L.C. Bates, the head groundskeeper, has been working at the ballpark since it opened in 1965.
Fenway Park has the Green Monster. Yankee Stadium has the monuments. Wrigley Field has the ivy. Tiger Stadium had the right-field overhang.
Skeldon Stadium has ... ah, well ... just a second ... let's think for a moment. What is the defining characteristic of Skeldon Stadium?
Is it those features left from its days as a former racetrack? Perhaps, although sports writers and broadcasters probably would prefer to forget days and nights spent in the “Pigeon Hilton,” the press box that used to be tucked high on the main grandstand on the third-base side.
Is it the outfield fences? Maybe, because for years those fences gave fits to umpires trying to determine the difference between a ground-rule double and a home run. They also are good for a chuckle or two, especially when the distances posted on their signs aren't quite right.
Is it the closeness of the stands to the field? Sometimes it feels as if fans can look right over the backs of the players, just as the umpire peers over the catcher's shoulder to call a ball or strike.
But truthfully, those features aren't it at all. Skeldon Stadium's unique feature makes it different from nearly every other professional baseball field.
And that same feature makes it similar to every other amateur baseball field around.
It's the people.
I know the players never will be able to sneak from the clubhouse to the field, not with the clickety-clack made by their metal spikes while walking on hard asphalt. I hear one coming; I turn, and then I see one coming ...
L.C. Bates was part of the crew working on the ballpark when it opened in 1965 as the Lucas County Recreation Center. He's still part of the crew as it closes today, serving as the head groundskeeper at Ned Skeldon Stadium.
He's the only person who can say he's been a part of the ballpark from its beginning until its end.
“Some people think I'm older than dirt,” said Bates, who turned 60 in May. “And they're right, because we brought the dirt in here about six or seven years ago.”
Bates remembers the days when they had to “burn” the field to get it ready for a game. “That was before we had a tarp. We'd pour gas on the field, then burn off the water before we'd turn the dirt over to dry it. It was the only way to dry the field quickly.”
A tarp solved that problem, but Bates didn't mind that job as much as some others. “The one thing I hated to do was to change the name of the visiting team on the scoreboard. We had to slide a panel with the team's name in, and the only way to do it was to climb a ladder that was mounted on the bottom of the scoreboard. If that wasn't bad enough, I'm scared of heights.”
Because of this fear, “There were times (the Hens) were supposed to be playing Rochester, and the scoreboard said they were playing Syracuse.”
But Bates wouldn't trade working at Skeldon for anything. “I enjoyed this job - every little bit of it,” he says.
Will he join the team when it moves to its new downtown home? “The Lord willing, that's my intention. But I hope I don't get lost and end up out here.”
This ballplayer is huge - taller than me, taller than my dad, taller than everyone around him. And the uniform is so clean and white and beautiful ...
Jerry Penyin played a little professional baseball. “But I'm not a celebrity, I'm just a guy who loves baseball.”
And he certainly loves the Hens. He comes to see roughly 30 games a season, driving from his home in the Cleveland suburb of North Olmsted.
What's more, he runs a baseball/softball program for the Strongsville Recreation Department that uses the Hens, not the nearby Indians, as its favorite team.
The league is called “Hen Heaven” and is played at the “Hen House.” Penyin, as the pitcher for both teams, fires strikes from the “Hen Hill” as the players' “Mother Hens” watch from the “Chicken Coop.”
He also uses the Hens for motivation. Penyin told his young charges that he planned to pitch batting practice for the team; he got his chance last Tuesday, also taking batting practice in full uniform. “I hope they learned that if they take a chance and don't worry about being embarrassed, they can do anything.”
The allure, said Penyin, is Skeldon Stadium. “It reminds me of when I was a teenager, going out to minor league parks in places like Oneonta and Batavia. When you go to places like this you think about guys like Babe Ruth walking out of the cornfields. It's got a real historic feel and I love being a part of that.”
Penyin promises to follow the team when it moves downtown, but he won't forget Skeldon. “I'm going to miss this field - I'm going to miss it a lot,” he says. “I'll probably come here and just sit in the stands as long as it's still here.”
What do you say to someone famous? These aren't just famous ballplayers, they are heroes, almost gods, at least to a 10-year-old boy. How do you speak to gods without having your voice squeak?
Steve Paprocki has been there from the beginning.
“I was 17 years old, and Toledo didn't have a team,” he says. “(When the team came in 1965) I followed the Hens.”
But in his mind's eye the pictures of those early Mud Hen teams are still fresh.
