2012 MUD HENS SEASON PREVIEW

Win or lose, they will come

Stadium main draw as fans continue to flock downtown

4/4/2012
BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Jets from the 180th Fighter Wing fly by before last year’s home opener. The Mud Hens will begin their 11th season at Fifth Third Field.
Jets from the 180th Fighter Wing fly by before last year’s home opener. The Mud Hens will begin their 11th season at Fifth Third Field.

Good baseball? Bad baseball? It doesn't seem to matter to many of those who attend Toledo Mud Hens games.

Opening day is around the corner. We don't know if the 2012 season will produce a Governors' Cup championship -- as the Hens accomplished back-to-back in 2005-06 -- or if Toledo will finish 21 games out of first place, as was the case last season.

What is clear as we embark upon the second decade of Hens baseball downtown at Fifth Third Field is that the standings and attendance won't necessarily have much to do with one another.

The Mud Hens drew 29 sellouts in 2005, when they finished 34 games over .500 and captured the first of those consecutive International League titles. And they had 29 sellouts in 2011 when they finished 67-77.

MUD HENS 2012 SEASON PREVIEW

The first season at Fifth Third Field, 2002, saw the Hens go 81-63 and they drew 547,204 fans. Last summer, 549,438 filed through the turnstiles to watch a losing team.

It turns out the stadium, not its tenant, is the star of the show, and for good reason.

Fifth Third Field became our crown jewel the day it opened and it has done much of the heavy lifting in rejuvenating downtown Toledo.

Close your eyes and envision the area before they wedged a state-of-the-art, yet intimate stadium between Washington, Monroe, St. Clair and Huron streets; before all the restaurants and watering holes and shops opened; before a new, equally-beautiful arena was even a blip on anybody's radar.

Remember the old, ramshackle warehouses? The shuttered storefronts? The empty sidewalks and abandoned parking lots after 5 p.m.?

As the voice whispered in Field of Dreams to Ray Kinsella, "If you build it, he will come."

Mud Hens catcher Max St-Pierre gives his cap to a fan as he leaves the dugout. In the first 10 seasons there were 297 sellouts, an average of almost 30 per year among the 72 home games.
Mud Hens catcher Max St-Pierre gives his cap to a fan as he leaves the dugout. In the first 10 seasons there were 297 sellouts, an average of almost 30 per year among the 72 home games.

And have we ever.

Later this season, the 6 millionth fan will walk through one of the four gates at Fifth Third Field. Muddy and Muddonna will be waiting with open arms … or wings.

Perhaps that fan will sit upstairs on the club level, or in the unique, suspended Roost beyond right field, or in one of the 32 suites, or with grandkids out in the picnic/play area. Or maybe it won't be a seat at all; the standing-room areas are popular, too, especially during those weekend sellouts.

Maybe he or she will eat a rib-eye sandwich at Gilhooley's Grille -- and don't we all miss Frank Gilhooley? -- followed by a sundae in a helmet at Casey's Creamery, washed down by a frozen daiquiri at Coop-A-Cabana.

Or maybe this will be a more traditional fan who will down a hot dog dressed in mustard and onions, crack open a fistful of peanuts and chase it all with a cold beer.

And maybe this traditional fan will care if the Mud Hens win or lose.

He or she will be in the minority.

Fifth Third Field has become the place to be, to see and be seen, a summer hangout with 8,943 seats where 10,000-plus often squeeze together to party, especially on fireworks nights when we gaze out over the skyline to 'ooh' and 'ahh.'

There was rarely an 'ooh' or an 'ahh' factor at old Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, the anti-Fifth Third where for far too long mostly bad teams played in front of mostly bad crowds.

Over 37 years at The Ned, the most the Hens ever drew in one season was 325,532 in 1997. Sellouts were few and far between.

The team has averaged 557,698 per year since moving downtown, topped by an all-time franchise record 590,159 in 2007 when the Hens won a third consecutive IL West title but fell short of a third straight Governors' Cup crown.

Maybe winning did sell a few more tickets. And, yes, it would be nice if the parent Detroit Tigers stepped up and made sure they put the same quality of team in Fifth Third Field for the 2012 season.

But do Mud Hens fans really care?

Opening day will mark the 298th sellout crowd at the still-sparkling if not quite new stadium and the total will likely surpass 325 by season's end.

It cost about $40 million to build the park.

It is the real star of Toledo baseball and has been worth every penny.

Win or lose.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.