MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Clippers have been an up-and-down team all season, sometimes exciting their fans with late comeback victories, and sometimes managing only a few hits in defeat.
The latter was the case on Wednesday, when the Clippers fell to the Detroit-based Jet Box Baseball Club 17-3 in seven innings in their final home game of the season.
The Clippers are 16-19 with two games left (which will be played Friday and Saturday in Royal Oak), so they have no chance to reach the .500 mark, and they won’t make the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate Baseball League playoffs.
But when it came to selling tickets and drawing big crowds, there’s no doubt that the Clippers are the league champions of 2022. The fans kept coming out to historic Marsh Field in big numbers all season, from the first game to the last.
On Wednesday the crowd was so big that the Clippers had to seat numerous fans on picnic tables in their bullpen area, because there weren’t enough open spots in the bleachers.
Nobody in the crowd seems to mind too much when the Clippers play a bad game. The parking lot is always packed and the seats are full for the next game, regardless of the final score or the league standings.
While the Clippers have always drawn well, General Manager Walt Gawkowski said this year’s attendance was probably an all-time high. A few games ago an intern counted the fans and came up with 685, and that’s probably pretty close to the average for the season.
That’s very impressive for a very small old ballpark that probably only seats about 700 or 800.
“We’re almost at a point where we’ve outgrown the ballpark,” Gawkowski said. “I think over time our fan base has grown. The community has really embraced us. We’ve done a good job of embracing the fans and making it a family atmosphere, and people recognize that.
“Sometimes our play is not up to par, but I believe if we had a park that could seat 1,000 people, we would draw 1,000 people.”
On Wednesday the Clippers showed their appreciation to the fans by raffling off a bunch of gifts between innings, and at one point all of the players took to the stands to shake hands with the fans and say thank you for coming.
“It’s just our way of saying thank you for supporting us,” Gawkowski said. “The fans here are our life blood.”
Gawkowski said the team would love to upgrade Marsh Field by adding more seating and upgrading the dugouts, press box, concession stand and restrooms, but financing remains a big issue for the city-owned facility.
“Our long-term vision for the ballpark is to modernize it,” said Gawkowski, who operates the team with his brother, Clippers owner Pete Gawkowski, and their respective families. “You can see tonight the concession stand is completely inadequate. There were constant long lines. The park is just too small, the bathrooms are inadequate, the press box is inadequate. There is a plan for that. We just don’t have the revenue. This is a mom-and-pop operation. We need the city and someone with deep pockets to write some checks.
“But we’re committed to this, and we’re going to be here, God willing, for a long time.”
First-year manager Logan Fleener, who played for the Clippers a few years back, said the big crowds and fun atmosphere make Clippers baseball unique in the Great Lakes League.
“We’ve said all year long, there’s no better place to play in this league,” Fleener said. “All year long, every game, they fill the stands, and it’s pretty impressive. It creates a great environment for the players and gives them a chance to feel what it’s like to play in front of 500 or 600 people.
“I’ve played here and been here as a manager for a full year, and we’ve never had a situation before where fans were sitting in the bullpen because there wasn’t enough room. That’s so special.”
Clippers infielder Cooper Mills, who plays for Kalamazoo College, said there’s a huge difference in the atmosphere between home and away games.
“We come out and play six days a week, and when we’re home it’s a ton of fun,” he said. “On the road we might play in front of 20 or 50 people, so when we’re here it’s just awesome. They create a great environment.”