"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
Cover story from the 2010 Lugnuts magazine:
A look at the Lugnuts' past, present and future
by Jesse Goldberg-Strassler
It’s Lugnuts and it’s official.
The nickname for Lansing’s new minor league baseball team was announced Thursday, drawing both cheers and boos from several hundred onlookers. The name was jeered when it was leaked by the local newspaper but Mayor David Hollister told the crowd to lighten up.
“It’s playful, whimsical, campish and fun, and Lord knows Lansing needs fun,” he said.
So began Chris Christoff’s Detroit Free Press article on Friday, May 25, 1995.
So, too, began the Lugnuts, one of the most successful franchises in the history of Minor League Baseball.
Diamonds and Sultans
The idea of owning a baseball franchise arrived in the form of a friend’s suggestion over dinner in 1992. It hit Tom Dickson like a lightning bolt.
“He knew that I was kind of interested in getting out of corporate America,” Dickson recalled. “He literally said to me, ‘Tom, there’s a minor league baseball team for sale in Iowa and this is what I think you should do.’”
The team was the Waterloo Diamonds, a struggling franchise in the Class-A Midwest League. A number of prospective buyers had lined up, but the team had not yet been sold. The prospect was appetizing.
A lifelong baseball fan from Kansas City, Dickson worked in Chicago for Leo Burnett Advertising, the nation’s largest advertising agency. He went home that night and told his wife, Sherrie Myers, about the idea.
Myers, as it happened, was pregnant at the time.
“She more or less thought I was kind of crazy,” Dickson said with a laugh. “I wasn’t very smart at the time. I was thinking I was going to do it on my own.”
He went into Waterloo and handed over the down payment for the Diamonds in 1993. It was a tenuous time for the couple. Finding investors took months. At last they raised the necessary funds to complete the purchase. Six weeks before Opening Day, disaster struck. The Waterloo City Council raised the lease for Municipal Stadium, the team’s antiquated home field, from $1 to $500,000. The sudden move was thought to be in protest over the sale of the team.
“It came out of nowhere,” said Dickson. “We had a very short time to relocate this team to another market. I called up the mayor of Springfield (Illinois), figuring that there’s some stadium somewhere that no one was using.”
The 1994 season was supposed to have been the 90th anniversary of baseball in Waterloo, Iowa. Instead, the town said farewell to their Diamonds. With the help of Midwest League President George Spelius and League Attorney Dick Nussbaum, the franchise was bound for Illinois’s capital city.
Dickson signed a two-year lease with the Mayor of Springfield and the deal was completed only. A new challenge arose: giving the Waterloo Diamonds a new moniker.
Myers and Dickson took the natural course of action, pulling out their dictionary one night and going through the ‘S’s.
“I would say that I was more hung up on alliteration than Tom,” Myers explained. “He’s more creative, but I love alliteration.”
The word ‘sultan’ caught each of their eyes. Dickson’s mind leapt to the fabled nickname of Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat,” and the Dire Straits single, “The Sultans of Swing.” Myers thought of the marketing possibilities. Jerseys were quickly ordered and the Waterloo Diamonds gained a new identity.
In 1994, the Sultans finished 69-71 but still managed to advance to the Midwest League semifinals. It was a more difficult year outside of the white lines. The franchise struggled to dead last in league attendance and finished the year deep in the red. More troubling, the city refused to sign an agreement for a new stadium.
Tom Dickson saw the writing on the wall. “We did give the city a chance to keep the team if they were interested in building another ballpark. They weren’t, so we knew we had to leave.”
Coming to the World Class City
Once it became decided that his franchise would need to move again, Dickson’s attention was drawn to three potential markets. “One was Dayton, one was northwest Indiana, and the third was Lansing.”
Following up on the promising opportunity in Michigan’s capital city, Dickson gave Mayor David Hollister a call. As it turned out, the city of Lansing had been interested in attracting a minor league baseball team for years, even going so far to construct a blue-ribbon committee working toward that very purpose.