“In 1967 they won the title by beating Columbus. In the final game (the Hens) won 1-0 here at the Rec Center with very few fans (in attendance), maybe 17 or 18 hundred.
“When they won the pennant in 1968 it was great. They won it on the road, and there were seven of us here when they came home. We snuck over the fence to greet them at 2 o'clock in the morning.
“It's pretty sad when you've only got seven fans that greet them. But I won't forget it.”
Paprocki said Skeldon Stadium plays a key role in those memories. “I still like the stadium; it's a shame it's going to go, and I'll miss it. When they tear it down ... I'll come out and watch that. It will be a sad day.”
Paprocki also promises to continue to follow the Hens at their new home. “It doesn't matter where they play, I'll watch them. They could play in a dump yard and I'd come out to watch them.”
I finally stammer, `May I have your autograph?' and thrust a program and pen out. The player takes it from my hand and asks, `What's your name?' But I'm frozen. My eyes are wide as saucers. I'm done talking.
John Lenhart follows the Hens. Literally.
This season Lenhart, a season ticket holder at Skeldon, has traveled to see the Hens play in 10 of the 13 other International League ballparks, missing only Richmond, Ottawa and Pawtucket. “We were headed to Pawtucket, but then my son had an operation and that blew that one out of the water.”
The retired Union Carbide executive also has seen games in numerous other minor league parks, old and new. His favorite park? “To be very honest, my favorite park is Ned Skeldon Stadium. I'm used to it. It's not plastic. It's not concrete. But it seems to be more friendly, whether it's just the people that go there or what. It's just a friendly atmosphere.”
Lenhard has friends all over Skeldon - ushers and ticket takers who he knows on a first-name basis, for example. He also sits with friends Art Gilt and Bob Wood, critiquing players, managers and umpires from SectionG.
Lenhart knows Skeldon Stadium has its detractors. “It's old, and the facilities are not what they should be,” he concedes. “But I've felt all along the Hens haven't spent a nickel to fix anything, and I thought for half (the money spent to build the new stadium downtown) they could have made this place a palace.”
Lenhart is leaning toward following the team downtown, but for now he's thinking about the end of Skeldon's days. “I'm sure it's going to be a sad day because some of my friends I know won't be going to the new ballpark. It will be a sad day because I feel the whole atmosphere will change. The camaraderie - we'll have to get a new one. And hopefully I'll get to make new friends.”
He smiles, signs his name, and says, `Enjoy the game.' I still can't move, because he talked to me. No, that's not quite right. What actually happened is HE TALKED TO ME!!
Helen “Sis” Deitrick started bringing her son Jimmy to games in the early 1980s. “Jimmy fell and broke his knee, so I took him to the emergency room,” she says. “I told him, `If you're good I'll take you to see the Mud Hens play.' Well, he got taken care of and when we got back to the car I said I guess we'll go home. He said, `Aren't you going to take me to see the Mud Hens?'”
A promise is a promise, after all. So Deitrick made the hour-long drive from their Defiance home to Skeldon Stadium, and they became hooked. “We came on weekends, but once we really got addicted we came to almost every game,” she says.
One of Deitrick's favorite parts of the stadium is that runway between the clubhouses and the field. “You're so close to the players, and you can go to the clubhouse and talk to them after the games. We used to go to Cleveland in the '50s and I can remember waiting in the parking lot for the players to come out. You'd wait and wait and wait before they came out, but they would never talk to you.”
At Skeldon Stadium that's not a problem for her or for Jimmy, who is mentally retarded. “He likes to talk to the players, and they are all nice to him. They usually give him something, especially at the end of the year. Some of his friends call Jimmy the `junk collector' because he'll bring a great big bag of whatever the players give him.
“We've got a lot of junk at home, but he has a lot of nice things too.”
The unique feature of Skeldon Stadium is that walkway that brings fans, players and coaches together after every game. Isn't that appropriate for a ballpark that seems to rise out of nowhere in the middle of a residential area?
That walkway between the two clubhouses and the field isn't very long, but it seems to stretch for an eternity. At least that's the view of the players, who would rather walk from a modern dugout directly into a modern clubhouse. Instead they are besieged by autograph seekers: Some kids, some adults, some demanding, some pleasant.
Who can blame the players for wanting a bit of privacy after a performance? After all, we don't expect actors to walk down the aisles after a play, do we? Do we expect the musicians to make their way through the crowd after a concert?
At the Mud Hens' new downtown home, that problem won't exist.
And as I sit here, thinking about some of my favorite days spent as a youngster at Skeldon Stadium, I wonder if that is good or bad.