A Whole New Ballgame

The story of John and Leslye Wuerfel was like was the unforgettable line from the cult classic baseball movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, [they] will come.”

The entertainment scene in the Grand Traverse region was dramatically altered – for the better – more than a dozen years ago when the Wuerfels, successful Traverse City hoteliers, transformed a bold dream into a laborious reality with the construction of Wuerfel Park and the creation of the Traverse City Beach Bums professional baseball team.

Few could have imagined a generation ago that a sparsely populated, remote area like the Grand Traverse region could one day be home to a professional baseball team. But like other pioneers and visionaries that have contributed so much to the Traverse City area, the Wuerfel family committed their time, effort and resources into a project that provided hundreds of thousands of area families and visitors with countless hours of wholesome entertainment and fun.

It was a success before the team’s opening pitch was thrown. The team’s Beach Bums nickname was a branding master stroke and instantly became synonymous across Michigan and beyond with baseball and the Traverse City area. The organization and its sparkling facility hosted the Frontier League All-Star game in 2008. The Beach Bums were the league’s Organization of the Year in 2012, and three years later were crowned as Champions of the Frontier League.

Even with all the successes, there were questions about why Wuerfel Park wasn’t utilized more as a year-round event venue. Clean, modern, and conveniently located with ample parking and multi-use zoning, the ballpark was well positioned to become a regional event hub well beyond the periodic festivals, concerts or high school tournaments it hosted.

But the answer is simple: Operating a multi-purpose event venue is a massive undertaking. Being part of an organization that conducts dozens of events a year affords some first-hand knowledge of what it entails – the planning, coordination, logistics, marketing and promotion, insurance and liability, set-up and tear-down and dealing with numerous other details consumes extensive time and resources. The Wuerfel family had more than a full plate running their baseball organization. To expect them to run a first-class baseball team while juggling a robust outside event schedule was unrealistic.

The recent sale of Wuerfel Park to Traverse City Baseball Inc. headed by Joe Chamberlin, and its affiliation with the Grand Rapids Whitecaps Class A baseball franchise where Chamberlin is the CEO, will change that. The Whitecaps’ home, Fifth Third Ballpark between US-131 and the Grand River north of Grand Rapids, hosts close to 100 events a year outside of its normal baseball schedule.

Traverse City Baseball Inc., beyond keeping minor league baseball in Traverse City with a new team in the Northwoods League for up-and-coming collegiate players, has the knowledge, experience – and most importantly the manpower – to make our south-of-town ballpark the dynamic and diverse regional event hub that so many hoped for in Wuerfel Park. It’s only scratched the surface of its vast potential, and most certainly its best days lie ahead. It will be exciting to watch the facility evolve in the coming months and years, bringing even more people and activities through its turnstiles.

But none of it would be possible – in the past nor the future – without the tireless commitment of John and Leslye Wuerfel and their family, to whom our community owes a heartfelt thank you for a job well done. They built the dream that is Wuerfel Park, and it will continue to be a place where people will come for many years ahead.

Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at doug@TraverseCONNECT.org.