The first meeting between Tom Dickson and David Hollister went superbly though, as Dickson discovered later, it was mostly because the mayor believed that the advertising executive was willing to pay for the stadium all by himself.
“Once [Mayor Hollister] understood how the deal would actually work, he understood,” Dickson said. “He said, ‘Give me six weeks.’ I said, ‘You got it.’”
In those six weeks, Hollister culled together a consortium of mid-Michigan banks and convinced them to bond with the city in order to build the stadium. He called back Dickson and the deal was in place.
The biggest hurdle had been surpassed. Now the smaller hurdles rose up. Five months of confidential negotiations followed between the City of Lansing and Tom Dickson.
“It was an arduous process,” Dickson told the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Freedman for the first Lugnuts magazine cover article. “We had to negotiate everything from amenities, to the payment terms, to who would pay for what, who would put in the desks, who would put in the phones, who would put in the computer systems.”
At last the official contract was finalized with the City of Lansing. It included a 15-year lease, tops in all of the Minor Leagues.
When word reached Springfield that their Sultans were not long for the city, the team’s scant crowds diminished further. The team finished 1995 with a record of 65-74, hemorrhaging money the entire way. A total attendance of fewer than 40,000 came in through the gates at Lanphier Park.
When the season ended, so too did the fleeting history of the Sultans of Springfield.
The Sultans’ new home may have now been in Lansing, but Tom Dickson was not there with them. “I decided there was no way I could leave Leo Burnett at the time and stake our future on Minor League Baseball,” he said. But the team desperately needed someone to run the business in Lansing, and so Dickson went through the potential candidates.
As it turned out, there was an ideal candidate who was both between jobs and had plenty of experience as a startup entrepreneur. His wife.
“The idea of using Sherrie never dawned on me,” Dickson admitted.
“What about me?” Myers remembered asking. “I think this is the right time and place for me.”
Until that point, she had not been a part of the baseball operation other than serving as Dickson’s co-investor. Now she jumped in with both feet, “the first person on site” in Lansing in February of 1995.
“For me, it was natural and something I’d had some experience in,” said Myers. “It was something I knew how to do. I didn’t know the baseball side, but I did know the side of business and sales sides and the influence of marketing.”
Falling back on her entrepreneurial background, Sherrie Myers set about writing the operating and business plans for the new team. From there, she built and trained the staff and planned the sales and retail operations.
A mission statement for the new team was written in the spring of 1995. In part, it read:
“The mission of Lansing Professional Baseball is to provide affordable, innovative entertainment and positively outrageous service to our customers while building a lasting relationship with our community.”
The identity of the company and the ballclub was being formed. To ascend to the next level, the new team needed a name.
Would You Have Preferred Lansing Lumberjox?
There would be no dictionary method this time for Myers and Dickson. They placed a call out to the creative minds around the region, asking for nickname submissions. The response was enormous, with well over 2,000 ideas flooding in.
River Dragons looked to be an early favorite, rising above Ball Hogs, Bullfrogs, Capitals, Capitols, Crabs, Governors, Llamas, Lumberjox, Mudwumps, Spark Plugs, and the Mid-Michigan Mammoths. Artwork was even created for the Lansing River Dragons, but it was vanquished at the last moment and a new nickname was chosen, combining alliteration with fun and a local association.
The team name would be the Lansing Lugnuts.
Word was leaked before the scheduled press conference by the Lansing State Journal, but attendance was hardly tempered.
Tony Scotta’s Lansing State Journal article on the press conference disagreed with Christoff’s estimate, noting that there were “[m]ore than 1,000 people crowded into a portion of Washington Square,” but there was no disagreement as to the reaction that followed.
“Public response to the name was overwhelmingly negative,” wrote the Lansing State Journal’s Bob Allison. “Mayor David Hollister’s office received 125 calls, all against. Fans also blasted the name on local sports talk shows and on TV.”
It was difficult to escape the anger and disappointment caused by the announcement of “Lansing Lugnuts.”
