to make Fifth Third Field the place to be if you’re ready for some fun. And hungry enough to attack a Fifth Third Burger.


Twitter: @Lynn_Henning