“This is one of those difference makers”
With a New England accent and penchant for colorful detail delivered without taking a breath — at least when he’s in sales-pitch mode — Baby Cakes owner Lou Schwechheimer is in Wichita to sell a dream.
Whether Wichita’s buying is yet to be seen.
In Schwechheimer’s telling, the return of affiliated Minor League Baseball to Wichita means the return of the simple joys of a “magical” ballpark serving a slice of “Americana.” He weaves his own “only-in-America” narrative into the story.
“I remember as a kid growing up in the projects,” several of his stories begin.
He talks about playing baseball in the streets from early morning until so late in the day he could no longer see the ball.
“That’s kind of the magic that baseball had for me.”
He says he didn’t go to a professional baseball game until age 12 when he won a newspaper contest for selling the most subscriptions to the Daily News of Newburyport in Massachusetts.
He, his father and a busload of kids went to Fenway Park, where Schwechheimer said they walked up a ramp to a sea of people — more than he’d ever seen in one place — and a burst of color in the form of the famous Green Monster wall high in left field.
“I was in awe of that moment.”
Schwechheimer is equally adept at redirecting a conversation he’d rather not have.
Can he understand widespread criticism that the deal to lure him and his team from New Orleans has not been as transparent as it could or should have been?
“I want what’s best for the city of Wichita. We’re in Wichita because we want to be there.”
That’s what he told New Orleans, too, in 2016 when he purchased the Zephyrs, which he renamed the Baby Cakes.
Another group had tried and failed to move the team to Houston.
“Asked if he was going to keep the Zephyrs in New Orleans, Schwechheimer said, ‘Absolutely,’ ” according to an April 2016 story in the New Orleans Advocate.
“New Orleans is a world-class community, and I like challenges,” Schwechheimer told the publication. “Our goal is to make New Orleans one of the top three franchises in all of Minor League Baseball in a couple of years, and we’re going to work tirelessly to make that happen.”
Schwechheimer said the authority that owned the ballpark would not make upgrades from the 15 years of dilapidation after Hurricane Katrina.
“The challenges in New Orleans were going to continue to grow,” he said. “At some point, there was going to come a fork in the road.”
He said Minor League Baseball eventually would not allow the club to keep its Triple-A status.
Then Wichita called.
International League president Randy Mobley, who has known Schwechheimer since they were “young hopeful executives,” said the “unsurmountable challenges” in New Orleans shouldn’t be held against Schwechheimer.
“The level of regard for him within the professional baseball ranks is extremely high.”
Schwechheimer said he has quietly spent “significant” time in the last a year and a half taking trips to Wichita from his home in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. He calls Wichita “a baseball city.”
He tells of touring the airport, walking the riverfront, visiting Old Town and falling in love with Wichita while being “amazed by the vision” and “amazed by the enthusiasm.”
“I really realized this was a moment in time.”
‘Hold on, sonny’
Ludwig Herrmann Schwechheimer Jr., who was born in 1957, grew up in military housing that he said was similar to Section 8 housing for families without many resources.
“I’m proud of it. It’s just part of the narrative.”
Schwechheimer said he worked his way through high school and college — the first in his family to go, with his mother’s encouragement — by being a cook, a lifeguard and a salesman in a men’s clothing store among other things.
Though his interest was sports management, Schwechheimer chose the more general communications studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
In his sophomore year in 1978, Schwechheimer said he “got up the courage one day to pick up the phone and call Fenway Park.”
He said he started “just blabbering” to Helen Robinson, who worked the switchboard there for 60 years.
“I’ll never forget it. She said, ‘Hold on, sonny, let me get you someone that will talk to you.’ ”
Schwechheimer reached Dick Bresciani in publicity.
“I just poured my heart out.”
He landed a 15-minute informational interview that turned into five hours and an internship.
“I made it a point to be the first one at Fenway Park every day and the last one to leave every day. I never wanted to leave.”
Schwechheimer said he learned that there are all kinds of smaller businesses within the business of baseball: travel, sales and marketing, concessions, landscaping, broadcasting and ticketing.
In his junior year in 1979, Schwechheimer had an internship with the Pawtucket Red Sox, a farm team for the Boston Red Sox in Pawtucket, R.I.
New owner Ben Mondor purchased the club out of bankruptcy.
“The ballpark was falling apart,” Schwechheimer said.
“Alls I looked at was, you know, with a little bit of . . . love in this place, this place could be magic, and I really wanted to be part of that.”
He graduated college in 1980 and became the public relations director for the PawSox, as the team is known.