In the LSJ’s opinion section, the discontent rang out loud and clear. Wrote James Palmiter,“Lansing Lugnuts! Give me a break. Whoever chose that name is a sadist with no civic pride.” H.R. Smith penned, “World Class City, no way…. What a dismal name was chosen.” And nine-year-old Brandon Dimitrie of Sycamore Elementary chimed in, “I don’t like the name. Everybody hates it.”
A June poll of 400 registered Lansing voters found that 58% disapproved of the Lugnuts nickname, compared to 28% in favor. The LSJ noted with a tinge of hopefulness that the team’s nickname could be changed in three years.
Defenders of the team interjected their own opinions, adding in alternately graceful and technical responses.
“To all of those who hate the name ‘Lugnuts,’ ” Karen Service wrote, “I have one thing to say… Lighten up!”
“The ‘Lugnuts’? I love it!” wrote Herm Bushnell. “Lugnuts have to be tough. What Lugnut hasn’t taken a beating from the weather and the improper application of tools. Yet they are expected to give years of dependable service. I hope Lansing’s baseball team can live up to its great name.”
“I’ll tell ya, friends, I love baseball as much as anyone,” Bob Roth wrote. “Frankly, I’m looking for places to wear my bright red Lugnuts cap in 1995. In 1996, my family and I will see you at the ballpark.”
It still seemed far too early to be talking about the ballpark. After all, it would be several months until construction began on Michigan Avenue between Cedar and Larch Streets in downtown Lansing.
The Stadium District
Bids came in to build the new stadium and HNTB Corporation, based out of Kansas City, was selected as the architect and engineer. Clark Construction managed the project.
Ground was broken in September 1995 to the delight of an optimistic David Hollister.
“This is more than a baseball endeavor,” the mayor proclaimed. “We hope to change the culture of the city…. By opening Minor League Baseball two blocks from the Capitol, with most of the games played in the evening and on weekends, when downtown is mostly vacant, we’re trying to reverse the downward cycle.
“Already property values around the stadium are going up, new restaurants are opening, and businesses are beginning to extend their hours. We’ve galvanized the community and created a sense of believing in itself again – that it can achieve an extraordinary goal.”
The cost of the ballpark was $12.7 million. Other numbers dealing with the construction were even more staggering. The new stadium required 70,000 bricks, 2,700 gallons of paint, 6,500 cubic yards of concrete, 568 pieces of glass, 400 tons of steel, and between 60,000 to 70,000 hours of labor. 50,000 cubic yards of dirt was excavated in order to shape the stadium bowl below street level, with the earth used resourcefully to fill a gravel pit near U.S. 27. 17,500 square yards of Kentucky bluegrass sod from Marlette, Michigan, and 4,500 tons of base soil were brought in for the field.
As Oldsmobile Park came into focus on Michigan Avenue, Mayor Hollister’s vision for the Stadium District businesses was also coming true. New businesses sprang up, including restaurants, museums, a popular sports bar, an art gallery, a coffee shop, and a piano bar.
Within a year, an Economic Development Corp. study showed that the new stadium had brought 140 new jobs and produced $4-5 million.
By the time the inaugural season rolled around, more and more baseball fans were starting to go nuts for the new Lansing minor league team.
The Prime Sports Network, based out of Dallas, adopted the Lugnuts as their “official” baseball team. Articles on the Lugnuts appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated. The team was even mentioned by David Letterman on the “Late Show.”
In January, the first manager of the Lugnuts, Brian Poldberg, received a hint of the anticipation for his brand new team. As described by the LSJ’s Joanne Gerstner, “He was on a Caribbean cruise attempting to escape the cold weather of his hometown of Carter Lake, Iowa. Something very familiar caught his eye as he was disembarking in Ocho Rios, Jamaica – a Lansing Lugnuts hat.”
On March 10, 1996, the Lugnuts placed single-game tickets on sale at Lansing Mall. “Lugnuts officials said more than 500 people were lined up outside the Nuts and Bolts store when it opened at 7 a.m.,” read David Wahlberg’s LSJ front page story. “The human chain strung past four stores down to Hudson’s at the end of the mall wing. And the line stayed long most of the day: the store sold more than 4,485 tickets before closing at 9 p.m…. The average wait for tickets: 3 ½ hours, said Rory Weber, assistant ticket sales manager.”
