By Tom Kendra
MUSKEGON–During the fall, historic Hackley Stadium and other high school football stadiums are the focal point of Muskegon-area sports.
That shifts downtown during the winter months to Trinity Health Arena – home of the Lumberjacks (hockey), Ironmen (football) and Risers (soccer).
But when the weather breaks and the school year gives way to summer, venerable Marsh Field – the iconic, 107-year-old gem on the corner of Laketon and Peck – is THE place to be in town, thanks to Muskegon Clippers baseball.
“There’s nothing better than seeing the stands full and people having a good time at the ballpark,” said Clippers General Manager Walt Gawkowski, who served as the team’s on-field manager for the first five seasons. “It’s a laid-back, fun environment and some pretty darn good baseball.”
The Clippers are back for their seventh season at Marsh Field in the now 13-team Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League. Muskegon will play 19 home games and 39 total games, with opening night against the Jet Box Baseball Club (Macomb) at Marsh Field on June 6 and the regular-season finale a doubleheader against the Lima Locos (Ohio) on July 23.
The organization’s short-term goals include making the playoffs, which means finishing either first or second in the North Division, while attracting more fans to Marsh Field – which has a current capacity of 800.
The Clippers have certainly done their part to make it affordable, with $5 still the highest ticket price. Tickets are just $3 for students and those 65 and older, $2 for kids ages 5 to 12 and free for those age 5 and under.
“We’re not out here to make a bunch of money,” said Gawkowski, who handles most of the club’s day-to-day club operations along with his older brother and team owner Pete Gawkowski. “It would be nice to break even. We just want people to enjoy baseball in Muskegon, that’s all.”
The club’s longer-term goal is to attract more sponsors and patrons to help raise money to refurbish Marsh Field for generations to come.
The Clippers finished 17-21 last summer, four games out of a playoff spot in the first year for Coach Logan Fleener, who is back.
One of the big issues was a lack of power, which was a main focus as the club built its roster for this year.
Among the big bats heading to Muskegon this summer is first baseman Aidan Arbogast, a 6-5, 220-pounder who played this spring at Kellogg Community College, batting .346 with seven home runs and 60 RBIs to earn JUCO All-American honors.
Manning the other corner of the infield will be Ryar Rinehart, a 6-0, 210-pound third baseman from Grand Rapids West Catholic, who was the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association player of the year this spring as a freshman.
“We have some guys who can change the game with one swing, which we’ve been missing,” said Gawkowski. “Our home run production was really down last year. We need to leave the park a little more.”
Aaron Piasecki, a prep standout at Mona Shores who now plays at Kellogg Community College, brings a local flavor and a solid glove and bat as the expected starter at second base.
The Clips should also be strong behind the plate with catcher Jabin Bates from Grand Rapids Catholic Central, who now plays at Lansing Community College. The 28-player roster also includes outfielder Nicolas Hawkins, who is originally from Australia.
While Gawkowski said this year’s roster should be one of the best offensive teams the Clippers have had, ultimately pitching will tell the story.
“We are still searching for a couple more arms, because you can never have enough,” said Gawkowki, whose pitchers will be led for the second-straight year by pitching coach Dion Felger.
The roster includes four returnees from a year ago, which is rare in the GLSCL. Those back in Muskegon are pitchers Ben Alderson and Daniel Gutierrez, shortstop Stoney Smith and outfielder Colin Cornwell, who was one of the team’s leading hitters last summer.
Clippers players, who are all on college baseball rosters or have signed with Division I schools, will arrive in town on June 1. The team will practice on June 2-3 and then have a home exhibition game on June 4 against the Manistee Saints, leading up to the June 6 opener.
Back in 2010, Marsh Field had fallen into utter disrepair – dominated by weeds and decay – and was barely worthy of hosting any type of baseball game.
That was a travesty for the Gawkowski brothers and a group of other local baseball enthusiasts, which included, among others, Jim Grevel and Len Piasecki – grandfather of incoming Clippers infielder Aaron Piasecki.
That group signed an agreement with the City of Muskegon to handle the maintenance of the field, dugouts and seating area at Marsh Field.
Since then, those individuals have given a significant portion of their lives to the restoration of Marsh Field, generally recognized as the home of baseball in Muskegon. Marsh has been home to two minor league baseball teams – the original Muskegon Clippers (a New York Yankees farm team) and the Muskegon Red (a Detroit Tigers farm team) – as well as the Muskegon Lassies of the All-American Girls Professional League, dramatized in the movie “A League of Their Own.”
Pete Gawkowski was honored with the Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame’s Distinguished Service Award in 2012 for his work at Marsh Field. The only Clippers staff member who is paid for their field maintenance work is Pete’s son, Peter Gawkowski, who is in his 10th year as the head groundskeeper.
“We all do a lot out here, but nobody more than my brother Pete,” said Walt Gawkowski, 69, who is three years younger than Pete. “He has given so much of his time and money, just for the satisfaction of seeing kids playing baseball and fans enjoying baseball.”
The result of the group’s efforts is a very clean and comfortable stadium, with an impeccable playing surface.
The current seating configuration has 128 chair-back seats, room for about 40 people on a party deck, bleacher seating for 500 and room for another 100 or so people on benches, picnic tables and standing-room-only.
However, a closer examination shows 107-year-old concrete below the dugouts and grandstands which is starting to crumble. In addition, seating could be greatly improved and expanded by adding more intimate, box seats behind home plate, additional bleachers and one or two more party decks.
Such changes would also put the team in position to play in a higher league, such as the Prospect League.
Plans are in the works to possible launch a capital campaign to raise money to restore and refurbish Marsh Field in phases, Gawkowski said.
The Clippers, who are a non-profit, 501c3 organization, are always looking for sponsors and patrons to offset their many expenses. Those who would like to help the cause are urged to visit the team’s Web site at muskegonclippers.com, or better yet according to Gawkowski, come out to a game, take in the environment and talk with team officials.
“We want everyone in town to come to a game and see what we’re trying to do for Muskegon,” said Gawkowski. “We aren’t getting any younger. Our goal is to get things set up so that people will be enjoying baseball right here, right in the heart of Muskegon, long after we’re gone.”