Mike Nutter loves his job. That he is passionate about coming to the ballpark everyday, working with the staff and fans, and putting on a game night after night becomes clear during a 45-minute conversation with the president of the Fort Wayne TinCaps. He loved it when he was a college intern with the Kane County Cougars 27 years ago, he loved it when was a young staffer with the Brevard County Manatees and Nashville Sounds a few years later, and he still loves it today.
Nutter has used that passion to help turn the Fort Wayne TinCaps into one of the most consistent and successful franchises in the Midwest League and all of minor league baseball. Since leaving aging Memorial Stadium for the new, downtown Parkview Field in 2009, Fort Wayne has drawn no fewer than 378,000 fans in a season and has topped the 400,000 mark in each of the past five. Along the way, Nutter has won the Midwest League Executive of the Year Award three times—most recently in 2015.
What follows is my conversation with Nutter about his experiences in the game, his beliefs on how to be successful, why he loves minor league baseball so much and more. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
How did your path through minor league baseball lead to Fort Wayne? How long have you been there?
This is 19 seasons here. Nine at the old ballpark when we were the Wizards over at Memorial Stadium. And this is the 10th year here. And prior to that there were stops in Nashville, Tennessee for three, in ’97, ’98, ’99. Brevard County, Florida, in ’96. I joked with someone the other day that I am finally old enough where I worked for a team that went under. Then in ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, working the summers out there with the Kane County Cougars. That’s where I fell in love with the game and thought that this might be a career. And here we are 27 years into it, and I am still having a blast, man.
How did you break into minor league baseball? How did you really get going?
My dad was in sales, so we moved all around the country. I was born in Ohio, but then when I was in eighth grade he got transferred out to the San Francisco Bay area. I absolutely loved it. Culturally it was awesome. I went to high school there and two years of college. From there, my parents moved to Dallas and to Chicago. The Chicago suburb they picked, our front door to the Cougars stadium was maybe 10 minutes.
My brother was a college athlete. He was my mentor and the guy I looked up to. I didn’t have those god-given abilities that he did athletically. I remember my mom, as a guidance counselor, even when I was in high school, say stuff like, ‘You can be in sports and not be the one people are cheering for.’ Lord knows that was key because I was not going to be the one anyone was cheering on.
One summer, the summer of 92, after my first year at Chico State in Northern California, I came back to my parents’ place in Chicago, and was like ‘Whoa, this team is here. I’m gonna do it.’ I met [former Kane County GM] Bill Larsen that day. And he became a mentor to a lot of us in this game.
I’m not making this part about me. I think in the four summers I was at Kane County, I think like five or six guys went on to be general managers of other teams. Bill was a great teacher. Matt O’Brien ran a few teams around the country, mostly independent ball but not all independent ball. Pete Laven has been with affiliated teams; he oversaw the move of the Arkansas Travelers into their new ballpark. Scott Lane was the main guy with the West Michigan Whitecaps forever. Curtis Haug is running the Cougars now still. Jeff Sedivy ran some teams for a long time. Myself. And then I think there were a couple of other guys whose names escape me. Bill was just a great dude to learn from.
Each summer that I went back, I would do different things. One year it was in operations. The grunt stuff. Picking up the trash. Another year he put me in concessions. And another he let me do tickets and some sales stuff. And it worked out for both of us. They would move us around and teach us stuff. It was really cool.
So I was getting ready to graduate from Bowling Green over in Ohio in Sport Management, you had to do a full semester internship at two different places. And I kept appealing to do them at the Cougars, to do them both. The prof called it dead on. The lady is like, ‘I know you feel like that is the only place you are ever going to work your whole life, but you really should get some experience somewhere else.’ And so that is when I went down to Brevard County. We hosted the Marlins spring training. We had their high A team. I went to work there as an intern and then they named me the director of group sales. Then a few years in Nashville learning more. Back in Nashville I was working for Bill. Then I came to work for him again here. Then after the first year here he left. And I’ve been here ever since. Now I’m starting to get into that middle age, older in the career, trying to teach these young kids how to do it to make a name for themselves.
How much does that early experience of doing that grunt work that you may not have appreciated at the time help you later on in your career?
It was huge. My mom’s background is as a teacher and a guidance counselor, and so a lot of times I’m trying to go out to the colleges and a lot of the high schools. If anybody asks, I’ll just get out there and do it and talk to them at the career days . . . Everybody [asks], ‘Hey, how do I get your job?’ And as cliche as it is, you gotta start. You just gotta start somewhere at the bottom . . .
I’m not trying to be the crotchety old guy, but I do pull our interns aside a lot and will talk about things like, Did you know that Jared Parcell—that’s our director of group sales in the office next to me—was the clubbie in Beloit? And these people will be like, No way, is that even true? Yes. He wanted to get in the game. He knew when he got in, that he’d do it.