Before Opening Day arrived, over 2,300 season ticket packages and more than 410,000 tickets were sold.
The Lugnuts were sizzling hot, ranking in the top 25 among all minor league teams in retail sales. They would rise much higher before the year was out.
All over the nation, people were taking heed of the fledgling company’s success. At the end of March, Sherrie Myers and the Lugnuts received top honors at the 1996 Positive Performer Awards in Orlando for excellence “in developing and maintaining customer relationships.”
Then April arrived, at long last.
The first official game to be played at Oldsmobile Park did not involve the Lugnuts.
It was held April 3, pitting the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State University Spartans. The collegiate affair turned into a thriller, won by the visitors from Ann Arbor in 10 innings.
Now it was time for the professionals to move into their new home.
On Opening Day, April 5, 1996, the fans packed their new stadium to cheer on their home team against the Rockford Cubbies. It was the first game played by a professional team representing Michigan’s capital city in 55 years.
The starting Lugnuts lineup included future Major League All-Star outfielder Carlos Beltran, then a baby-faced 18-year-old. Big Lug arrived in style, showing up via a helicopter that touched down on the center field grass. The outcome coincidentally was the same as the college game preceding it, a tenth-inning loss for the fan favorites.
It was the start of a rollercoaster season, and the Lugnuts faithful exuberantly jumped on for the ride, producing sellout after sellout. In June, supporters donated enough money to mount a 5,000 pound stainless steel nut atop the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s brick smokestack located across the street from Olds Park.
Perhaps the most interesting of developments of the first season was the growth of a fierce rivalry with the Lugnuts’ geographical neighbor in the Midwest League, the West Michigan Whitecaps.
The Whitecaps had set the Class-A attendance record in 1994 with 475,212 in their first season, topping themselves in 1995 with 507,989 total patrons. No team in all of Single-A or Double-A was close; the Whitecaps ranked only with the Triple-A behemoths in drawing sizable crowds all season long. Now they had competition in the attendance race.
Lansing’s proud fanbase set the pace early, averaging well over 7,000 fans per game and drawing standing room only crowds of well over 10,000 during weekend affairs. West Michigan countered by opening up outfield bleacher seats on July 27, bringing Old Kent Park’s capacity above 10,000.
On August 16, Grand Rapids Press Sports Editor Bob Becker fanned the flames between the two fanbases, observing, “Sure the Lugnuts drew a lot of people. They should draw a lot of people! What else is there to do in Lansing?... They’ll draw 500,000 people because their only competition is the annual mid-summer bass fishing tournament…. Actually, I feel sorry for them, as I would for anybody else as culturally challenged…. West Michigan owns the Midwest League. We can’t stand around and let some refugee from a tool box finish ahead of us in anything.”
Less than a week later, on August 22, the Lugnuts became the first Class-A team to ever break 500,000 in its first season. The franchise would finish the season with both a playoff berth and an attendance of 538,326. The Whitecaps narrowly topped them, drawing a total attendance of 547,401.
As it so happened, the battle between the two teams was not fated to end there. The first round of the Midwest League playoffs pitted the ‘Nuts and the ‘Caps, a battle of Lansing and Grand Rapids. It finished in similar dramatic fashion to the attendance race, going to West Michigan in three games.
A coda to the inaugural campaign: the Lugnuts finished fourth in total Minor League attendance and second in a Baseball America poll on favorite Minor League nicknames, and Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers were named the 1996 Michigan Entrepreneurs of the Year.
Change and Success
Pessimists who believed the Lugnuts’ booming success would quickly fade were soon proven mistaken.
For 1997, almost 1,900 new seats were installed down the first and third base lines; two new concession areas, the Bullpen Bar & Grille and the Pit Stop, were created; and the Lugnut fountain in front of the stadium was built thanks to Lugnut Charities.
