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Long awaited upgrades will give new life to historic Grand Rapids ballpark

A fundraising campaign is about to begin for Sullivan Field, formerly known as Valley Field, on the west side of Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I stopped by Sullivan Field on a beautiful fall afternoon to get some extra footage of the ballpark for this story. There was a man standing along the outside fence of the ballpark looking in. As I approached, he turned to me.

"What can you tell me about this ballpark?" he asked.

I regurgitated as many facts as I could remember from the interviews I had done a few days prior. It was built in the 1930s. Baseball legends played here - people like Satchel Paige and Kirk Gibson. It's named after longtime West Michigan businessman and philanthropist Bob Sullivan.

The man seemed impressed. He told me he's from Seattle and he was in town on business. He had driven past the ballpark and was so drawn to it that he pulled over and decided to take a closer look.

Sullivan Field, originally named Valley Field, has a way of doing that to people.

"It's a very unique ballpark, because of the wooden grandstands and the fact that it's plopped in the middle of a neighborhood as opposed to out in the suburbs somewhere. It doesn't even have a parking lot," said Paul Soltysiak.

Paul grew up in the neighborhood and he's the vice president of a group called "Fans of Valley Field." They're largely responsible for the restoration and care of Sullivan Field. We last talked to him about the park in June of 2021 when decades old artifacts were dug up from underneath the grandstands.

Since then, a lot has happened at Sullivan Field. There's a brand-new scoreboard in right field. There's a banner in the grandstands honoring the Grand Rapids Black Sox team. There's a stage along the third base line where bands perform concerts.

And that's part of the vision for this place. "Fans of Valley Field" want Sullivan Field to be about much more than baseball.

"We started talking about, hey, why can't we activate this? You know, it's a city park, so with the city's help, and a lot of help from our volunteer crew, why can't we have people come here and experience it for other things like live music, chili cook offs, punt pass and kick? Things like that," Paul said.

Paul wants to activate Sullivan Field the same way the old West Leonard School was activated when it became an event venue called Leona Road. So, he got Leona Road's architect involved in the ballpark.

"I grew up on the west side. So there's a certain kind of culture here that we just all have. When I saw Paul working on the Valley Field project, it just brought back a lot of memories," said Mike Corby who serves as the president of Integrated Architecture.

"We're trying to bring it to new life. We're not looking to try to make it a super fancy ballpark. We're trying to kind of keep the essence that makes it what it is, and maybe bring it so that it can accommodate games better, and spectators better, but we don't want to lose that essence. That essence of the park is just so special."

The infield needs some work. So does the roof. Mike anticipates that the chain link fence on top of the roof that has served as a stop for foul balls will come down. Paul says he also wants to tear down the current above-ground dugouts, which obstruct views from certain parts of the grandstand. They'll be replaced with true, below-ground dugouts.

In the long term, "Fans of Valley Field" also has some other big dreams about how the ballpark could become even more of a community space.

"We'd have to phase in eventually, but we would like to see a pavilion slash ice rink here, sometime in the future," said Paul, who noted that there used to be an ice rink at the park when he was a kid and many neighbors support the idea of the rink making a return.

"And it's our hope to someday even have a museum here."

All those big ideas are going to take some big funding to come to fruition. That's why "Fans of Valley Field" is embarking on a fundraising campaign starting with its first-ever gala on Thursday, Nov. 10 at Leona Road. 

Tickets for the gala are now available online. The event will feature a full bar, live music, food, and a special appearance by the 1968 World Series trophy won by the Detroit Tigers.

"That should be a blast. The attire is "baseball casual." It's not going to be a formal steak dinner. It's going to be chili dogs from the old Red Hot Inn. Chili dogs and some other nice appetizers and such. It's just going to be fun," Paul said.

Ultimately, Paul and Mike want to improve a ballpark they've loved for most of their lives and make it a place other people can fall in love with too.

"What's really cool is when you see people who haven't been here in a while, and they're like "Oh my gosh! Look at this place! It looks so cool," Paul said.

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