By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – Marc Okkonen spends many summer nights these days at historic Marsh Field.

He picks a seat, often buys a hot dog and enjoys the festive atmosphere surrounding the Muskegon Clippers’ baseball experience.

“I think this is fantastic,” Okkonen said during a recent game against the Holland Millers. “We’ll never get a minor league team in here. So this is as close as we’ll get to a team representing Muskegon.

“It would be great to see this grow with more teams,” added Okkonen, an expert and noted author of Muskegon’s baseball history. “This kind of baseball is going over very big in other parts of the country. This isn’t going away.”

The Muskegon Clippers, an amateur baseball club with a professional feel, will soon be wrapping up their first season of operation.

Muskegon (17-5) will close out its home schedule against Bloomfield with a single game tonight at 7 p.m. and a Saturday doubleheader starting at 1 p.m. The Clippers will go on the road to conclude the season on July 22 (at Grand Rapids) and July 25-26 (at Motor City).

Pete Gawkowski is the owner of the team, which is part of the Michigan Summer Collegiate Baseball League. He was instrumental in the formation of the new league, which features some of the top college baseball players in the state.

“I hear nothing but positive comments from people who come to the games,” said Gawkowski, a successful local businessman and baseball enthusiast. “Everybody is kind of having fun with this. We’re trying to go above a city league and a travel team. The goal is to pattern it after minor league baseball.”

The atmosphere definitely has a professional minor league feel.

There’s PA announcer Tim Lipan entertaining the crowd with his unique brand of humor.

Roving field announcer Drew Curi stirs it up between innings with his reports from various parts of the ball park.

There’s music of many genres piping through the quality speaker system.

There’s a VIP party deck behind the first-base dugout with customer service. There’s also beer being sold – a traditional staple of watching the national pastime. There’s pre-game batting practice for both teams. There are kids with concession food in hand and smiles on their faces.

Overall, there’s much to like about the Clippers experience.

The team is led by a veteran coaching staff – Walt Gawkowski (head coach) and assistants Brian Wright, Keith Williams and Kyle Baker.

Walt Gawkowski, Pete’s brother and the builder of solid high school baseball programs at North Muskegon and Mona Shores, put the team through one early workout and one exhibition game before the season opener on June 2.

“We’ve brought high level baseball to the area,” said Walt Gawkowski, whose team has been occupying a top-two spot in the league standings all season. “Our goal here is to enhance their skills and play in a competitive environment. This league has been, for the most part, well organized.”

Muskegon’s team is comprised of college players from schools like Muskegon Community College, Grand Valley State and Davenport. South Haven’s Ryan Dorow, the Division 3 Freshman of the Year from Adrian College, also suits up for the Clippers.

The league gives college players a chance to hone their skills. In the past, many of these players would compete in city leagues or other more laid-back summer leagues.

“It’s a good atmosphere for the fans who come out,” said Clippers outfielder Jason Ribecky, who is headed to Grand Valley after starring at Muskegon Catholic and Muskegon Community College. “You get to play with talented guys from other schools and that makes it fun.”

Some other notable area players on the team are Oakridge’s Jamie Potts, Patrick Giddings and Nick Eely, Whitehall pitcher Ryan Butzer, Ravenna pitcher Zach Courtade, Grand Haven pitchers Jordan Anderson and Adam Poel and Muskegon Catholic infielder Connor Seymour.

This year’s league is comprised of the Rapid City Rapids (Grand Rapids), Holland and the Clippers from the west side of the state, along with the Michigan Monarchs, Motor City Pride and Bloomfield Stingers from the metro Detroit area.

Pete Gawkowski said travel is the biggest expense for the club. The schedule has a built-in format of one nine-inning Friday night game with a stay over, followed by a Saturday doubleheader to cut down on the costs.

Friday night games have been the best attended by Clippers’ fans at Marsh Field. A recent Veterans Night game proved to be quite popular with more than 300 fans.

Muskegon is the unofficial attendance leader in the league. There are 30 games in the regular season, with the league champion advancing to Toledo for the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series starting July 31.

Pete  Gawkowski is pleased with the first year of the league and hopes it moves forward.

“We realize this is a first step,” he said. “Next year we’ll try to grow it. The ultimate goal is to get us into the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, grow it and make it viable. So far with the gate receipts and beer sales, it is viable.”

Gawkowski is a key partner in the Lakeshore Baseball Club, which has renovated Marsh Field in recent years and elevated the sport at all levels in town.

Len Piasecki, who serves the Clippers in public relations and team marketing, and Jim Grevel (player development) are the other key partners from Lakeshore Baseball Club.

“Our intent is to have a great place to watch a ball game and have a fun night at the ball park,” Piasecki said. “We’re not at the minor league level yet, but the bar is set high. It is going to take a little while to develop a fan base.”

The team has a small budget and does some advertising, but mainly relies on word of mouth and social media for publicity.

The MSCBL currently is an affiliate of the Great Lakes League, which is an established college summer league with teams from Ohio and Kentucky.

The Great Lakes League also gets some funding from Major League baseball. But for now, Clippers’ officials are enjoying the fruits of a successful first year in a college baseball league.

“There have not been many good places for (college players) to play,” Walt Gawkowski said. “The best head to the Cape Cod League. This is a good alternative for them. This has been fantastic for them.”

For more information on the team: