There are some baseball parks that are a ways out toward the countryside, rising out of the hills or farmlands, and there are parks that can be found on the outskirts, right on the border, miles away from the heart of the city. Cooley Law School Stadium, home of the Lansing Lugnuts (Low Class A; Midwest League), is different.
Opened: April 3, 1996 (Michigan vs. Michigan State); April 5, 1996 (MiLB opener)
Capacity: 11,000 (7,300 in seating bowl)
Dimensions: 305L, 380LC, 404C, 390RC, 305R
Surface: Natural grass
Owner: City of Lansing
Ticket Prices: Box, $11; Reserved, $10; Lawn, $8.
League: Single-A Midwest League
Parent: Toronto Blue Jays
Address: 505 E. Michigan Av., Lansing MI 48912
Directions: From the West, take I-96 to Saginaw Hwy., turn right on Cedar St.; stadium is on the left. From the East, take I-96 to I-496 W, use exit 7 and turn right on Larch St.; stadium is on the left. From the North or South, take US-127 to I-496 toward downtown Lansing, take exit 7, head north on Cedar St.; ballpark is on the left.
Parking: Available in lots and on the streets around the ballpark.
Written By: Jesse Goldberg-Strassler (January 2013)
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Cooley Law School Stadium is situated directly downtown, mere blocks away from the state capitol. The two Lansing landmarks cut opposing images: The capitol rises tall and austere, piercing the Michigan sky. The ballpark is comfortable and welcoming, with its concourse set at street level and the field stretching out at the next level lower, the better to both accommodate accessibility and fit the facility between Cedar and Larch Streets.
There are two oft-told tales about the 1996 arrival of minor league baseball in Michigan’s state capital. The first, spoken of now with a chuckle, concerns the region’s initial displeasure at the announcement of the new team’s name, the Lansing Lugnuts. The Lansing State Journal catalogued the reaction, noting that “Mayor David Hollister’s office received 125 calls, all against.” Seventeen years later, the nickname is as beloved as the team, ranking regularly among the Minor Leagues’ top brands.
The second tale is spoken with far more emotion and admiration. In 1995, the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Cedar/Larch Streets was both unseemly and unsafe. Unless one was looking for an adult-themed store or perhaps a way to convince the court you were an unsuitable parent, there was no need to come anywhere near the area. David Hollister sought to change all of this. Fortuitously, owner Tom Dickson happened to be searching for the ideal home for his Sultans of Springfield at the same time. A Minor League baseball team in Lansing provided a perfect solution for both. “This is more than a baseball endeavor,” the mayor told the Lansing State Journal. “We hope to change the culture of the city.”
It was clear that Michiganders were on board. Well over 2,000 season ticket packages and 400,000 tickets were sold before the ballclub played a game.
A taut extra-inning affair between Big Ten rivals Michigan State and Michigan broke in Oldsmobile Park on April 3, 1996. Two days later, the Kansas City-affiliated minor leaguers opened the season against Rockford to the delight of a sold-out house. Something big was in the air — besides mascot Big Lug, who made a grand pre-game entrance in a helicopter.
Professional baseball was back in Michigan’s state capital for the first time in 55 years. It was welcomed with enthusiasm the likes of which the Minor League landscape had never seen before.
An astounding 538,326 rooters attended games at Oldsmobile Park during the 1996 regular season, making Lansing the first Class-A team to break the 500,000-fan mark in its first year. The total was additionally the second-highest Class-A attendance in MiLB history (topped only by crosstown rival West Michigan during the same 1996 campaign) and ranked the Lugnuts fourth in the nation in Minor League attendance. Tom Dickson and wife Sherrie Myers were honored as the Michigan Entrepreneurs of the Year. As the cherry on top, Baseball America took a poll to determine the nation’s favorite Minor League nickname. The Lansing Lugnuts finished second.
At the same that Dickson and Myers were enjoying unprecedented MiLB success, Mayor Hollister’s vision was also taking shape. Businesses and residences were attracted to the area with increasing intensity, with the rapid development of a Stadium District featuring a piano bar, a sports bar, a coffee shop, an art gallery, and numerous restaurants among others. Above it all stood the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s brick smokestack, now topped with a 5,000 pound stainless steel lugnut paid for by the team’s enthusiastic boosters.
There was no sophomore jinx in 1997, as Lansing became the first ballclub in the nation to top the 500,000-fan mark in each of its first two years, totaling over 523,443 fans in two fewer openings (and averaging 11 more fans per game).
