On Jan. 12, 2006, William Stavropoulos, at the time, the chairman of the Dow Chemical Company, announced at a news conference, “The rumors are true, we’re bringing baseball to Midland.”
That announcement led to the construction of a new stadium in downtown Midland, Dow Diamond. The team, named the Great Lakes Loons, and several thousand fans saw the first pitch a year later on a frigid night in April 2007.
One of the people who helped make that happen was Mike Hayes, the vice president of executive relations for Dow. “I remember the day; it happened to be my birthday,” says Hayes.
A record crowd of 6,671 people gathered at Dow Diamond on Aug. 23, 2019.
Hayes later retired, opened a consulting business, and then served for five years as the president and CEO of the Midland Center for the Arts. He serves on the board of the Michigan Baseball Foundation and was tapped last September to be the interim president and general manager of the Loons.
"It’s not about baseball, it’s about creating vibrancy and stimulating investment. Baseball is icing on the cake; it’s been a catalyst for a tremendous amount of activity."
Hayes first came to Midland in the early 1970s after graduating from Central Michigan University to do probation and parole work at the Midland County Courthouse. He was later elected to serve first as the county clerk and then as our area’s state representative in Lansing. He started at Dow in government affairs and advocacy in 1988.
The 2020 season was cancelled for the Loons and all of minor league baseball due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The lost season and the resulting financial loss led the Loons to significantly reduce staff.
“We had a tremendous staff going into last season but we did have to let some talented people go,” says Hayes.
Hayes looks over the snow-covered field at Dow Diamond, about three months before the usual Opening Day.
The Loons are an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the 2020 World Series champions. They play in the Midwest League, which is now a High-A league, one step up from the Low-A, where they’ve been for decades. The change was made after Major League Baseball (MLB) took control of the minor leagues during the off-season.
Q: When might we see a first pitch to the Loons season this year and what are the challenges to get there?
A: Everything we talk about has an asterisk (*), which is COVID-19. We can plan all we want and develop scenarios, which we have, but all of that has an asterisk depending on COVID and the actions the government takes. Government leaders are trying to cope with this the best they can.
We were on a call yesterday [Jan. 8] with the Dodgers and major league baseball; they have every intention of professional baseball being played in 2021. They didn’t even know when the majors are going to start. Their primary goal is to keep their players at every level safe and healthy. They’ll bring baseball back. Best projection is we will have baseball in Midland, I’m certain of that. Probably won’t start until late May/early June — it could go later into September. Our last game is usually on Labor Day.
The Loons dugout along the first baseline is quiet this time of year.
The plan of major league baseball and the Dodgers is most likely they’ll bring in major league and Triple-A players to spring training first in mid-February. That’s in Arizona for the Dodgers. They won’t bring in the A or AA players at the time because they don’t have the capacity to practice social distancing with that many players. I could see them coming in [to Arizona] around the first of April.
Q: When you look back at when the announcement was first made to build a stadium and bring minor league baseball to Midland 15 years ago, what were your goals?
A: We wanted to stimulate economic development and vibrancy in downtown Midland and the Great Lakes Bay Region. To do that, we had to come up with something major to do. We looked at a lot of different options. The one thing we saw was what was happening with cities and minor league baseball. We contacted Tom Dickson, who owned the Lansing Lugnuts. One thing led to another and we ended up focusing on minor league baseball.
The landmark scoreboard at Dow Diamond sits dormant.
We wanted this to belong to the community and be controlled locally. None of us wanted to personally profit from it. We decided to create the ownership under a 501(c)(3) (an IRS nonprofit organization), the Michigan Baseball Foundation. That board consists of people from the area who have the area’s interests in mind. We wanted to be able to invest in the community and the region from a nonprofit perspective.
Q: What impact has this made on Midland and the region?
A: We’ve given out north of $1.2 million in grants in the region. We feel we’ve prompted over $90 million in private investment and $17-18 million in public improvements.
Before Dow Diamond, there was no talk or interest in what’s become the East End, the H Residences, Pathfinder Commons (apartments), Ellsworth Place condominiums, Delta College, Fairfield Inn, and the Bay City Y. All of that’s happened since we built Dow Diamond. We’re very proud of the economic and community development we’ve played a part in.
I can remember back in 2006 when we were building the stadium and I was out giving talks in the community, I would say, ‘It’s not about baseball, it’s about creating vibrancy and stimulating investment.’ Baseball is icing on the cake; it’s been a catalyst for a tremendous amount of activity.
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ goal is to keep their players safe and healthy.
We’ve exceeded our expectations of what this could be. Prior to this year, which was a lost year, we’ve had over 3 million fans come to Dow Diamond to watch baseball. They enjoy baseball, each other, and a sense of community. What did we have in Midland that brought people together like that before 2007? We’ve been thrilled with the fan and community support.
Bringing the talent here in our employment base, we’ve watched them grow. Seeing the staff development has been gratifying. Being connected to the Los Angeles Dodgers has been unbelievable. The players, Clayton Kershaw (three-time Cy Young Award winner) and Corey Seager (World Series MVP), and to see that 16 members of the championship team were former Loons, it just boggles the mind. We could sit there at Dow Diamond and watch those guys play baseball. It’s moving to know we helped nurture the talents of those players.
Q: You’ve been a community leader for a long time. What are your thoughts given this era of the pandemic, our local disaster, and the recent political unrest?
A: I actually get pretty emotional about it. A view of the stands along the third-base line on a chilly, wet January day.
My wife, Deb, and I came to Midland in the early ‘70s. We’re both Michigan born and raised. I remember sitting in the LaSalle Cafe (downtown) with the likes of Ned Arbury, Marv Stein, Stuart Bergstein, Jay Grosberg, Judge Jim Rood, Joel Kahn, and then getting to know people like Alan Ott and Ranny Riecker. I was amazed by those people who took young people like Deb and I and helped us grow as people and professionals.
To be able to give back in my own little way, we will never leave Midland. It’s been so good to us. We can’t imagine being anywhere else. I think COVID, the pandemic, the unrest — it’s helped us realize even further how important friends and community are. Although we can’t interact face to face, we have connected with people in different ways like Zoom. We joined this tremendous community over 47 years ago; it just means so much to us.
For the Loons, we need the community to come back to support us. It’s going to take a few years to bounce back. We need the fans. People have to show up on summer afternoons and nights. Otherwise, it’s going to be a struggle. The Dodgers have made a major commitment to us, all the way from LA to here. My message is concentrating on asking people to set aside a few nights to come back [to Dow Diamond].