Toledo, Ohio — Austin Peterson sat with his 4-year-old daughter, Adrina, in the right-field stands, just taking in a baseball game.
As the Toledo Mud Hens faced the Indianapolis Indians at Fifth Third Field last week, Peterson, 25, wasn’t worried about the score or the situation or the players on the field. The only recognizable names in the lineup were catcher James McCann — on a rehab stint from the Tigers — and Tyler Collins, who is trying to make his way back to Detroit or any other major-league team.
And that’s OK.
At Fifth Third Field — which is celebrating its 15-year anniversary in downtown Toledo — it’s not about the names. The focus is on the fan experience and the ballpark itself, and as with most minor-league baseball teams, it’s hard to promote individual players. So the quirky promotions and a good, fun night out at the park with the family or business colleagues take precedence.
Who’s on first? Almost nobody knows.
That’s part of the appeal.
“You have to have facilities that look good, the promotions fresh and give people — who have maybe a passing interest in baseball or none at all — a reason to come with the 15 percent we consider diehards,” said Erik Ibsen, Mud Hens executive vice president and general manager.
“We have 85 percent who have an average to no interest in baseball. They’re here because their company outing is doing a picnic or their child is part of a choir singing the national anthem.”
The Mud Hens moved to downtown Toledo from Maumee in 2002, and in that first year, Fifth Third Field was named the best stadium in minor-league baseball by Newsweek, which cited the roost seats overhanging in right field. Fifth Third Field has withstood the test of time over those 15 years, still ranking among the best in the minor leagues.
The Mud Hens are a nonprofit organization and without a private ownership group, they can have a different agenda, not focused entirely on the bottom line. Among the chief goals is to make an imprint on the downtown area beyond just dollars.
At their previous home at Skeldon Stadium, they were drawing about 290,000 fans per year; the initial projections were around 440,000 in moving to Toledo. In the years since, they have averaged about 550,000 fans per season, and last year they surpassed the 8-million mark in total attendance.
“It’s a good place for fun and friends, especially during the week,” said Peterson, 25, who goes to about three or four games each season. “It’s a place you can build memories.”
For Peterson, getting to Fifth Third Field and parking is easy, and it’s a safe environment for him and Adrina.
It carries the nostalgia of his first game, in 2005, when his parents brought him.
And now, he gets to pass that experience to the next generation.
“I was in section 117 (the first time) and it was the first time I caught a foul ball,” Peterson said. “Toledo doesn’t have much do other than this, but Fifth Third has definitely brought more life to downtown.”
Location, location, location
Beyond baseball, the Mud Hens and Fifth Third Field have been a boon to the downtown area, spurring economic growth and becoming the hub for the Warehouse District. In 2002, there was just a smattering of occupied buildings; now, the district boasts about 75 businesses, including bars and restaurants, retail, law firms and art galleries within a four-block radius.
“There’s a much bigger vision here: that the ballpark could help be a part of downtown redevelopment and it could help not only the organization but it could be a part of downtown,” Ibsen said. “The way people look at it now, 15 years later, is that it’s really been that script and more.”
The Mud Hens also have entrenched themselves in the fabric of the downtown corporate culture, hosting many business gatherings and becoming the forerunner to a renaissance, much like downtown Detroit is experiencing with the Pistons moving downtown, joining the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions.
And much like the Ilitch family and Dan Gilbert in Detroit, the Mud Hens are putting their money back in to the city, reinvesting more than $12.5 million in development, including the area surrounding the Fifth Third, aptly named Hensville.
It includes banquet spaces, an open-air park.
“That is extremely important for any business: if you invest all this money, if you don’t take care of it and reinvest, people will stop coming,” Ibsen said. “There have been minor-league teams that have built new parks and after a three- to four-year honeymoon and then you start to see things go the wrong way.
“Minor-league baseball is about the experience: families, companies, church groups and scout groups coming out and having a great time. The baseball is part of it, but if we were dependent on die-hard baseball fans, we probably wouldn’t be in business.”
The Mud Hens have exceeded some of their fiscal goals, paying off their mortgage at Fifth Third Field last year — five years ahead of schedule.
Not just baseball
The corporate suites were buzzing with activity, in a party-like atmosphere, with a couple fans outside enjoying the game, while many others stayed inside and socialized, talked and ate from the catered menus.
Kids coveted ice cream, amid the familiar aroma of hot dogs. The iconic Mud Hens merchandise was moving in the team store.
The concourses were littered with staff members, just looking for a way to help.
Baseball business as usual.
The overall fan experience is more than that, though.
“The biggest draw is it’s somewhere to go. It’s nice and clean and safe for a family,” said James Anderson, 50, who took his three nephews to their first game this season. “It’s a getaway from the norm.”
There are no posters of somewhat-familiar players such as JaCoby Jones, Bruce Rondon or Steven Moya. There’s no need. That’s left for a major-league spot like Comerica Park, which balances promoting players and the team with the family fun.
“That’s why you do have to focus in on the facility being somewhere that people want to come, clean and in good shape,” Ibsen said.
“You’re promoting the affordability and the experience and the fun you can have, even if you don’t know who the pitcher is tonight.”
But the pitcher doesn’t matter anyway.
It’s about the fun, not the baseball.
Fifth Third Field
What: Home of Toledo Mud Hens, the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A Affiliate
Capacity: 8,943 fixed seats; capacity is 10,300 including picnic areas and other fan areas
Dimensions: 320 feet to left, 386 to left-center, 400 to center, 375 to right-center, 315 to right