“In three years, I went from public relations director to assistant general manager to general manager.”
He was living the PawSox story. The team’s motto was “Where the dreams begin.”
One day, Mondor called Schwechheimer, who came to be known as “Schweck” and “Sweet Lou,” into his office and had him sign something.
“He goes, ‘Congratulations. We’ve just made you one of the owners.’
“It’s one of those only-in-America stories.”
Around 2003, Schwechheimer said he told Mondor he wanted to go to a mid-career program Harvard University offers.
“I just want to see if I can do it,” he said.
While there, he attended a symposium on urban planning and learned that ballparks can make communities more vibrant.
The idea, he said, is “using the baseball stadium as the front porch to your community.”
Schwechheimer said he began to look into using baseball as a bridge to other cultures.
He created the Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation, which he calls “an exchange goodwill program just to use our common love of baseball to build bridges.”
In 2015, he sold his ownership in the PawSox so he could “create an investment vehicle to get people who love baseball and business and buy a series of clubs . . . and restore them like Pawtucket.”
In 1979, Schwechheimer said, the team had the lowest attendance in the league with 120,000 people.
Starting in 1999, he said, the team had 15 consecutive years of drawing 600,000 people a year as it continually restored the park.
Schwechheimer said in 2005 it led all 160 teams with 688,000 spectators “in that same little ol’ ballpark that they wanted to send a wrecking ball to.”
So why not keep Lawrence-Dumont, Wichita’s old stadium?
“It would never comply with the facilities standards today,” he said. “It was woefully inadequate in every category.”
He said it would never qualify for Triple-A.
Schwechheimer and his new group bought their first club in Florida from former Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
New Orleans was the second club, and Schwechheimer said his plan was to stay.
“Wichita came outta nowhere,” said Don Logan, president and COO of the Las Vegas Aviators.
He’s also chairman of the Pacific Coast League’s executive committee and spent several days in Wichita meeting with city officials and others about the ballpark.
Logan calls Schwechheimer “the best” and said his ball club is “going to enhance baseball to a level that you wouldn’t think possible.”
He said that of course Schwechheimer is a salesman.
“You gotta understand what we are,” Logan said. “We’re sales and marketing organizations.”
The entertainment they’re selling isn’t strictly baseball, he said. There’s beer and concerts and wacky skits and games, among other things.
“That’s what we are. That’s what this is.”
He said Schwechheimer is “the kind of guy you want running a team like that.”
Jay Miller, president of the Wichita ball club, has known Schwechheimer for years but has worked with him only a couple of months since coming to run the team.
“I’ll tell you right now I think he’s going to be the best boss I’ve ever had, and probably the reason why is because he doesn’t even say he’s my boss.”
Miller, who will be responsible for the park and its 40 full-time and 400 part-time employees, said Schwechheimer treats everyone the same.
“I’ve seen a guy who really cares about everybody,” Miller said.
“He’s done it all on his own. . . . He’s worked his way up from nothing to what he is today.”
Miller said he’s been a part of building six ballparks, including the stadium for the Round Rock Express for Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, his boss of 13 years.
He said he told his new boss that there’s always going to be negativity with some people and that he’s seen it much worse elsewhere.
“What I told him is going on right here right now is really nothing.”
Schwechheimer seems to be weathering the recent drama over the ballpark plan, and he said he has zero doubts that the team is coming here.
Much of the controversy was sparked by the city’s intent to sell Schwechheimer and an unnamed investment group several acres around the stadium for $1 an acre. Schwechheimer, who has never developed anything, has said it’s crucial for him to have that land to develop and generate money so he can keep ticket prices low.
Mayor Jeff Longwell has said the team won’t come without the deal. Schwechheimer won’t address the question directly.
They both seem confident that Tuesday’s City Council vote on the development agreement will go their way.
As Schwechheimer gets to know Wichita, he has discovered the city’s grit. One of the team names he’s now considering is the Wichita Grit.
He said he wants to capture “who we are and that is we are gritty, we are a mavericky kind of town.”
He’s pointedly now weaving Wichita into his tale and, though he’s not moved here yet, calling himself a Wichitan.
“We feel like we’re part of the Wichita family.”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle
If you go
What: City Council meeting that will include consideration of a deal to sell land near the stadium for $1 an acre to baseball team investors to develop
When: 6 p.m., Tuesday, March 19
Where: City Council chambers, 1st Floor, City Hall, 455 N. Main
The meeting is open to the public, and you don’t have to sign up in advance to speak about the ballpark deal. Speakers are generally limited to 5 minutes.