GRAND RAPIDS –

Jessica Boullion
Rich Maloney has continued to bring Michigan to Grand Rapids. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

Last Tuesday night, the Michigan baseball team met Notre Dame in a familiar, yet unfamiliar, ballpark.

That sentence sounds confusing, I know. But give me a minute, and I’ll explain. You see, the game wasn’t played in South Bend or Ann Arbor. Instead, for the 11th time in the last 12 years, the two storied schools faced off in what is dubbed as the “Baseball Bash” at Fifth Third Ballpark in Grand Rapids.

As a Grand Rapids native, I’ve always known about the game but I’ve never attended. But on Tuesday night, I decided to venture out to the home of the West Michigan Whitecaps (a Detroit Tigers’ minor-league affiliate) and watch the Wolverines battle an old foe in Notre Dame.

Both teams came into the game with more than 30 wins on the year, a chance to win their respective conferences and a shot at making an NCAA Regional.

The game would have been attractive enough with just those storylines. But for me, the fact that the game was being played in Grand Rapids proved to be the icing on the cake.

Even though the Wolverines gutted out a 3-1 win in less than ideal playing conditions, the real victory for the university came with the opportunity to showcase itself to West Michigan.

Stuck halfway between Detroit and Chicago, Grand Rapids gets dismissed by many as a small-time, second-rate city. But in reality, it’s just a city lacking a true sports identity. Chicago has the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and the Cubs/White Sox. Detroit has the Lions, Pistons, Red Wings and Tigers. Both cities have Big Ten universities within a 45-minute drive from their respective downtowns.

The Grand Rapids area doesn’t have a Division I university or any big league teams that call it home. (The closest Big Ten school to Grand Rapids is the sad excuse for a university known as Michigan State.) I’ve even had people tell me that I couldn’t call myself a fan of any of the Detroit teams because Grand Rapids is too far away.

I’ll admit it’s not the best city in the world or even comparable to much larger cities such as Chicago or Detroit. But it still has its merits. And as the second-largest city in Michigan, it can’t be dismissed as just a gathering place for farmers. I even bought the subpar EA Sports Arena Football 2006 just to own a videogame with Grand Rapids in it.

And here’s why it’s so important that the “Baseball Bash” continues to come to Fifth Third Ballpark.

For most of the Grand Rapids community, attending a Michigan sporting event is a daylong trip. With roughly a two-hour drive both ways, those who want to go to the Big House or Crisler Arena have to make the effort to travel across the state to watch the Wolverines.

But once a year, Michigan athletics come to them.

Sure, there has been a hockey NCAA regional and the Women’s Big Ten tournament. But those events came and went. The Michigan baseball team has faithfully returned every year.

And even though this year’s game was the lowest-scoring contest in “Baseball Bash” history, it still gave Grand Rapids a chance to enjoy the spotlight. For an area that lacks a true major-college affiliate, Michigan coach Rich Maloney and the Wolverines gave the scattered Michigan fans in West Michigan a chance to come out to the ballpark and enjoy a Wolverine victory, especially one over a rival like Notre Dame.

The win was an exciting one, and the Wolverines put on a show for the Grand Rapids area.

First baseman Nate Recknagel hit an RBI double in the first and a homerun in the sixth inning. Starting pitcher Michael Powers threw seven innings of one-run ball and put the Irish down in order in five of them. And West Michigan witnessed it firsthand.

I’ve been told that people from Grand Rapids suffer from short-person syndrome. When confronted with that theory, I had to agree. Any chance I get, I stand up for the city I’ve hailed as home for the 20 years of my life.

And if you still think Grand Rapids is the 5-foot-2 distant cousin to the 6-foot-5 kids like Detroit and Chicago, I don’t care. I’ll just be in my room building the Grand Rapids Rampage into a powerhouse in my new video game.

– Wright can be reached at kpwr@umich.edu.

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