Profile Q & A: Chris Mundhenk, Great Lakes Loons

Chris Mundhenk is the president and general manager of the Great Lakes Loons, Midland’s minor league baseball team. He’s in his second year in that role. He first joined the organization when it was being formed in 2006. Mundhenk was one of the early hires when Bill Stavropolous, former CEO of Dow, and his team of regional community leaders decided to bring minor league baseball to Midland.  His first title was assistant general manager of marketing and promotions. 

Mundhenk is originally from Portsmouth, Ohio in the Shawnee State Forest, in the southern hills of Ohio. He grew up a Cincinnati Reds fan. At Otterbein University, Mundhenk earned a bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in marketing and a minor in sports management. He also played baseball there. He was a relief pitcher, the closer.

The Loons first opening day was held on a cold April evening at the newly constructed Dow Diamond in 2007. From the beginning, they’ve been an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers one of baseball’s legendary franchises. Great Lakes is now a High-A affiliate, playing in the High-A Central baseball league. Up to 2021, the Loons played in the Midwest League, which had a Low-A classification. Above High-A, baseball’s minor leagues ascend to Double-A, Triple-A, and then the major leagues. In High-A, Mundhenk says you’ll see players at a higher level in the development process.  The Loons will open this season on Friday, April 8 at Dow Diamond. Mundhenk says the delay in the start of the major league season will not have an impact on the Great Lakes Loons or the minor league baseball season.

The Great Lakes Loons are the Los Angeles Dodgers High-A affiliate.Q-Tell me about your hometown of Portsmouth and its connections to baseball.

A-Al Oliver, who played outfield for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1970’s, grew up in Portsmouth. And Don Gullett, from just across the border in Kentucky, was a left handed pitcher for the Big Red Machine, also in the 1970’s.

Branch Rickey from the Brooklyn Dodgers was also from Portsmouth, Ohio. He went to Ohio Wesleyan, played baseball there and became the coach, too. Later became the president and general manager of the Dodgers.  He didn’t just break the color barrier with Jackie Robinson. He was the innovator and kind of the creator of the minor league system. I’ve played baseball at Branch Rickey Park, along the Ohio River.

Q-Why did you come to Midland?

A-Paul Barbeau was the first hire (as president and general manager).I came here from Altoona, Pennsylvania, where I was the director of marketing and entertainment for the Altoona Curve, a Double-A team,  and the State College Spikes, a short season rookie league team. Both were affiliates of the Pirates.  The Spikes inaugural season was in ‘06. We had just gone through a “name the team” process, developed an identity, and rolled out a team in a new market. Also hosted the Eastern League All-Star game that year in Altoona.

I then got a call from Paul. When my wife and I came here for a visit, we loved the community.  What was exciting was the uniqueness of the organization and the mission. Bill Stavropolous had this vision of building a first class, state of the art facility, that would be privately owned and he was positioning the team to be a self-sustaining, non-profit entity that could give back to the community with grants. We do that in the form of the Michigan Baseball Foundation. I had never seen a structure like that in professional sports.  

I was very familiar with Paul. At that time, Paul was the GM of the Spokane Indians, a minor league baseball team (in Washington state). I had been the director of marketing and promotions of the Spokane Chiefs,a minor league hockey team.  Scott Littell was an account executive of the Spokane Indians. We all knew each other.  The three of us were part of Brett Sports and Entertainment, who owned the two teams. We looked at Midland as an opportunity to build something from the ground up. Develop a culture, establish the values, determine how we were going to do business. We wanted to provide service excellence, value to our guests,  premium forms of entertainment. We wanted it to be something we all could be proud of.
Lou E. Loon is the mascot of the Great Lakes Loons.
Q-In 2020, there was no minor league baseball because of COVID-19. In 2021, you got a late start after some of the COVID-19 restrictions were lessened or lifted.  Describe that experience.

A-When we look back to last  year, we were fortunate and excited to be playing baseball last year. There was a lot of uncertainty coming into last season. We were in the first quarter of ‘21 when we were asking if there was going to be a season, how many games, and what types of restrictions would we have (in terms of attendance). We had to be creative throughout the planning process.

When the formal announcement was made that we would be having a season, in a normal year, you spend about five months planning a season. You’re booking giveaways, entertainment–that’s a big part of the minor league experience. We really didn’t have the opportunity to put those plans in place. We opened the first month at 20% capacity. We had an added layer of restrictions with baseball itself. The players were also in a bubble. There could not be “on field” entertainment, no first pitches, no baseball buddies, etc.

