"Serving up Success," from the 2011 Magazine
"Second to None," from the 2011 Magazine
"15th Season," from the 2010 Magazine
"A Rivalry is Born," from the 2008 Magazine
"Mark Prior on the Mound," from the 2005 Magazine
"Seventh Heaven," from the 2004 Magazine
"The Comeback Kids," from the 1998 Magazine
"A Season to Remember," from the 1997 Magazine
"They won. They lost. They battled back." from the 1997 Magazine
"How the Lugnuts came to Lansing," from the 1996 Magazine
From the 1997 Lugnuts magazine:
A Season to Remember
It was 1996. Olds Park went up.
And the Lugnuts moved into the heart of Lansing.
by Sue Nichols
When Oldsmobile Park began rising up out of the ashes of a Lansing stricken by a mid-life crisis, it was easy to see how a baseball team might revitalize the downtown.
Maybe what we didn't expect was that its impact would gallop right off the balance sheets and tax rolls and into our hearts. Then again, baseball lore is full of miracles - long-dead players emerging from cornfields, long-lost teams winning pennants. Why not here in Lansing? Why not the story of a baseball team that came to town and not only gave it an economic lift, but wove itself into the fabric of the area's life?
In the premiere season of the Lansing Lugnuts, miracles have been seen in a once seamy section of Michigan Avenue. Where once there was little but a few dingy bars, some adult entertainment - and we don't mean opera - and vacant buildings now perches a gleaming testament to family entertainment. Sit behind home plate, let the sun beat down on your forehead, munch a diesel dog, and just think about where you are.
And how you probably wouldn't have been in the neighborhood five years ago. How nobody around you would have, either. And how you certainly wouldn't all be grinning like third graders granted extra recess.
Yep. You're sitting in a miracle - 1990s middle-America style. There's lights, there's music (organ, not harp, but stay with us here). There's an omnipresent voice. And there's more. There's the miracle of teenagers willingly entering a public place with their parents. Miracles like four generations of a family all enjoying the same activity in the same place. Miracles like a taste of old triumphs coming back, like the pain of a loss easing for a few happy moments. Miracles, Lugnuts-style.
The Lugnuts may have made Stuart Dunnings III cool to his daughters. They're 14 and 11, so maybe this is a miracle, too. Dunnings, a Lansing resident who also is Ingham County's prosecutor, is a basball fan. He's tried for years to pass this love on to his girls, with pretty tepid results. "I have to admit they've never shown any real interest in the game," Dunnings says. "We'd go to softball games, we'd go to MSU games. They'd go, and when my oldest started playing herself, it was OK. Just OK.
"But then I bought season tickets to the Lugnuts." Soon, Dad's passion - a quaint quirk up until now - was deeply cool. Then there was that first game when Dad, seated across from three wily fellow barristers, managed to snag a pop fly they flubbed, and ended up with the first Lugnuts t-shirt ever to be catapulted into the crowds. Instant celebrity was his. The t-shirt wasn't for long. It fell quickly into the hands of his daughters, tepid fans no more.
"They've started fighting to go to the Lugnuts games," Dunnings says, the satisfaction fairly oozing out of his measured sentences. "It's a good thing for a family to do. It's clean, people behave themselves, the ushers are nice."
So nice, that when he allowed the 14-year-old to attend a game with a friend, the ushers the next day would report to him on his daughter's behavior.
There's no small irony in this anecdote - in the 500 block of Michigan Avenue, the behavior Lansing Lugnuts personnel have time to comment on is that of a polite 14-year-old. A Lugnuts game has managed to become a place of extended family. Progress is measured in more than bricks and mortar.
Welcome to baseball Lugnuts-style, a mix of Class A, farm-team ball, first-class customer service, and marketing savvy. The Lugnuts manage to combine the magic of baseball for the sports enthusiast with the glitz of vaudeville and the neighborliness of Mayberry. And with one season under its cap, it has worked. It's worked for the team, which saw itself break into the big leagues of attendance by becoming the only Class A team ever to draw more than 500,00 fans in an inaugural season of play (538,326 to be exact), and which watched its merchandising efforts - propelled by a catchy name and endearing purple mascot - skyrocket.
"We put in many hours preparing to greet new fans and treat them the right way from day one," says Lugnuts co-owner Tom Dickson. "We always believed if we did our job well, the Lugnuts would succeed. All the same, we were amazed by the number of people who turned out."
It's worked for the city, which leases $12.7-million stadium for 15 years in an agreement that gives it a share of the team's success - varying percentages of all revenue the team receives. The city's first annual bond payment of $1.2 million was covered in just 10 games in to the season. And that's before the weather even got warm.
The community has even made its skyline go nuts. Last June, a 5,000 pound stainless steel nut was mounted on top of the Board of Water and Light's brick smokestack on Cedar Street across from the park. The $34,000 it cost was donated by Lugnuts supporters. Admittedly, it's a wacky monument of affection, but at least there's people to see it. There's people downtown now. Lots of them, strolling around well into the evening and on weekends after the suit crowd has gone home. In the Lugnuts' wake has come a sports bar/restaurant, a piano bar, an art gallery, and a coffee shop.
