D9and10Sports.com had a chance to sit down with South Bend Cubs President Joe Hart, a 1992 Cameron County graduate, last week and talk to him about his experience. The end result is a three-part series on what Hart is doing now, how he got there, and what growing up in Emporium in the 1980s was like. This is Part One of the series detailing what Hart is doing today
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Joe Hart is living the life.
At least that is what his hometown friend, Ralph McKimm Jr., said when we informed him we were in South Bend, Ind., interviewing the 1992 Cameron County graduate for this story.
And Hart very well might be living the life.
Since 2012, Hart has been the president of the minor league team in South Bend. When he came to South Bend in 2012 it was the Silverhawks, and they were an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2015, the franchise reached an agreement to become the Chicago Cubs affiliate in the then Low Class A Midwest League. The team became a part of the High Class A Central Division this season.
So what does a team president in the minor leagues do?
“It’s probably easier (to say) what he doesn’t do,” Hart joked. “For me, I am probably different than most. I am very hands-on. I still sell group outings to groups of 20 or more. Most team presidents don’t. But, for me, I like being out. I like interacting with the fans. I sell corporate sponsorships (including to Warren-based Northwest Savings Bank). I am the liaison between us and the Chicago Cubs. I deal a lot with them. I work with the city because the city owns the facility. We just lease it from them. We have a great relationship with them. And, I do a ton of speaking engagements within a 70- to 75-mile radius.
“I love it. It’s not the same thing every day. You kind of have that different thing. You think you know what your day is going to be revolving around, and then it gets changed up. It’s kind of nice to just be able to do the different things. But, I love being out and talking with the fans.”
And the fans and staff love interacting with Hart.
During different times when we were in the concourse area with Hart, fans would come up to him and say hello and just find out how he was doing, and he did likewise.
And the people who work for him had nothing but glowing things to say about him.
Mary Lou Pallo, the Merchandise Manager – the first person we actually met when we got to the park looking for Hart’s office – said that the best thing she could say about him was that he lets his employees do their job.
“He is great to work for and with,” Pallo said.
Don Greider, one of the three people who run the Tiki Hut bar out in left field, said the same thing.
In fact, he wanted to make sure we came out to see him during the game so he could tell us how great Hart is to work for.
“I love working here,” Greider, who owned his own bar at one point in his life before going to work for the South Bend Cubs, said. “I love coming to the ballpark and interacting with everyone.”
That was a theme that was heard over and over again throughout the night.
Hart was humble about it saying that it only makes sense to bring in people who know more about certain things than he does.
“When I hired Nick Brown to be our General Manager, our owner, Andrew Berlin, wanted to know if I was sure because Nick had as much experience if not more in baseball as I had,” Hart said. “Of course, I want people around me who know what they are doing. I don’t want to have to micro-manage them. If I have to do that, I didn’t hire right.”
IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT BASEBALL
Hart said one of the things he realized pretty quickly about working in minor league baseball is it isn’t always about the baseball.
“As much as I’m a baseball guy and I love it, I’ve also been smart enough to realized we’re not just selling baseball,” Hart said. “Our mindset here is we’re in the memory-making business. We’re selling and creating memories more so than outcomes of games. We’re Single A baseball. People typically don’t remember four or five years later what the score of the game was. But, you remember if your son or daughter or grandkids got a foul ball or had ice cream in the little helmet. That’s what we’re doing. It certainly resonated in the community, because when I got here this franchise had been 23, 24 years. It wasn’t new by any stretch. It was here, people knew it was here, but people just didn’t really care.”
That is not the case anymore.
In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 Pandemic shut down the world, the South Bend Cubs drew an average crowd of 4,770, the 48th best mark in Minor League baseball and the ninth-best mark of teams in Single A or lower.
Compare that to 2011, the last year before Berlin bought the team and hired Hart as the team president. The Silver Hawks averaged 1,762 fans per game and ranked 191st in minor league baseball in average attendance.
A big part of the increased attendance was a stadium upgrade and improvement project that cost more than $8 million and was overseen by Hart.
That improvement project turned what is now knows as Four Winds Field from an ordinary stadium into one of the best ballparks in all of Minor League baseball being seeded second in High Class A by Ballpark Digest in its 2021 bracket-style poll for fans and was voted the best ballpark in High Class A. (Read more about our experience at Four Winds Field)
“We totally transformed the ballpark,” Hart said. “When I got here in 2012, it was just a pretty bland ballpark, and all the old ownership group was doing was kind of promoting baseball and baseball only and opening the gates and those who showed, showed. We kind of transformed everything. We created little entertainment pockets within the ballpark. The inflatables for kids, the Tiki Hut, the batting cages. All of that.”
See the stadium before the renovations
See the stadium after the renovations
Because of the ballpark improvements and the emphasis on entertainment, Hart said one of his biggest satisfaction comes from the non-baseball fan who keeps coming back to the ballpark.
“Where we take the most pride and get the biggest sense of, I guess, excitement is at the end of the year when somebody will walk up to you and go ‘Joe, I don’t like baseball but I came out to the ballpark five times this year. That is actually the person we’re trying to market to because the diehard fans are going to come out regardless. But it’s the person that’s not the baseball fan, when they come out and come out that many times you know you’re doing something right because they’re not sitting here being bored out of their mind.”
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CUBS
Another key moment for Hart and the South Bend franchise was when the franchise became a Cubs affiliate.
This was a great moment both personally and professionally for Hart.
From the professional end of things, it brought a franchise agreement with a team that was seen as a local team by many in the South Bend area, as South Bend is just an hour, 48-minute drive from Wrigley Field and is also easily accessible by train.
“It’s been huge,” Hart said. “Probably 70% of the people just in this area are diehard Cubs fans. You have some White Sox fans and some Cardinals fans, but probably 70% of our fans are Chicago Cubs fans. In our first year as a Cubs affiliate, our attendance went up 90,000 people. All because of that. Nothing changed on the field. You still don’t really know who the (players) were because it’s Single A. But it just took off.”
And when the Cubs won the World Series, their first since 1908, in 2016, things just exploded, Hart said.
“The Cubs have bee great,” Hart said. “We’ve had the World Series trophy here a couple of times. When we hosted the Midwest League All-Star Game in 2019 they got Ryne Sandberg (the Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman) to come and be our guest speaker at a lunch. We sold 900 tickets at the conversion center for a lunch to hear Sandberg speak. That doesn’t happen with most minor league teams. Being a Cubs affiliate here, it just made a huge difference.”
On the personal side of things, having the Cubs be an affiliate has been a great treasure for Hart, who grew up a Cubs fan. And the Cubs gave Hart a World Series ring after the 2016 championship – a ring that he has brought back to Emporium with him and allowed his friends to try on.
“That’s probably my No. 1 possession,” Hart said. “I grew up a Cubs fan.”
Hart became a Cubs fan because nearly all the Cubs games were on WGN when he was growing up.
“You didn’t have MLB Network,” Hart said. “You couldn’t catch all the games. But, WGN. I would come home every day and they were during the day for the most part. You would watch their games and you would go out and play catch with your buddies and you were Andre Dawson or Keith Moreland or Jody Davis.”
Part Two: A Long, Winding Road to South Bend will be published July 15
Part Three: Growing up in Cameron County was a Special Time will publish July 16