For me, one of the biggest things that I got to do with Bill and the crew at Kane way back in the stone age, was the concession stuff. We managed our concessions—I want to be clear, I am not against the third-party stuff, but the teams that I’ve worked for, we’ve always done it. And trust me, it’s a lot easier not to do your own concessions, but I personally feel like we want to have the control and if there are changes to be made it’s on us, and when we don’t meet fans’ expectations, it’s on us. So those early days come in handy a lot.
I think back, when I was first starting out in sales, I wish the technology existed that we could hear how bad my sales pitches were and the voicemails we were leaving people, and things like that. So I do try and pull these younger guys and gals in and say, ‘Listen, just relax a little bit. You’re seeing some other people have success. And your time will come.’ And sometimes they will say, Hey do you have an example about this or that. And you can go into a story either about yourself or somebody else you’ve known over the years where it’s like, it’ll come.
You know everybody is in love with the term ‘the process’ now. But there is some of that even in the case of us in the front offices, not the players. You just don’t become [an expert] in sales and those kind of things, you have to hone your craft.
You didn’t work in the old, old days of minor league baseball, like the Three-I League or something like that. But it was definitely a different era for you at the beginning. How have you seen the game change?
Back in the day, even at Kane where we were doing big numbers, we hosted the games and [that was pretty much it]. We would do the Illinois State Championship, but I don’t know if I can even remember a handful of other events that we were doing. There just wasn’t that much other stuff in our parks. I don’t think anyone was doing much extra. But now it’s different. There were 700 events here at Parkview Field last year.
I will talk with [Lehigh Valley IronPigs President and GM] Kurt Landes frequently, and a lot of times it is on the event stuff. I think those guys are the best at the marketing. I think him and his team are the best. A lot of times what we will start talking about is the staffing . . . We might be talking about something with a game. But it also might be, how are the events and how are you keeping your people fresh? And what are we doing staffing wise? And we have people who work events but no games. And we have people who work games but no events. And what about the overlap and those kinds of things? It’s pretty wild with how it has changed.
I’ll still hear from people that will say, ‘I got in to work baseball. I don’t want to do this other stuff.’ And it’s like, OK, on some level I get that. But it’s also like, Hey they are building some of these ballparks—our’s was $31.5 million—to be able to do more than baseball . . . We’re going to try and do 5,000, 6,000, 7,000 people on a night when otherwise back in the day the ballpark would have sat totally empty. So that is probably the biggest thing that I’ve seen throughout my career, is it’s not just the baseball anymore.
You’ve had an interesting perspective on the growth of minor league baseball, running both an older, sort of past-its-prime ballpark and now a state-of-the-art one. What has that transformation been like for you?
You’ve got to be smart to know what you don’t know. I had never worked for a ballpark that had a videoboard. For me to be making those decisions, that wouldn’t have been good for anyone, for me or the team. So a cliche again: surround yourself with great people. We were lucky, blessed, that we were in town and we had a good amount of time for the transition. The old site to this one was only a 10-minute drive. But it was on such a different scale, such a different scope of 10 or 12 full-time, year-round people running that one; this one we’re right around 30.
We didn’t run the concessions [at Memorial Stadium] because the county had a deal with a third party; it worked fine but we wanted to do it here. But it was just like the magnitude of decisions that we went from making from the other stadium and most of the other stadiums I worked at to this one—the volume of it was just absolutely crazy. But we brought in a facility guy that had a lifetime in construction. We brought in some food people; some had a lifetime in sports, but then others were, we tried other stuff. People that had gone around the country opening up restaurants for franchisees and things like that. We tried to push the envelope. Not all of it worked but we just didn’t do what had always been done.
That takes us to the time where we were drawing in 260,000 to 280,000 person range in attendance in Memorial Stadium. And then the idea came up of are we going to change the name and rebrand. And full disclosure, I have no problem saying when I was wrong. At first, I was like I don’t know if we want to do that. We have a great reputation in town, we pay our bills, and people know who we are. And [TinCaps owner] Jason Freier, who I get the privilege of working for, is like, ‘Hey, all of that is great and I’m glad we’re having this dialogue, but you guys are still going to be there. They know who you are. This is our chance to redo it our way.’
And so we did that [and changed the name from Wizards]. As you can imagine, we got crushed. . . . I still remember the day we announced the [TinCaps name]. We got destroyed. You can prep for it. Tom Dickson with Lansing and Montgomery, was our consultant on the naming thing, and he was so awesome to work with, and he kept telling us that the day you announce it is going to be terrible. This was before we had even identified a name. Whatever you pick is going to be rough, even before we identified it. And I was optimistic. I mean, how bad can it be? And it was just brutal. So, it was tough.
And now people love it, right?
Now people love it. In 2009, we had the No. 1 selling logo and merchandise in the country. Once we got people into the ballpark the March before we opened in 2009, and they saw the park, the tide turned on a dime. It went from [comments like]: What are these people doing? The name is stupid. This is bad. They don’t know what they are doing. Nobody will go downtown.