New business has meant rising property values and tax bills on area parcels. Across the street, Rum Runners/Dueling Pianos Bar saw its site value increased by 464 percent. The Nuthouse and Brewbakers taxable value increased 39 percent.
A study done last year by the Economic Development Corp. showed that Olds Park generated $4-5 million and created 140 jobs. Existing businesses also benefit from a newly booming downtown, and the lure doesn't end with the baseball season. The restaurants are packed on winter nights, the parking lots are full even when the crack of a bat is only a fond memory.
Lisa and Patrick Reed of Grand Ledge certainly weren't hanging around downtown Lansing in their pre-Lugnuts life. They were busy juggling the demands of a family that includes a 17-year-old, a 13-year-old, and a toddler. But with the Lugnuts came a solution to the problem of how to economically entertain an entertain family. "We had two season tickets, and then we'd buy tickets for the two older kids," Lisa Reed says. "They'd sit somewhere else and I wouldn't have to feel uncomfortable about it at all. There's a real sense of community there. We met really nice people. It was so relaxed."
Lynda Coulston of Okemos agrees that downtown Lansing has become a family magnet. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to Lansing," says Lynda Coulston. "I feel so safe and we all just love it."
"All" to Coulston means four generations of family - from her 3-year-old grandson, Zachary, to her in-laws from South Carolina. All generations find a common entertainment ground in Oldsmobile Park. The Coulstons share one of the park's 26 luxury suite. They gave up on Major League ball years ago, as costs and inconvenience spiraled out of sight. Downtown Lansing also wasn't much of a family destination - till the Minor Leagues came to town.
Dorothy Joseph is welcoming the return of downtown as a destination for fun, even if that welcome is bittersweet. Joseph has lived in Lansing 40 years. She and her husband, William, used to take the kids shopping downtown - always a happy event.
Years later, she and her husband started trekking downtown again. He was moving much slower, ravaged by heart disease. But twice a week trips to watch Oldsmobile Park bloom were a source of joy. He made it to see the green grass go down on the field, but died in July 1995. Her son John died two months later of leukemia. Dorothy finds comfort now in the stadium, in the happy families that flock there. The games are a way of healing, of going on. She bought an engraved paving brick her husband coveted emblazoned with both their names. It's a reminder that he is there with her.
"The Lugnuts have helped us all out a lot," Joseph says. "It has been a bright spot."
If the public has embraced the Lugnuts in a bear hug, it's hardly a one-sided love fest. From the start, the Lugnuts organization proved itself ready to actively give back to the community. Lugnut Charities was formed to support activities and programs in the city. It will pitch in to help build an interactive water fountain in front of the stadium in time for the '98 season - a merry geometric mix of liquid rods, jets, and puffs of water that invites children of all ages to play. The fountain has received tremendous support, garnering funding from the Oldsmobile Classic Youth Charities Fund, corporate sponsorship, and donations of labor from local skilled building trades. The Board of Water and Light has agreed to maintain it.
The fountain also will be a symbol of what's made the Lugnuts work. The fact that everyone has managed to get on board to do the right thing for Lansing. "The fountain will provide fun and excitement for everyone who sees it," says Lansing Mayor David Hollister. "It's another meaningful example of successful public and private partnership."
Lugnut Charities will join with the Lansing Fund to support other community charities. "We know that the success of the Lugnuts is due to the incredible support of the Lansing community," says Lugnuts co-owner Sherrie Myers. "Lugnut Charities is one small way to show our appreciation to the people of mid-Michigan."
The fountain also is playing up another big success story: the kid factor. The Lugnuts experience is one that adults can love, and can share with their kids, guilt-free. And it's good for them. There's the relentless fun aspect. It's a chance to learn baseball up close in a stadium where there's not a bad seat in the house, and where tickets are cheap enough that families can return again and again. Big Lug - cooler than Barney will ever dream of being - does the twist. T-shirts fly through the air. Best of all, Mom and Dad lose that squinty-eyed anxiety look.
One Lugnuts dad points out it's also a good way for kids to appreciate sport - not sport for big bucks or for celebrity, but sport for the love of the game, and for living out dreams.
Richard Kerbawy lives in Haslett with his wife, two sons, and daughter. All the kids are athletes, so they appreciate the effort that's being poured out on the field. "In that stadium, you have a chance to see guys who are not at the peak of their games, but they're really working on it," Kerbawy says. "We want our kids to appreciate what it takes to accomplish a dream."
Benny Huerta's view of Lugnuts ball spans further back in history, back to his baseball-steeped youth. The retired General Motors worker has lived in Lansing 50 years. He once played second base in the Hispanic traveling leagues, but he gave up on baseball over the years. It got too commercial for his taste, too expensive. "It was all just business, the pro teams, they don't play for the sport any more." So he carried it in his heart, but not on his sleeve. Then here comes the Lugnuts, and he sees again the passion for the sport, for the dream.
Now he treks down to the games in his Lugnuts jacket, t-shirt, hat. He's back in the game and his town is a baseball town again. "Lansing should have done this 40 years ago," Huerta says.
First rule of baseball: Don't second-guess the miracles.
Sue Clark, science writer for MSU, can recite the
1968 Detroit Tigers'
pennant-winning lineup from memory. She lives in Grand Ledge.