In the nearly 21 years since the Springfield Sultans packed their bags, moved to Downtown Lansing, and became the Lugnuts, the team has seen plenty of ups and downs. This is expected, as their existence as a Single-A team means they must deal with endless roster changes as players get shuffled from level to level as they attempt to make the big leagues. From an abysmal 54-84 season in 2009 to their two Midwest League championships in 1997 and 2003, the team’s on-field success has been unpredictable.
It’s been much easier to track the Lugnuts’ success in a different area: community development. Since the former Oldsmobile Park was constructed in 1996, locals and team officials alike believe the team has brought more than the game of baseball to the city of Lansing.
“This area was somewhat of a red light district, people didn’t want to bring their families downtown,” Lugnuts general manager Nick Grueser said. “Before I even started here you could see the effects that this team and the stadium have had on Downtown Lansing.”
Haslett resident Greg Rokisky, who works in Downtown Lansing, has been to four or five Lugnuts games since settling in the area and said that he has always had a good experience.
“It wasn’t very crowded,” Rokisky said of his most recent visit to Cooley Law School Stadium. “Families, younger people who were too young to have families, older people, it was a good mix.”
The fact that the games don’t pack Cooley Stadium doesn’t seem to bother Grueser. The Lugnuts’ average attendance was about 4,600 a game last year, but he says that the numbers were wildly different based on days of the week. On weekdays the team typically draws 1,000 to 3,000 fans, while for weekend games attendance usually ranges from 5,000 to 8,000.
Grueser added that the team did not sell out any games this season, but he does not think this was due to a lack of interest in the team.
“We had maybe 10 or 12 games where we sold out every seat, but there’s so much standing-room-only space available that there was no true sellout,” Grueser said.
Dr. Sarah Reckhow, political science professor at Michigan State University and urban politics expert, thinks that a well-located stadium can spur economic activity in a city and that this is exactly what Lansing has gotten with the Lugnuts and Cooley Stadium.
“Lansing has a downtown stadium and you can clearly see the development that goes around it,” Reckhow said. “Things are oriented directly around the stadium, and oriented around a steady stream of people flowing in and out in the warmer months.”
Rokisky agrees that the Lugnuts both contribute to and benefit from increased activity in the downtown area, and that this is a sign that the team is all-in about improving the city.
“Their commitment to build apartments and living space in the city is proof that they’re serious about residents living, working and playing in Lansing,” Rokisky said.
The living space Rokisky referred to, The Outfield apartments, is one of the most significant examples of how the Lugnuts are firmly planted in the city. Grueser explained how the unique Outfield project, which is located inside of the ballpark and allows residents to watch live games from their windows, came to be.
“We were extremely involved,” Grueser said. “The Lugnuts, the City of Lansing, LEPFA [Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority], LEAP [Lansing Economic Area Partnership], the mayor’s office, and [real estate developer] the Gillespie Group all played a part in it. It was a great public partnership.”
Between the approximately $22 million Outfield development/stadium renovation project and the original $12.8 million construction cost of the stadium ($19.7 million in 2016 money), the city and local organizations have invested a lot in the hopes that the Lugnuts will revitalize a struggling downtown. Grueser, the 2016 Midwest League Executive of the Year, believes that the team’s return investment in the city goes deeper than finances. From a partnership with General Motors to renovate local Little League fields to stadium events like Stand Up to Cancer night, Grueser says there are many initiatives the team has taken up to become ingrained in the community.
The Crosstown Showdown, an annual exhibition game between the Lugnuts and Michigan State’s varsity team, is one of the most successful nights every season, drawing a significant amount of MSU students to Cooley Law School Stadium. However, Rokisky feels the team could do even more to benefit the downtown area by taking advantage of the enormous supply of college-aged potential fans from the city to the east.
“I actually think [the team] could be better utilized to connect students living in East Lansing down Michigan Avenue,” Rokisky said. “It gives Lansing an edge. It’s a good way to get outside on a budget, and it’s a different source of entertainment for group outings.”
Grueser, who lists maximizing the fan experience and enhancing the downtown area among his team’s responsibilities, hopes that Lansing residents can feel like Rokisky does and not only appreciate the fun they may have in watching the team play, but recognize the change the organization has attempted to make in the city as a whole.
“Even when I first started here, when you’d go on Washington or something after 6, there was nothing to do,” Grueser said. “There’s been significant development in the years since, and the stadium and now The Outfield anchors all that development.”