SOUTH BEND — Four Winds Field in downtown South Bend is a different place in 2015.
Don’t believe me?
Head to the downtown ballpark and watch them roll out the red, white and blue South Bend Cubs carpet.
It’s been more like a rocket boost.
“We knew there would be excitement, but we didn’t anticipate the level of excitement,” South Bend Cubs vice president of business development Nick Brown said.
“We’re not oblivious to the fact we’re so close to Chicago,” Brown said. “It was clear this is Cubs country. We knew we had to make a run at them.”
Brown likes to cite a New York Times study to further make his point.
Data collected by NYT through Facebook and broken down by ZIP code and more broadly by county shows 48 percent in St. Joseph County identify as Cubs fans. In the four surrounding counties — Elkhart (48), LaPorte (45) and Marshall (47) in Indiana and Berrien (35) in Michigan — the leader in each is also the Cubs.
Larry Flickinger, for one, is thrilled with the move.
“I was born and raised in a Cubs family,” Flickinger said. “The Diamondbacks are a great organization, but everybody is a Cubs fan.”
Flickinger, the former owner of Flick’s Home Plate, a Cubs-centric restaurant in Wakarusa — spends time with his fellow Cubs fans as the supervisor of ushers at Four Winds Field.
As ushers, “our job is fan interaction,” Flickinger said. “We try to spend as much time as we can with every person in the stadium. We are the ‘face of the franchise.’ We are taught to make everything magical. It’s a nine-inning vacation.”
South Bend Cubs president Joe Hart appreciates Flickinger’s hospitality.
“I wish I had about 200 Larrys,” Hart said.
The power of the brand and geography paired with a team of folks dedicated to doing everything in a first-class way has made Four Winds Field (some people still call in “The Cove”) as the place to be to hang out with family and friends.
“We’re growing our attendance at an extraordinary rate for Minor League Baseball,” Brown said.
In South Bend’s first 19 dates of the 2015 Midwest League season, average attendance at Four Winds Field is 3,972. Multiplied by 70 dates that would be 278,040. The team drew 258,836 for 69 regular-season dates in 2014 after 237,448 in 66 dates in 2013 and 189,575 in 69 dates in 2012.
“It’s exciting to think about that we haven’t gotten to our ‘busy’ season just yet,” Andy Buester, assistant general manager of ticket sales, said. “Typically, attendance picks up when school lets out. Last year, we sold out most Fridays and Saturdays. This year, we’re almost booked up full Fridays and Saturdays to the end of the season. People are gravitating to weekday games.”
Brian Woodworth — also known by his professional wrestling handle of “Crippler Costello” — has been employed by the team since the stadium opened in 1988 and now is in charge of parking. He marvels at the explosion in interest.
“It used to be that we’d have sell-outs on Fridays,” Woodworth said. “Everybody likes fireworks. But this has taken off.”
The change for Buester and his sales staff is volume.
“We’re still taking care of customers,” Buester said. “It’s just at a faster pace.”
Brandy Beehler, South Bend Cubs retail and merchandise manager, has been hopping along with her enlarged sales force. For the first time, the team shop — now known as the Cubs Den — is open year-round. Besides game days, the hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Beehler, a Penn High School graduate and third-year employee of the team, points to the date things all blasted off.
“It all started on Dec. 4, the day we unveiled the logo,” Beehler said. “The response to the merchandise has been phenomenal.”
While the South Bend Cubs is not a Major League Baseball club, that’s not the mentality.
“We hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Brown said. “If you think like you’re minor league, you’re going to act like you’re minor league.”
Jokes about the long championship dry spell in Chicago aside, South Bend tries not to wait until next year to fix things.
“We try to address a problem right then and there,” Brown said. “We’re constantly looking to improve homestand to homestand.”
With that in mind, next week’s plans call for the whole stadium to be power-washed and the concourses repainted.
“Our facility is important to us,” Brown said. “That’s what the people see. We’re constantly looking to freshen things up.”
There are ways around it.
One of the team’s business partners — an avowed White Sox backer — could not get himself to sign an agreement with a cubby bear on it nor write a check to the “South Bend Cubs.” His contract has an “SB” logo and he writes checks to Swing-Batter-Swing LLC.
Brown sometimes replies to this riddle by asking a few questions.
“We ask, ‘Are you a fan of South Bend? Are you a fan of the region? Are you a fan of entertainment? Are you a fan of fun?” Brown said. “We usually get a yes.”
So far, a lot of folks are saying “yes” to the South Bend Cubs.