They had plenty to cheer for, as it turned out. On June 17th, Olds Park hosted the Midwest League All-Star Game, drawing 10,060 fans to the event, the largest crowd in league All-Star history. With the score tied 5-5 in the bottom of the ninth, the Lugnuts’ Steve Medrano delivered a one-out triple and dashed home on a single by South Bend’s Jason Conti. Three months later, Lansing clinched its first MWL Championship, outlasting the Kane County Cougars in five games.
The Midwest League was clearly pleased with its vibrant young franchise, handing Midsummer Classic hosting duties to Oldsmobile Park in 1999 and 2002 as well. This was the start of a new era for the Lugnuts, who switched partnerships from the Kansas City Royals to the Chicago Cubs entering the 1999 season.
The club’s tradition of success did not waver one bit through the transition. Lansing nearly captured a second All-Star Game/League Title double dip during the 2002 campaign before falling to Peoria in the finals. The next season saw the Lugs impressively sweep their way through an undefeated postseason and a second MWL championship, knocking off Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and the Beloit Snappers in the 2003 finals. The season also featured a remarkably rare feat on April 21st, with Donnie Hood hitting for the cycle while Justin Jones, Westin O’Brien, and Mark Carter were combining to no-hit the Dayton Dragons, 15-0, at Oldsmobile Park. It was the first time in recorded baseball history, as far as anyone could tell, that a team achieved both a cycle and no-hitter in the same game.
The team changed affiliations to the Toronto Blue Jays following the 2004 season, beginning a strong relationship that has resulted in 24 Major Leaguers produced and five playoffs berths over the last eight seasons. A different partnership of sorts came about in 2007, as the Lansing Lugnuts and Michigan State University worked together to introduce the Crosstown Showdown, pitting minor leaguers against collegians in a celebration of Mid-Michigan baseball. The annual April exhibition has consistently proven to be one of the region’s most popular events, with the 2012, 2009, and 2008 games attracting the top three crowds in stadium history.
At about the same time, in the mid-2000s, Michigan’s automobile industry was in trouble. Lansing’s automotive history is a proud one, dating back to native son Ransom E. Olds and his Olds Motor Works at the turn of the 20th century. With General Motors struggling, however, plants were shut down throughout Michigan, including in the heart of Lansing. Unemployment grew precipitously. Though the Lugnuts’ attendance remained consistent in spite of the area’s hardships, it soon became untenable for GM to pay the naming rights to maintain Oldsmobile Park. (The Oldsmobile brand, after all, had been closed in spring of 2004.)
During the 2009-2010 offseason, the Lansing Lugnuts reached a new naming rights pact with Lansing’s own Thomas M. Cooley Law School, the largest law school in the country. Entering 2010, it was agreed, Oldsmobile Park became Cooley Law School Stadium.
Additionally, Jackson National Life Insurance and the Lugnuts agreed to a separate contract to name the team’s natural turf as Jackson Field. The field’s dimensions are idiosyncratic and captivating, with 305-foot short porches down the left and right field lines culminating in 23-foot tall walls. The power alleys do a hitter no favors, stretching out to 380 feet in left-center and angling all the way to 412 feet at deepest right-center. As such, the park lends itself to regular highlight-reel grabs and the definite possibility of an inside the park home run.
The ballpark itself offers a much larger setting than one might expect for a Class-A field, with over 7,000 permanent seats arching from foul line to foul line and not one poor sightline in the house. A craft beer garden, Good Hops, sits down first base foul line, taking advantage of Michigan’s growing craft beer connoisseurship. Above the concourse, The Clubhouse offers a first-rate experience in a suite-level lounge environment; its tickets aren’t released until a week before the game in question and are highly recommended.
Even the most cursory summer trip to Michigan Avenue reveals Cooley Law School Stadium as one of the more photogenic Minor League ballparks in the country. Green lawns, statues, and a fountain decorate the area before the front gates. Though it remains in the heart of downtown Lansing, the facility still retains baseball’s signature feel of welcoming warmth. The state capitol is easily accessed via a short walk to the West, while Michigan State University’s campus lies within a ten-minute straight-shot drive to the East. Eating and drinking options in and around the stadium are aplenty, as the Stadium District has continued to flourish in the 17 years since the team’s arrival.
With its great appeal within and the renaissance it has brought upon its neighborhood and region, Cooley Law School Stadium leads one to wonder: How come ballparks aren’t built downtown more often?
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