Loons open season April 5; hope for success in 2024

The more things change, the more they stay the same at Dow Diamond as the Great Lakes Loons open their 2024 season against the Fort Wayne TinCaps on Friday, April 5.

Amid the most significant stadium investments to date in the stadium’s 17-year history - and there have been many - first-year manager and former Loons hitting coach, Jair Fernandez, will join returning pitching coaches David Anderson and Richard De Los Santos, hitting coach O’Koyea Dickson, and bench coach Elian Herrera for the upcoming season. Fernandez became Loons manager on Jan. 24.

Fans will also be able to enjoy a full array of special events - some traditional and some new, including a new weekend acknowledging “Up North” weekends - Pontooners Weekend compliments of Sugar Springs - and a 4th of July Block Party on Main sponsored by the Loons themselves, featuring America’s Got Talent semi-finalist Grace Good. For the complete lists, go to the Loons website and select the promotions tab.
New wall padding system encompasses the entire playing field.
Meanwhile, Loons President & General Manager Chris Mundhenk, who has been with the Loons since their inception, says the $4.7 million worth of player-focused enhancements will continue Major League Baseball’s commitment to the players’ welfare. Ironically, Mundhenk notes, most casual visitors to the stadium won’t notice the bulk of the changes that allow the club to meet  the new standards set forth in the Player Development License granted to the Great Lakes Loons in 2020. The new amenities include:
  • Expanded home clubhouse with a dedicated team film room and meeting spaces
  • 1,000 sq. ft. workout facility for home and visiting clubs
  • Dedicated women’s locker room that will be utilized by female staff and umpires
  • Expanded visiting team locker rooms with additional coaching staff dressing rooms and offices
  • New wall padding system that encompasses the entire playing field
  • New video surveillance and door access control systems
  • New umpire locker room. 
  • Expansion of home plate protective netting to home and visiting bullpen area.
The most notable change has been the installation of LED lighting which will allow staff to control the lighting via Control Link by computer or smartphone and allows for the use of special effects for baseball and special occasion lighting. Mundhenk says each of the lights - individually focused and preset -  will evenly light the field, allowing the baseballs to be easier to track and the field be much brighter.  “The new lighting system will be very impactful for our biggest moments on the field and add an entirely new dimension for fans as well as guests attending events at Dow Diamond,” Mundhenk says. A promotional video on the Loons social media showcases the new lighting.

In addition, immediately following the 2024 season, a new playing field is scheduled for installation as well as replacement of Dow Diamond’s culinary kitchen equipment.

"The new lighting system will be very impactful..."
Mundhenk noted many reasons for the changes, including the specialization of analytics in baseball which have filtered through the organizational levels, the fact that the Loons’s now are a High-A team, the rise of the number of females in baseball operations, as well as the MLB elimination of its rookie league and the resultant distribution of players that have increased roster numbers for the remaining teams by two or three players and support staff.

To date, the Michigan Baseball Foundation has received project support from The Dow Company Foundation ($1,000,000), The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation ($800,000), The Rollin M. Gerstacker Foundation ($600,000), and The Charles J. Strosacker Foundation ($350,000). MBF contributions for the projects will exceed $1.7 million. “MBF is grateful for the incredible support from our area foundations for these necessary projects. Their support began in 2007 with funding the construction of Dow Diamond and all have been instrumental in maintaining the finest minor league facility and events center in the nation,” says MBF Founder & CEO Bill Stavropoulos. Local vendors involved in the projects include Three Rivers Corp., Bierlein Companies, Blasy Electric and Honor Security.
Great Lakes Loons manager Jair Fernandez
Fernandez, 37, becomes the 11th manager in the Loons history. Last season, Fernandez served as skipper for the Los Angeles Dodgers Arizona Complex League team, his seventh season coaching in the organization. He previously led the team as hitting coach during which they hit a combined .240 in those two seasons, accumulating 192 home runs.

During his nine-year playing career, the Colombian-born catcher rose to the Triple-A level making two stints at the Triple-A level and an All-Star year in 2008 with the Beloit Sky Carp, then affiliated with the Minnesota Twins. 

Anderson and De Los Santos return as pitching coaches with the Loons after leading the staff to a league-best 3.73 team ERA last year, helping them win a Midwest League Divisional Championship. Anderson, 29, has led the Loons to the top spot in league strikeouts in back-to-back seasons. De Los Santos also returns for a third year on the coaching staff and second sharing the title of pitching coach with Anderson. The 39-year-old De Los Santos had a nine-year minor league career as a right-handed pitcher, mostly in the Tampa Bay system. 

Dickson returns for a second season as hitting coach with the Loons after spending the 2012 season as a player in Great Lakes. He was drafted in 2011 by the Dodgers, and made his Major League debut with the club in 2017. Former Loon Elian Herrera is back for a fourth season as the bench coach for Great Lakes. The former second baseman, a four-year big leaguer, begins his sixth season as a coach within the Dodgers’ organization.  Also returning is athletic trainer Ikuo Kato. Rounding out the staff are newcomers, performance coach Jake Taylor and affiliate development associate Colby Wyatt.

For 2024 tickets, go to Loons.com.

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Read more articles by Ralph E. Wirtz.

Ralph E. Wirtz is a native Midlander who retired from the Midland Daily News as a managing editor in 2015. He has been freelancing since then in between traveling and volunteering. He has four adult children, all who graduated from Bullock Creek High School as he did. He is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a Central Michigan University grad. He can be reached at ralphewirtz@gmail.com.