The drive between Napoleon and Fort Wayne, Ind., is an hour of easy highway motoring. But Mike Nutter decided to take the long route — and is glad he did.
Nutter grew up in Napoleon before his parents moved to California before his freshman year of high school. But Nutter never forgot his roots, and his love of sports led him to enter the field of sports management.
That prompted him to attend Bowling Green State University, where he graduated with a degree in sports management and a minor in marketing. Meanwhile he spent his summers working in minor-league baseball: he worked first for the Kane County Cougars, a Low Single-A baseball team based about 30 miles west of Chicago in Geneva, Ill., then spent a season with the Brevard County Manatees, a High Single-A squad that was located in Viera, Fla.
After graduation he worked three seasons with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds before joining the staff of the Fort Wayne Wizards, another Low Single-A team that played in the Midwest League, for the 2000 season.
And he has never left Fort Wayne. Nutter now is in his 19th year with the team, which was renamed the TinCaps in 2009 when the franchise moved to a new home, Parkview Field. Now the president of the TinCaps, Nutter lives in Fort Wayne with his wife, Beth, and the couple’s two children, 14-year-old Carson and 13-year-old Katelynn.
The Blade: Is it true that you got your first job in baseball thanks to your mother?
Mike Nutter: “It is. My mom and dad moved to Chicago from the San Francisco area, and I stayed in California to go to college. So one day my mom called me and said, ‘Do you want to work for the Kane County Cougars?’ When I said, ‘Sure,’ she said, ‘Good. Your first day is May 17.’ She had called the team and got me an internship. You can imagine the ribbing I got that summer until I proved that, while I might be a momma’s boy, I could do the work.
“Bill Larsen was the general manager at Kane County, and he gave me a shot. I tell my interns today that part of my first job was to pick up wads of gum and cigarette butts out of the lawn behind the outside fence. I literally started from the ground up. But each summer he gave me a new experience that really helped me grow. I had a summer in concessions, a summer on the grounds crew, a summer in operations. And I fell in love with it.
“When I first started, I thought I would end up with a major-league team, the NBA or NFL or something like that. But I fell in love with the minor leagues.”
What was the next step in your career following your time at Kane County?
“My second internship was with the Brevard County Manatees in the Florida State League — I guess I’m old enough to say I worked for a team that has gone under. We hosted spring training for the Marlins, then worked for that High-A baseball team. Then I went to Nashville, Tenn., for three years — one year when the team was in the American Association, then two in the Pacific Coast League.”
How did you end up in Fort Wayne after that?
“Actually, I had two job offers. One was to be the assistant general manager in Fort Wayne, where the team was then called the Wizards. The other was to work with the Long Island Ducks, where a buddy of mine from Kane County became the general manager.
“I took the job with the Wizards because my brother was living in Fort Wayne at the time, and I still had grandparents living on Washington Street in Napoleon. As cliché as it is, I thought I would be in Fort Wayne for two or three years.”
How did you become the general manager in Fort Wayne the next season?
“That first interview was amazing; I was so loose for that interview because I was 100 percent sure that I would not get the job. When they asked for a second interview, they told me my first interview was so refreshing because I was so loose. I told them, ‘That’s because I thought I had no chance at the job.’
“But then I also told them, ‘Let me be clear: I want this job.’ And 18 years later, my job really hasn’t changed. I was the general manager then, and I’m the president now, but that’s just semantics.”
One of your biggest accomplishments in Fort Wayne is the creation of Parkview Field. Was it hard to get that ballpark built?
“I had people who were willing to show the flaws of the old ballpark — a leaky roof or whatever — but we never felt negativity was the way to go. To me, it felt disingenuous to say, ‘The ballpark is terrible — but do you want to buy tickets this weekend?’ I felt that if people understood the vision of cities that built a new ballpark such as Toledo or Dayton or Indianapolis, it would carry the day here in Fort Wayne.
“Our mayor at the time, Graham Richard, saw the vision. But we had a battle; a lot of people were really, really against us. Sometimes change is not our specialty here in the Midwest, and I include myself in that. Our old ballpark was fine, but it would not have the impact that this ballpark sitting in the middle of the downtown has.
“I remember one public forum where a lady came up afterwards and said she had a question. She said a lot of positive things about our presentation, and said she understood that it wouldn’t cost her in extra taxes or anything like that. But then I vividly remember her saying, ‘We’re Fort Wayne, Indiana. Do we really need anything this nice?’
“In some ways, that broke my heart. But then we all felt we could bring some energy and activity in the downtown. We got the approval, and this process became a blur. We went to different places to see best practices. But now it feels as if Fort Wayne has its pride back, and we’re willing to try new things to keep improving the area.”
At the same time you were building the new ballpark, you rebranded the Wizards as the TinCaps. What was the thinking behind that?
“We just wanted a totally fresh start. Full disclosure: I don’t know if I’ve every publicly said this, but I wasn’t wild about that idea at first. In minor-league sports, sometimes teams don’t pay their bills or don’t have a great reputation, and they go under. People knew that we paid our bills and had a good reputation, and I wondered if we were tossing that out.
“Johnny Appleseed — John Chapman — is buried about five miles away from our ballpark. He was known for wearing a tin cooking pot on his head, so we went with TinCaps. … When we announced the name change, we got crushed. We got thousands of negative emails, asking how we could be taken seriously or if our players would play for us. We want to be liked, but the first 10 months or so were tough. ...
“Then we had an open house for the ballpark a couple of weeks before the season began. We had thousands of people come to the ballpark, and they were all buying stuff. And then the connection was made. I remember walking behind a couple, and the guy told his wife he was going to buy a hat. When his wife reminded him that he thought the name was stupid, he said, ‘This is our team now.’ People got behind us, and in 2009 we were the top-selling team [in the minor leagues] in terms of merchandise.”
Do you ever sit in your chair and think to your days growing up in Napoleon?
“No doubt. Maybe I’ll hear a song like Kenny Chesney’s ‘Back Where I Come From,’ and I’ll think about Napoleon. I remember playing baseball games in Napoleon. I smelled the tomatoes from Campbell Soup during the ‘tomato pack.’ It was a great place to grow up, and it was tough to leave.”
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