April 8 2009 12:00 AM

Olds park, Lugnuts offer more than baseball downtown

One week before the Lansing Lugnuts’ Opening Day showdown with the Fort Wayne Tin Caps, Oldsmobile Park was getting a last minute tune-up. The walls lining the suites were polka-dotted with spackle, waiting for a swipe of sandpaper and fresh coat of paint before the suite owners return to settle in and watch the Toronto Blue Jays Single A affiliate kick off the season. In the clubhouse, home and away jerseys, jackets, and other uniform components were stacked on tables along the walls. Two racks held pair after pair of pants, lined-up so the dominant stripe down the side of the leg created a sort of optical illusion. All that was missing were the players, due to arrive this week.

There was an air of anticipation, like an orchestra tuning up in the pit before opening night. Out on the field, the groundskeeper checked the grass and rallied all hands to roll out the infield tarp before the storm clouds trotted in. Michigan’s weather isn’t always agreeable with baseball, especially in April, and the grounds crew works hard to make sure the field is ready and the game goes on. If the weather cooperates, anyone driving down Michigan Avenue Thursday evening will see swarms of fans lining up at the box office to buy tickets or at the gates to get into the ballpark. With any luck, the lines will snake past the statues anchored out front.

The park takes up every bit of land allotted it, spreading from Michigan Avenue to Shiawassee Street and Cedar Street to Larch Street. But instead of blocking the views of the more well-known buildings downtown — the Capitol, Boji Tower, etc. — the ballpark sort of slinks down into the earth, a subtle hat-tip to the skyline and the city. The city owns the ballpark, which cost just upward of $12 million to complete. The now defunct Oldsmobile division of General Motors plunked down the cash for the naming rights.

During a top-to-bottom tour of the park, the team’s assistant general manager, Nick Grueser, said the spot where the stadium has hunkered down didnt start as a field of dreams. Well, it depends on what you dream about; Grueser said the lot was home to an "adult store." In fact, the whole city block was a place Grueser said hes been told, "You wouldnt want to walk down."

Husband and wife team Tom Dickson and Sherrie Myers bought the Waterloo, Iowa, Single A club in 1993, moved the team to Springfield, Ill., for 1994 and ‘95, (where the team played as the Sultans) and then dropped anchor in Lansing in 1996 for the Lugnuts’ inaugural year. But why Lansing?

"Economic development was the No. 1 reason for the move to Lansing," said Grueser, looking out onto the field from a window seat in the owners suite. He recounts then-mayor David Hollisters support for the project and work shepherding it through the City Council. At the time, Grueser said, there was no other real entertainment venue in the city.

Thats right: For all the baseball the ballpark offers — a sort of minor league precursor to Detroit’s Comerica Park, with lawn seats, great views and a cozy, get-toknow-your-neighbor seating arrangement — what’s being sold here is entertainment, and so far, Grueser said that entertainment has been recession proof.

"Not many people care about the team," Grueser said, noting that most attendees probably cant name more than a player or two on the roster, but thats OK. Being a Single A minor league team means that roster is almost perpetually in flux, and for that reason, the team doesnt market the players, but the experience.

The strategy has a marked upside. "Winning a championship (which the team did in 1997 and 2003) doesnt affect ticket sales, and neither do losses,” he said.

Despite the tough economy, sales have been steady, and Grueser predicts the affordability of staying close to home will encourage more residents to come to the ballpark, where a night out can still be cheaper going to a movie. A "Lugnuts Food Stimulus Plan" promises $1 hot dogs on Tuesdays, free food for kids on Sundays, and other packaged food deals. Unlike its federal counterpart, theres no paperwork involved.

This year, the Lugnuts are augmenting entertainment offerings. The Labatt Blue Light-sponsored Thirsty Thursdays will be shifted primarily toward the patio in left field, where beer trucks will alleviate the logjam crowds waiting for $2 drafts on the concourse and the college-aged crowd can mingle, listen to music and play games on "Big Lugs Party Patio."

Totally new this year will be two postgame concerts at no extra cost. A Neil Diamond cover band will take the stage (or left field patio) one night, and in late August, Echoes of Pink Floyd, another cover band, will take the stage. (And yes, there will be a laser light show, Grueser confirmed.)

If ballpark concerts arent your thing, there are always the Friday night fireworks. Prefer costumes to explosives? Check out a theme night. This years offerings include ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s theme nights (can you say neon Lugnuts snap bracelets?), a circus night, country night and the obligatory Jimmy Buffet night.

Grueser might be living the dream. A lifelong sports fan and collegiate linebacker, he started as a group sales manager for the Lugs before working his way up to his current position. "You think working in sports will be the same as you see on television," he joked as he watched the grounds crew unroll the tarp. Now, he said, he cant go to any stadium without comparing it to Olds Park.


Some quick hits and fun facts about the Lansing Lugnuts

Lugnuts player salary: $1,100/month, plus most expenses covered (meals, etc.) and signing bonus.
Bonuses range from $10,000 to $1 million.

Average player age in 2008: 19

Lugnuts who have made it to the Majors: 70

notable Lugnuts in the majors (and year they spent in Lansing): Carlos
Beltran (1996), Mark Zambrano (1999), Rich Hill (2003), Carlos Marmol
(2003), Jose A. Reyes (2003)

Midwest League Championships: 2 – 1997 and 2003.

2008 win/loss record: 76-64, lost in first round of playoffs

Total Oldsmobile Park attendance in 2008: 353,000

Oldsmobile Park capacity: about 12,000, including lawn seats

Kegs tapped on a typical Thirsty Thursday: 100, mostly Labatt Blue Light (which sponsors the event).

Sold 147 kegs during last year’s “Crosstown Showdown” against the MSU Spartans

Bats used in a season: 288

used in a season: 7,008, or about 100 per game. Longest trajectory of
hot dog cannon: About 100 feet (from the warning track to the suites)

Weight of “Big Lug” mascot costume: 20 lbs.

Famous first-pitch throwers: Mayor David Hollister, Mayor Virg Bernero

Lansing Lugnuts

opener vs. Fort Wayne Tin Caps 7:05 p.m. Thursday, April 9 Oldsmobile
Park, 505 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing Single game tickets: $7-$17.50
(517) 485-4500 www.lansinglugnuts.com

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