Fort Wayne, Indiana, has two notable claims to fame. First, in 1845, a noted American conservationist named John Chapman died and is buried there (more on him later). Second, on May 11, 1871, the first-ever professional baseball game was played in Fort Wayne, when the Fort Wayne Kekiongas beat the Cleveland Forest Citys 2-0 on May 11.
With all that history, it was a little weird that the city’s minor league baseball franchise took on the milquetoast and significance-free nickname Fort Wayne Wizards when it debuted in 1993.
“I think it was fairly obvious that it was kind of just the alliteration of the W,” said the team’s Broadcasting and Media Relations Manager John Nolan. “At the time, there was no other major professional sports team with the moniker of Wizards.”
Since then, Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wizards have come and gone, and the Washington Bullets became the Wizards, so the team’s one and only possible reason for its nickname went away. “All the sudden,” Nolan said, “Wizards wasn’t a very unique name.”
In the mid-2000s, the team was purchased by Hardball Capital, and plans were launched to build a new downtown stadium, Parkview Field, which was just named 2014’s #10 overall stadium experience, first in minor league baseball, by the website Stadium Journey.
With the new ballpark, the organization wanted to get a fresh start, which included a rebranding effort. A name-the-team contest was announced, and participating fans were asked to keep certain factors in mind. “The emphasis at that point in time was for there to be something unique, creative, and local,” Nolan said.
Before the 2009 season, the team announced its new name and unveiled a logo designed by Sky Design, Atlanta.
According to Nolan:
TinCaps is a reference to Johnny Appleseed. The legend of Johnny Appleseed is based off a real person, John Chapman, who is famous for helping to plant apple trees throughout the Midwest, including in Indiana, and John Chapman died in Fort Wayne, and is buried in Fort Wayne. There’s a park named Johnny Appleseed Park in Fort Wayne, and every year there’s a Johnny Appleseed festival, so there’s strong roots between John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, and the city of Fort Wayne.
The TinCaps’ primary logo is an apple with a pot on its head, significant because Johnny Appleseed was famous for wearing a pot on his head. The team’s alternate logo also features a tin cap, this one atop the letters FW for Fort Wayne. (I asked if the team ever considered a uniform that included an actual metal pot for a cap, and Nolan said that the team had not considered it. I can’t imagine why. )
As with many logo changes, this change was initially not well received. “There were people who thought Wizards was a fine name and we should just keep it,” Nolan said, “or weren’t on board with TinCaps being so unique.”
But by the time the first season rolled around, fans not only in Fort Wayne had come around, but all through baseball. The team has been included on Minor League Baseball’s list of the top 25 teams in terms of merchandise sales for all five years of its existence, pretty good for a Padres affiliate in the single-A Midwest League.
“That first year right off the bat there was a record sale for merchandise that had never been matched during the Wizards days,” Nolan said.
And it’s not just fans who like the logo. “I’ve been here for two seasons, and every player I’ve talked to finds it pretty cool,” Nolan said. “One guy who we had this past year, he was only 18 years old from the Dominican Republic, Franmil Reyes…. He told me that he was anxiously awaiting his chance to play for the TinCaps for a few reasons, but one of them was that he told me he thought the hat and the logo were cool.”
As part of the branding effort, the team incorporates apples into the entire fan experience. The team store is called the Orchard, the kid’s club is called the Apple Core, there’s a seating area atop a parking garage called the Tree Tops (modeled after Wrigley’s rooftop seats), and the stadium’s Mexican food concession stand is called Manzana’s (Spanish for apple).
“When you’re here, you realize that there’s an apple theme going on,” Nolan said.
Of course, there are all sorts of apple-based concessions. The Apple Cart behind home plate sells everything from actual apples to apple wontons, apple streusel, and one particular item that has become the apple of baseball fans’ eyes.
“The one that was just introduced during the 2014 season was named the best new food item in minor league baseball by Ballpark Digest. It’s the BIG APPLE,” Nolan said. “BIG APPLE, for what it’s worth, is all capitals.”
And no wonder: “It’s got all those apple items I just mentioned, like sliced apples and the desserts, plus four scoops of ice cream, caramel, chocolate syrup, sprinkles,” Nolan said. “It’s really for a family of four. And that’s all in a batting helmet.”
When Fort Wayne’s team made the switch from Wizards to TinCaps, the most significant decision it made was to seize on an identity with meaning to the local community. It’s the hallmark of nearly every successful minor league brand—something that reinforces a connection between the team and the place. And if there’s a way to tie in a gigantic helmet filled with apples and ice cream while they’re at it, then that’s even better.