Jason Freier had another good line that I used a lot: ‘We have no reason to believe that what has happened in Durham and Dayton and fill-in-the-blank city will not work in Fort Wayne, Indiana.’ And people were like, how do you dispute that, because it is working in those other ones? And the tide turned when we got people in here. I don’t know if I ever told anybody this, but I think on the first weekend of the open house [for Parkview Field], we sold more merchandise than we did the prior season at the old place. We knew it would work, but it took off.
Like you mentioned before, the team has not faded. The TinCaps are still a hit. So how have you kept it fresh? How do you keep people coming back?
That’s a great question. The City of Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission owns this ballpark. It’s a public document. They get half of the money from the naming-rights that comes in. And they get a dollar a head from every person for TinCaps games or non-baseball events above 275,000 [people]—once we get to that threshold, anybody that comes in over that number, a dollar a head goes in a fund. And that fund, we have a stadium license board and we meet a couple times a year, along with our private investment since then, is used to keep the place current, to keep it fresh, to keep it clean. We’re here at the halfway point in Year 10, and honest to goodness it looks better today than it did when we opened on April 16th, 2009.
And so that city fund has been key . . . And privately we have put in over $4 million or $5 million of private money. So we added on a group area in center field. Then we did a rooftop on that area in center field. Those two projects combined to be almost $2 million. We gutted a lot of the conessions last year and put in new equipment to make it better speed of service. It’s funny, as we sit here today, there is a memo sitting here that we were going over today [about potential improvement projects]. We’re getting quotes on the sound system, a new videoboard and control room, replacing the outfield LEDs, outfield wall pads. Do we do netting sometime past the dugout? Can we do a brand-new bar in the outfield just like our sister team did in Columbia and like that one in Nashville, the Bandbox in Nashville, that is one of the greatest I have ever seen.
You know, people ask me what keeps you up at night, and I joke and say the forecast. But really, it’s how do you stay relevant and how do you stay as one of the hot things to do in our region? I think that we can all relate to a story of going to a restaurant and the next time it wasn’t quite the same and then the third time it just wasn’t very good. So we really work on that here, of keeping the show fresh. We try and do the family friendly stuff that plays pretty well in Fort Wayne. That’s why it’s the 33 fireworks show [each season]. And you might say, well that’s a ton. And it is. But our metrics show us that people still love that . . .
I think a lot of [teams] are trying to do the same thing in different markets, of being the place that people think of for family friendly entertainment. There is so much screen time—and you and I joked before about Fortnite with our kids being the same age—but there is so much of that stuff that we are still trying to be the place where families want to come out to.
What appeals to you so much about working in minor league baseball? Certainly at this point in your career you could’ve left if you wanted to and gotten a job in a leadership role in a company that has normal hours and isn’t putting on 700 events each year. But there must be something about minor league baseball that really gotten its hooks into you.
You know what, at 45 years old, I love it as much as I did when Bill Larsen was having me pick up trash and cigarette butts and gum out of the lawn at Kane. And why? We still get to come to work at a ballpark everyday. And when something is going wrong for somebody and life is tough or somebody has got something going on, we’re the ones they pick out to come to and spend their time and money with.
The other part that I just love about the job is that we do so much stuff within the job. We all get to do a little bit of everything. And that to me is great. We’ve sent people on to the major leagues in all the different sports, but some come back and say I just love the ability to do a lot of stuff. So some of our sales people might be on the promo team and doing the PR and doing different stuff. And for me personally, I still get a charge out of that, of not just stuck behind a desk doing the same thing. And the last thing is, we’re having an impact around the community and the region and that stuff does matter. Man, it’s as rewarding now as it ever was.
You have a neat perspective in that you’re in low A and you’re seeing these players come in at an early age. How much do you get to know the players? What’s it like to see these guys so young? Are there any that you saw come through who you knew were going to be stars?
I’m not around them as much as I used to be. I’m around the clubhouse. I go down and see the manager and the coaches every day. I love it. It might be 30 seconds one day; it could be 20 minutes the next of just a buzz through to talk about the weather, how’s the family, all those kinds of things. I talk to the players daily, but not all of them or not as much as before. I used to be closer to them in age and nightlife and other things like that, and I’m neither anymore. But it is neat.
You know what, it’s not just recency bias, that Fernando Tatis Jr., in my 27 years doing it, he’s the best I’ve seen. I told that to somebody this year and they said, ‘Don’t you think that’s hyperbole?’ And I said, ‘He can’t sell us anymore tickets. He’s long gone.’ He was that good. That good of a kid.
Over the years, Jake Peavy, who had a great major league career, he was in my first year with the Wizards back in 2000. We hit it off and stayed in touch for many, many years. And then some of the guys that you pull for just as much are those guys that are the 25th guy on the roster at low A, and they’re just fighting to keep the job or keep the uniform on. And at my age, I just want to tell them, ‘Man, you’ve beaten 99.9 percent of the odds just to get to this level.’
And it is a unique perspective to watch them. The can’t-miss prospect who doesn’t end up making it because of either injury or ability or wasn’t serious or focused enough. Or the one kid who wasn’t going to be anything special and then ended up having a major league career. So, it is kinda neat to follow them after they leave here and see what they turn into.