We had to stay focused on what we could deliver. Those restrictions started to ease in June. We  had 11 days to get ready for a full crowd. We had staffing issues, normally you need 71 people on your game day staff, if you have a crowd of over 3,000. On May 1st, our staffing roster was at 25. 

Q-And this season?

The biggest message this year is Loons baseball is back and back in a big way. We’re going to commit to going beyond the level of entertainment people have come to expect. We’re going to get real creative and offer new, fresh things to our fans.

Dow Diamond has a maximum seating capacity of 6,000.This has been a bit of a reset. Our organization has been grounded in family friendly entertainment. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a destination for enjoying dinner at the ballpark. Our executive chef and our entire food and beverage team has been so focused on creating some new culinary pieces and new food options. We’ve had six or seven tastings for our staff. I’m really excited about it, but  we’ll also have our traditional ballpark fare.
We love that people enjoy coming here with friends and family. We’re recommitting to entertainment excellence and reinforcing service excellence. Last season, we were rekindling friendships with people we hadn’t seen in a year and a half.

We have our traditional ticket packages still in place. We have full season, half-season, we also have mini-plan ticket pages, with  5, 10, 15 game increments. We’ve seen customers buying habits, needs and wants have shifted. If you polled people, and asked, “Are you busier today than you were before?” They would say yes. We’re trying to offer packages that are very flexible. You have the ability to come to games when you want. That’s a trend throughout sports.

In the off-season, we’ve been developing a path and plan to ensure we’re in the best possible position for staffing. It’s important for the best possible guest experience. We had some food supply chain issues last year. Like our local restaurants, we’ve seen a vast increase in food costs. We’ve been committed to offer quality and high value to our guests.  We had our first job fair on February 27. We’ll have a “ Loons centric” job fair on Saturday, March 19 for Loons game day and food and beverage staff.  We have a lot of returners. 

Q-What makes Midland and the Great Lakes Bay Region stand out in the world of minor league sports?

A-I’m going to answer this in two parts. For me, what drew us and what has kept us in Midland is the uniqueness of this community and region. This is a dynamic community. Its residents are very fortunate to have the amenities that we have. I have lived in markets with a million plus people that don’t have the resources that Midland has. When I look at the region as a whole, it’s so well positioned.. Each community has its own amenities and offerings. We enjoy going to downtown Midland. We also spend a fair amount of time going to Bay City and Saginaw. We have a very dynamic region. The communities complement each other. There are things in each city that you can’t find in the other.
Our organization has been grounded in family friendly entertainment.
As a professional working in sports, what’s kept me working in this organization is the uniqueness of the organization. We get to work in sports. It’s tough to say it’s a job as much as it is a lifestyle. We have the opportunity to work in a world class facility to entertain people.We get to impact our community. We’ve been very fortunate that our organization has been committed to high standards, a quality facility, and we have the resources to reinvest in the facility and also be innovative.

We’ve been very fortunate to retain talent. Nearly 45 percent of our staff has been with our organization for ten years. In this industry, the average length of service is three and a half to four years. We have quality people who generate results and success who then make an impact in the community.

My hopes are that people who are life-long residents understand that we have the resources that we do. I grew up in an area that lacked resources. I’ve worked in the Northwest, the West Coast, the Midwest, and I’ve yet to see a community like this. We have a world class Center for the Arts, incredible outdoor recreation, our parks, the Chippewa Nature Center, I’m biased, we have Dow Diamond.

There’s something about living in the Midwest, living in a small community,  having relationships in the community. It's hard to replace...

You can come to a game, enjoy yourself, and know you’re also supporting the community, 

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The Loons promotional schedule features Hometown Heroes on Tuesdays, Paws and Claws on Wednesdays, Thirsty Thursdays, Feast Fridays, 13 Fireworks Loontaculars, and on Sundays, Kids Eat Free and Run the Bases.

There’s a Celebrity Series featuring performers who appeared in TV shows, The Office and Parks and Recreation, and the movie, Happy Gilmore. The Marvel Universe will descend on Dow Diamond on three separate evenings.  There will also be a Star Wars Night and a Princess and Pirate Night.

For the complete line-up and to order tickets, go to www.loons.com.




 

Read more articles by Ron Beacom.

Ron Beacom has served as the managing editor of Catalyst Midland since October 2020. He's also a freelance writer for the Midland Daily News and the producer/host of "Second Act: Life at 50 Plus" for WDCQ-Delta College Public Media (PBS). He's the co-producer of two WDCQ documentaries about the Tittabawassee River Disaster in 2020, "Breached! and Breached!2-The Recovery."