On the field, the season could not have been scripted any better. The Lugnuts attracted a total attendance over 523,000, making them the first franchise to draw half a million fans in each of their first two seasons. In July, Olds Park hosted the Midwest League All-Star Game, drawing a league record 10,060 for the midsummer classic. And in September, a 69-68 Lugnuts team gutted its way to the Midwest League Championship, topping Kane County in five games to seize the title.
Following the season, it was revealed that the Lugnuts had finished first among all teams in the Minor Leagues in retail and merchandise sales, topping several Major League teams, as well.
The 1998 season saw the opening of the brand new “Big Lug’s Dugout” for kids, while a handful of more changes arrived in 1999. The Lugnuts changed affiliations to the Chicago Cubs; opened up the Tailgate Terrace in right field; introduced Kids Days on Sunday home games; and held the very first Lugnut Charities Night. In July, the Lugnuts hosted their second Midwest League All-Star Game. In September, Olds Park welcomed its two millionth fan.
Sherrie Myers received a special personal honor during the 1999 season. She was interviewed by Ernst & Young’s Gregory Ericksen and given her own personal spotlight profile in Ericksen’s book, Women Entrepreneurs Only: 12 Women Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of their Success.
In 2000, the Centerfield Deck was renovated and renamed Gasoline Alley. The Lugnuts also began hanging commemorative banners in the concourse celebrating the success of Lugnuts alumni in the Major Leagues. At the time, 11 Lugnuts had made the Majors. Since, then 61 more players have found their way.
In 2001, Sherrie Myers and Tom Dickson took over the concessions operations in the ballpark, presenting a different, diverse ballpark menu. A mural was also displayed, highlight the 100th Anniversary of Minor League Baseball and the history of Oldsmobile.
More innovations have followed in the ensuing years. In 2005, a brand new LED scoreboard was introduced alongside a new parent club, the Toronto Blue Jays. 2007 saw the birth of the Crosstown Showdown, the annual exhibition between the Lugnuts and Michigan State Spartans. The Clubhouse opened in 2008, an upscale suite-level bar on the third base side. In 2009, the Lugnuts presented their Food Stimulus Plan, comprising Dollar Dog Tuesdays, Kids Eat Free on Sundays, and Oldsmobile Park Value Meals.
Perhaps the biggest change for fans during the 2010 season was announced in late February. Entering their fifteenth year in existence, the Lugnuts would no longer be playing in Oldsmobile Park. Instead, they would be playing in Cooley Law School Stadium.
There are other new attractions coming this season. Every Labatt Blue Light Thirsty Thursday now features a free postgame concert, with the finest talents in the mid-Michigan area coming to the capital city to take the stage. The Lugnuts Hall of Fame has also been created, with the inaugural class of inductees decided via fan vote. The induction will take place before the Lugnuts’ April 14th home opener, with the three players’ plaques hung prominently in the stadium.
Since developing the Lansing Lugnuts, the reputations of Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers have grown enormously throughout the world of baseball. The couple runs both Professional Sports Marketing and Professional Sports Catering. They have helped develop nine stadiums in pro baseball and they run the food service operations for seven Minor League franchises.
All the while, the Lansing Lugnuts reside close to the hearts of both Dickson and Myers.
“The biggest surprise to me,” Myers said, “is that we connect with so many different kinds of people in different ways. There are even people who come up to me openly admitting that they didn’t like the name at first and now they’re bragging about it. They stand taller because they’re one of 160 cities in the country with a Minor League Baseball team.”
“I knew [the Lugnuts were] going to be successful the first year,” said Dickson. “The first three years even. I don’t think I ever knew it was going to become such a part of the community. Now it really seems to me that we’re a vital part of the mid-Michigan community.”
His pride is evident, the same pride demonstrated across the region by mid-Michiganders with regard to their home team.
The furor over the nickname is long past. The doubts have faded.
15 years in, approaching the franchise’s six millionth fan and one thousandth victory, the cry of “Go Nuts!” still rings out loud and clear.