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.
Dominic Latkovski knew he was destined to be a ballpark entertainer the moment he first dressed up as Billy Bird, the mascot of the old Louisville Redbirds franchise, three decades ago. Often with the help of his brothers, Brennan and Lex, Latkovski made a name for himself by entertaining crowds with a variety of on-field skits and stunts—often channeling his own childhood heroes like the San Diego Chicken and Max Patkin.
A few years later, Dominic and Brennan branched out on their own by creating BirdZerk, a traveling ballpark prankster who steals gloves from opposing infielders and dances with umpires and fans.
That act led to the birth of the ZOOperstars, the dancing inflatable animal caricatures of athletes and celebrities ranging from Cal Ripken, Jr. (Cow Ripken) to Ichiro Suzuki (Ichiroach) to LeBron James (LeBronco James) to Tiger Woods (Tiger Woodschuck). Together, Dominic and Brennan have traveled to more than 300 ballparks and stadiums, performing at minor and major league baseball games, NBA halftime shows and even making it to the finals of the hit TV talent show “America’s Got Talent.”
What follows is my conversation with Dominic Latkovski about the origins and highlights of his career as a ballpark entertainer. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity. Previous interviews with other movers and shakers in minor league baseball can be found here.
Minor league baseball is full of hard-working people you rarely see, whose efforts behind the scenes make the games happen day after day, year after year. There are few people who have filled that role as long, and as well, as International League President Randy Mobley.
Mobley has spent nearly four decades working in Triple-A baseball, first with the Columbus Clippers and then the International League, taking over as president in 1990. He has helped the sport grow from mom-and-pop operations struggling to turn a profit to a multi-million dollar industry. Mobley is a three-time winner of Minor League Baseball’s Warren Giles Award for outstanding service by a league president and was named Baseball America’s first Executive of the Year.
What follows is my conversation with Mobley about his career and the state of minor league baseball. The transcript has been edited in sports for length and clarity.
Can you explain a little bit what it is you do as a league president? What are your main responsibilities?
It is primarily a role of supporting the clubs in anyway that you can. They are the ones that are in the trenches doing the heavy lifting. But in anyway we can, we support them. And in those cases, we can bring a perspective from this office where there are not too many things that you haven’t seen before, or some version of it. And again that allows us to bring some perspective. I’ll use a lease negotiation as an example: If you’ve got a ballclub and a landlord in discussion, you know that they are anxious to know how things have happened in other cases. “How has somebody done this? Or have you ever seen this?” And we can support the clubs in that way.
On nearly any day, the most popular figure at Durham Bulls Athletic Park is neither a player nor a manager. It’s Wool E. Bull, the iconic minor league franchise’s mischievous, dancing, go-kart driving mascot that is regularly trailed around the ballpark by kids and parents seeking pictures and autographs.
Wool E.’s fame is hardly limited to the DBAP, as the character makes between 250 and 300 appearances at schools, parades and charity events around the Triangle region. Yet the mascot’s popularity is limited to the outfit because the person who has brought Wool E. Bull to life for the past 10 years prefers to remain anonymous.
“The character is the character,” said the person behind Wool E. Bull, who agreed to discuss the life of a minor league mascot on the condition of anonymity. “Some people like to divulge that they are the character. I prefer to keep Wool E. sacred. The Durham Bulls have been good about that: Keeping Wool E. Wool E.”
What follows is my conversation with the person who makes a full-time living as Wool E. Bull about the fun, challenges and aspirations of a minor league mascot. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Chuck Greenberg once described longtime minor league executive Todd “Parney” Parnell as the best people-person in all of baseball, that he has a natural talent for building relationships with people from all walks of life. What becomes clear in talking with Parney, the vice president and chief operating officer of the Richmond Flying Squirrels, is that he cares for the people around the game at least as much as they care for him.
Parney has used that passion and love for baseball and people to become one of the most well-respected—and certainly the most energetic—operator in minor league baseball over the past three decades. From Reading to Altoona to State College to Richmond, Parney has matched a colorful personality with an even more colorful wardrobe to do anything and everything for the sake of the team. That attitude has made the Flying Squirrels one of the most popular teams in the minors since Parney helped launch the franchise with Chuck Domino in 2010.
What follows is my conversation with Parney in which he discusses his approach to people and running a team, and why he loves minor league baseball so much. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
Ben Hill has seen it all and done it all when it comes to the antics of minor league baseball. By the end of this season, he will also have visited all of minor league baseball’s ballparks over his career of covering the wild and wacky side of the sport for milb.com. The journey marks quite a milestone for Hill, who has become an expert on minor league promotions and ballpark entertainment since joining MiLB.com in 2005 and launching his popular Ben’s Biz Blog two years later.
In his “On the Road” columns, Hill provides a first-hand look at a team’s promotions and ballpark entertainment, often participating in a variety of on-field shenanigans and giving a dining guide to concession fare—the latter he has passed on to “Designated Eaters” since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012. His weekend “Promo Previews” have been a must-read for people in the industry and passionate fans.
What follows is my conversation with Hill about his path and experiences in minor league baseball. The transcript has been edited in places for length and clarity.
You certainly are not a traditional journalist. You have a beat that you cover, but your cover it almost from the inside. How would you describe what you do?
Sometimes I ask myself that: What exactly am I? In a way I still don’t know. My official title is writer at MiLB.com and it has been pretty much since I was part-time to start this in 2005. When I try to describe what I do in a fairly succinct way, what I tell everyone is that I cover the business and culture of minor league baseball for MiLB.com. That is about as simply as I can put it. I think that sums up the beat pretty well: business and culture. Continue reading
Smell the Change.
Laugh. Cheer. Oink.
Bacon is Better.
These are all mottos that Kurt Landes has embraced while bringing the zaniness of minor league baseball into the mainstream during his tenure as president and general manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Landes has established himself as one of the preeminent promoters in minor league baseball, beginning as a young GM with the Daytona Cubs and Hagerstown Suns before launching the IronPigs franchise in 2008. He has since become a trendsetter, building the IronPigs into one of the top draws in the minors while pushing the limits with creative promotions.
What follows is my conversation with Landes about his quick rise through the minors, how he approaches promotions and his philosophy for building a successful brand. His insight should be useful for anyone involved in marketing—whether in professional baseball or elsewhere. The transcript has been edited in spots for length and clarity.
When did you decide that you want to work in minor league baseball? What about minor league baseball appealed to you as a career?
Like many high school kids, I was really involved in sports growing up, so I wanted to be involved in sports but I didn’t really know what that meant. I ended up going to Bowling Green State University in Ohio and doing a lot of different internships and practicums in different areas of sport, and one of those was with the Toledo Mud Hens. And I really enjoyed it and really gravitated toward using sport and entertainment collectively. I enjoyed that a lot.
The following year they asked me to come back full-time. And that was back in 1995. I cut my teeth and got my start with the Mud Hens in Ohio. I really understood how baseball and sport was a vehicle for entertainment and I really enjoyed that cross-section, and minor league baseball kind of hooked me at that point in time.