by Robert Bondy
Lansing Star Staff Writer
It’s the crack of the bat on a warm summer night.
It’s the smell of a ballpark hot dog floating through the air.
It’s 12,000-plus chanting “Go Nuts” in unison.
It’s the professional sports team of the capital city.
It’s Lansing Lugnuts baseball.
The Lugnuts came to Lansing in 1996 and have left a mark on the city ever since. A member of the Midwest League as a Class A MLB minor league team, the Lugnuts have become a hit attraction for local residents and students of Michigan State University, and helped improve the city as a whole.
“The opening of the stadium in 1996 dramatically turned around the downtown area and catalyzed capital-area and regional development,” said Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.
By adding a new summertime entertainment, the Lugnuts also spawned development, including new local restaurants and bars. Their presence has helped form what is downtown Lansing.
Take me out to the ballgame
The Lugnuts have grown as an all around attraction for everyone in the family since its first game back in 1996.
The franchise uses specials to attract a wide variety of fans, with cheap beer deals geared to Michigan State University students and post-game fireworks for the family of five. The Lugnuts offer deals on nearly every home weeknight game, such as Dollar Deal Day, Hump Day, Thirsty Thursday and College Students Eat Free, where students get a free slice of pizza, drink and bag of chips with admission.
Trevor Embed, a student at MSU, said he attended the game on April 11 mostly because of the deal associated with the game.
“I have seen the trucks driving by all week with the deals and I thought ‘what the hell, why not go catch a game,’” Embed said. “A cheap meal and some good baseball on a warm spring evening is pretty nice.”
Another Lugnuts college friendly event that historically brings in big crowds is the annual Crosstown Showdown exhibition game against Michigan State University.
Since it’s beginning in 2007, the game generally brings in record crowds, including nearly 13,000 in 2012, and has become a traditional welcome back for Lugnuts baseball from year-to-year, Lugnuts General Manager Nick Grueser said.
“It’s (an) extremely important game and we value it a lot,” Grueser said. “It’s one of those games that doesn’t happen in a lot of markets. It’s a lot of fun for us and a lot of fun for the community.”
Although this year’s game fell on a cold rainy evening and didn’t bring in a huge crowd, Grueser said the Crosstown Showdown has brought in the Lugnuts’ three largest crowds of all-time.
Lansing resident Tracy Milpert was one of the 4,455 that elected to battle the cold temperatures of this year’s Crosstown Showdown on April 3. Milpert said despite having to layer up for the game, she enjoyed the atmosphere of Cooley Law School Stadium and looks forward to returning to another game this summer.
“This was my first Lugnuts game and I really am enjoying it,” Milpert said. “It’s obviously not ideal baseball weather right now, but the cheap beer makes up for it. I’ll probably come back for another game this season, just once it’s a little bit warmer outside.”
Renovations in near future
While the Lugnuts hadn’t started their season until April, it was back in early March when the organization made big time headlines, with the announcement of a renovation project to Cooley Law School Stadium.
On March 12 the Lugnuts announced a $22 million renovation project that would create up to 100 apartments in the outfield, as well as rebuild the field, dugout, locker rooms and scoreboard. The additions to the outfield also would include retail space for restaurants.
“This revolutionary project is a model for how the private and public sectors can work together to preserve a community asset while also propelling further economic growth downtown,” Lugnuts Owner Tom Dickson said in a press release. “Its inclusion of a mixed-use development directly in the outfield of the ballpark delivers a twist that is unprecedented in the industry, creating more energy in both the ballpark and surrounding downtown Stadium District.”
The project is set to be complete by opening day of 2016, but will still need to be approved by the Lansing City Council first.
The project, known as The Outfield, would be financed in part by the city, who owns the stadium, . The city would be ponying up $11 million in bonds for the stadium’s upgrades alone. Private developers would then be hired to construct the apartments and retail space.
Lansing City Council member Carol Wood will have a say in the potential renovations, and said although city council hasn’t received any information on the project yet, she is cautious about the addition.
“We just went into refinancing within the state for rebonding,” Wood said. “My concern is that what we have seen so far, I’m not sure I’m ready to add additional debt at this time.”
Wood added that when the city of Lansing purchased the stadium, they had planned to see the stadium used for additional attractions such as concerts and other events, but haven’t seen such so far.
Ryan Jacobs of Lansing also is cautious about the planned renovation plans, but for a different reason. Jacobs said he attends a handful of Lungut games each summer and believes the stadium is already providing an exciting experience for the fans at the game.
“I personally think the changes aren’t needed at this time,” Jacobs said. “I get that the stadium has been around for awhile now and needs to be improved in some aspects, but I don’t think it needs a complete makeover like the current announced plan.”
Past left field
It’s not only within the fences of Cooley Law School Stadium that the impact of the Lansing Lugnuts is being felt, but also at the surrounding businesses.
The Lugnuts play a heavy role on the local businesses that surround Cooley Law School Stadium. Jason Evans, owner and general manager at Nuthouse Sports Grill, said anytime opening day rolls around, the restaurant experiences an instant impact.
“Obviously it’s a boost, it’s great,” Evans said. “We love the baseball season because of the crowds it brings and wish the games were year round.”
Evans added that the bar generally experiences good crowds regardless on gameday, but big games, such as the Crosstown Showdown and games on or the fourth of July, bring in the biggest crowds. The team’s performance also plays a role on the business’s revenue from year-to-year.
There are multiple attractions and restaurants that are part of the Stadium District. The district was created in 2006 and surrounds the Lugnuts home, ranging from Kalamazoo Street to Oakland Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue to the Grand River.
Mason resident Hunter Kingsley was at the Nuthouse before the April 11 game against Cedar Rapids Kernels, and said whether he’s with his family or buddies, he’ll normally get a meal and few beers before the game.
“The Nuthouse is generally my go to, but I don’t mind some of the other places down here,” Kingsley said. “Coming to a Lugnuts game is an all day event for me. I enjoy getting a chance to catch up with friends or taking out the family before the game as (much as) attending the game itself.”
Lugnuts Gameday Slideshow:
Take a look inside Cooley Law School Stadium on a warm spring night when the Lansing Lugnuts are hosting the Cedar Rapids Kernels.