During the team name announcement for the Kalamazoo’s newest baseball team. in the middle of a welcoming speech by Dick Radatz, founding owner and president of the Northwoods Baseball League, a fire alarm went off.
Radatz waited patiently until someone turned it off. No fire, but a dramatic way to unveil the team’s name, Kalamazoo Growlers, and mascot, a growling black and blue bear clutching a baseball over the golden skyline of Kalamazoo.
At first, the connection of the name Growlers to Kalamazoo may seem confusing. Where are there bears in Kalamazoo? OK, so this writer is a little slow on the uptake — the name is for the half-gallon containers used to transport microbrew beer. The name, at least according to one Wisconsin brewmaster, came from buckets of beer given to factory workers before their stomachs began to “growl” from hunger.
“We wanted the team to have a name that was unique and different,” says John Bollinger, a Growlers’ assistant general manager. ‘’We wanted it be the community’s team because we know that the best teams in the country succeed because the community embraces them. Kalamazoo is a big microbrew city, but we didn’t want to be too beer-friendly. When we got the votes, we were just blown away with the percentage. This community embraces the culture and history of the microbreweries and the name pays homage to this.”
Lest the Growlers seem too beer-friendly, their business model is based on providing family entertainment for an affordable price with a wide variety of options, including a Kid Zone with inflatable bouncers and slides and plenty of themes, guests and giveaways. Park entertainment will include visitors like the Cowboy Monkeys, monkeys who ride dogs and herd sheep. There are also rumors of a special opening-day national-anthem singer. In addition to large giveaways and Friday fireworks, there will be themes like Bark in the Park and Star Wars Day. The park will also include Bell’s Beer Cave, an indoor/outdoor suite for hosting parties, business meetings or special events.
“We’re providing entertainment at every single game,” says Shane Stout, assistant manager for sales and services. “A year from now you may not remember who won and lost the game, but you’re going to remember who you were with and how much fun you had. That’s what we want to provide our fans.”
The highly respected Northwoods League sponsors summer collegiate baseball with the top players in the country. Teams will pull players from their region first. The first new Growler players announced are Brett Sunde of Madison Heights and Jared Kujawa of Temperance, both of whom play for Western Michigan University. Joe Carbone, former head baseball coach at Ohio University, was named field manager. Cody Piechocki, Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s baseball coach, has also joined the Growlers as an assistant coach.
A natural rivalry with another Northwoods League team, the eight-year-old Battle Creek Bombers, is also developing at a rapid pace. The Bombers’ mascot is — get this — a mosquito! Bollinger is looking for sponsors (think exterminator) to attack the Bomber mascot. “We’re already talking smack on social media,” he says. The Growlers will play the Bombers eight times during the season, four times at each field, including the opening game. If fans purchase Growlers season tickets, they automatically get Bombers season tickets.
The Growlers follow an iffy Kalamazoo baseball legacy. There have been three baseball teams in less than the past two decades: The Kalamazoo Kodiaks were the local team from 1995 to 1998 and the Kalamazoo Kings, played from 2001 to 2011. Some blamed the departure of the Kings on the location of Homer Stryker Field, which is in Mayors’ Riverfront Park on the city’s East side.
But Bollinger and Stout are optimistic. They say the location is safe (with plenty of parking attendants) and easily accessible from the I-94 business loop. And, really, with a name like Homer Stryker Field? You can expect plenty of homers (for ‘da Growlers) and lots of strikes (for da’ Bombers). And there are hints that city revitalization is moving northeastward, such as the new Arcadia Brewing Co. under construction just up the street at the intersection of Michigan and Kalamazoo avenues.
No doubt the Growlers are trying to brew up support and enthusiasm for their new family- and beer-friendly baseball venture. In 1963, the city of Kalamazoo built the baseball stadium, then called Sutherland Field, with big hopes. It was renovated in 1995 and renamed in 2002 to honor the founder of Stryker Corp. Homer Stryker Field is Kalamazoo’s field of dreams. If you build it, they will come. The Kodiaks came and the Kings came (2001 to 2010), and now the Growlers have come and hope the spectators do too.