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Published: Friday, 8/15/2003

Fifth Third second to none

How sweet it is to say it: Not yet a year and a half old, Fifth Third Field continues to remake this city's image of itself. It's one in a million, you might say.

Sort of like Chad Cunningham of Napoleon, whose good timing at the turnstyles made him the millionth fan to attend a game at the still new downtown home of the Toledo Mud Hens.

After just 136 home games, the ballpark described last year by Newsweek Magazine as the best minor league facility in the country, passed the 1 million mark in attendance this week with some traditional baseball pomp and circumstance. A surprised Mr. Cunningham was treated to a grab bag of gifts and invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Who knew the stars would align for the 30-year-old retail worker when he, along with 6,131 other fans, came to watch the Hens beat Charlotte on Monday night?

The fan count Monday evening boosted the season total to 432,740. Combined with the record-setting 567,804 fans who flocked to Fifth Third in its inaugural campaign last season, the attendance figure at the resplendent roost was pushed to over a million.

Put another way, Toledo's state-of-the-art ballpark did in two years what it took Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee 11 seasons to accomplish. Reaching even further back into team history, it took the old Swayne Field the same amount of time to reach the million mark.

Yes, the Hens have come a long way. When they built a brand new baseball stadium with a spectacular view of the city skyline, fans came. And the team gave them something to cheer about on the field last year as well, winning Toledo's first championship since 1968.

With nine home dates remaining on the 2003 schedule, matching last year's attendance is problematic, but if this year's attendance comes up short, it won't be by much.

The magic of the world's most famous minor league sports franchise obviously continues this season as fans fill the stadium and suites with applause for a job well done, even though the team's chances of making the International League playoffs again are dwindling.

And the Mud Hens, with their impressive home field, applaud back. They know Fifth Third is a success because of its fans. All one million of them.

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