The final baseball game at Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee is scheduled for this afternoon at 2, when the Toledo Mud Hens host the Columbus Clippers. Next April, after 37 consecutive seasons at the former horse racing track, the Hens will have a new home, Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo.
The Key Street ballpark in Maumee may soon be history, but the memories of the personalities who entertained within its confines won't soon be forgotten.
When the inevitable wrecking ball strikes Ned Skeldon Stadium, the demolition contractor might want to consider hiring Terry Felton to operate the crane.
Either that, or just give him a bat.
Felton was a pitcher who went 0-16 in his major league career. Before and after the time he attained that perfect record with the Minnesota Twins, he was a Mud Hen.
The right-hander joined Toledo in 1978, Minnesota's first of nine seasons as the Hens' parent club.
He left his mark here, as well.
In a fit of rage after another poor outing at the stadium, Felton took a bat and began hammering away at his seven-foot metal locker.
By the time he was finished, the stall was crushed like a pop can. It stood only three feet tall.
Gene Cook would have been happy with at least three feet when he started his new job as general manager of the Mud Hens six weeks before the season opener in 1978.
As it was, there were only two.
Office manager Pat Hamilton greeted the Toledo city councilman and former sales representative from Nicholson Concrete on his first day with the baseball club.
“I said, `Pat, I'd like to meet the rest of the folks,' recalled Cook, now the Hens' executive vice president.
“She said, `Who?'
“I said, `The staff.'
“She said, `What staff? It's you and me.'
“I said, `My God, what are we going to do?'”
What they did was grow the organization.
In Cook's first season, attendance at the Rec Center facility improved by more than 61,000.
“We started selling and doing things with community volunteers,” Cook said. “There were nine outfield billboards when I got here, and three were from Lucas County (which operates the not-for-profit team). Now we've got 60 boards.”
Attendance and revenue grew, as did the staff, which now numbers some 15 under the direction of general manager Joe Napoli.
The only thing that multiplied faster than the attendance figures were the losses. Heading into today's finale, the Hens have an overall record of 2,387-2,784 since 1965.
“We didn't win, but we succeeded,” Cook said. “At least enough to pay the bills.”
Cook kept the ship afloat.
His first trainer under the Twins affiliation, Buck Chamberlin, had his hands full with another vessel.
A veteran of more than 40 years of baseball wars, the affable Chamberlin had a penchant for Cutty Sark, the scotch whiskey with the 1869 clipper ship on the label.
In the trainers office, there was a big plastic ship on the wall, a tribute to his favorite beverage. Chamberlin's mood was reflected by the direction of the boat, which he adjusted daily.
“If the ship was even-keeled, it was a sign you could talk to him,” said Gary Cook, Gene's 39-year-old son, an assistant Lucas County prosecutor who has served as the stadium's clubhouse manager for the past 18 seasons. “If the bow or the stern of the ship was up, it didn't matter which, it meant he had done a number on the Cutty bottle the night before and probably was in a foul mood.
“If the ship was completely upside down, you just turned and walked away. The players knew the sign. They'd just grab the hot stuff, get one of the clubbies and ask, `Would you rub my shoulder? Buck sank the ship again.'”
Gary Cook has seen everything go down but a championship.
“I would have glady shampooed the carpet for that,” Cook said.
He was there when Kirby Puckett made a 1984 stop on the way to the Hall of Fame, and when manager Cal Ermer helped develop the 1987 and 1991 world champion Twins.
He worked with Jesus Vega, who once charged the mound after he was hit by a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded. The same player had an apartment with no furniture or curtains. Vega slept on the floor.
He'll never forget Jim Walewander. A Detroit prospect into the alternative music scene before it was popular, the utility man wore army boots and was spotted sitting in dumpsters, reading books that he found.
And then there's the cinderblock wall locker room.
“When I got here, myself and another guy got a couple of sledgehammers and figured out where air conditioning units should be if we had them,” Gary Cook said. “We decided we would knock out some blocks and put some screen over the space.”
Good idea, but there was one problem.
When the Lucas County Fair's annual one-week run ended at the Rec Center location, flies went to the dressing area searching for food.
“One of the things the guys liked to do was get out a fly-paper strip, hang it over the garbage cans and place small bets - nothing like Pete Rose - and say, `By the end of the game, there'll be 35 flies on the paper,'” Gary Cook remembered. “When the game was over, they'd come in for an official count. That's what drove us to air conditioning.”
The Mud Hens have won more games than they've lost only eight times in the past 37 seasons. Four of those marks were reached under the guidance of Ermer from 1978-85. A grandfatherly type, his 540 victories in that period make him the winningest manager in the history of Toledo professional baseball.
Ermer's feet were well known, too.
Rarely would a week or three go by without the bench boss being tossed from a game. His trademark ejection was to slam his cap into the dirt and then kick it in the direction of an umpire.
One season, Ermer directed his players not to play golf on the day of a game.
Two employees who didn't know about the rule were public address announcer Chris Metzger and scoreboard operator Jim Matthews. Metzger worked at the South Toledo Golf Club and spotted outfielder Andre David enjoying himself just before a home game.
The PA voice shared that information with Matthews, who posted a message on the scoreboard that evening: “What did you shoot today, Andre?”
When David read the note, he wasn't real happy with Matthews.
Ermer was one of 22 men who skippered the Hens at Skeldon Stadium. Some were better than others, but all were entertaining.
“Leon Roberts cost us at least ten games,” said Hens broadcaster Jim Weber of the 1987 club that finished 70-70. “He'd get so excited on a base hit that he would literally hold a guy up with one hand (in the third base coach's box) and wave him in with the other.”
John Wockenfuss was waved out of one contest in 1989 after the home plate umpire booted Rob Richie midway through a plate appearance for allegedly cursing a call. Wockenfuss exploded in defense of his player, who was a Jehovah's Witness and never used profanity.
After the manager was tossed, Larry See was sent in to finish the at-bat.
“I was overcome with emotion,” Matthews said.
On the board he wrote: PH Larry See
The Ump Can't.
Chicago has Wrigley Field, Boston's pride is Fenway Park.
In eight months, Toledo will have a $39 million ballpark many feel will rival those classic facilities, if only on a smaller scale.
“Ned Skeldon would have done it a few years earlier,” Gene Cook said.
By tonight, the Rec Center stadium that in 1988 was finally named after the now-deceased politician who fulfilled his dream of transforming an old horse racing track into a professional baseball diamond will be empty.
Since its grand opening in 1965, more than 6.75 million baseball fans have passed through the doors.
“If this was shutting down and that was it for baseball, then it would be sad,” Weber said. “But we're moving up instead of down.”
Gary Cook sees the ending as a positive beginning.
“After doing 20 years here, it's almost like being released from prison,” the lawyer/clubhouse manager said with a smile.
By 6 p.m. or so, all should be quieting down in Cook's quarters on Key Street.
Perfect timing for the Toledo players, too.
Posted underneath the television in the Hens' dressing room is a hand-written warning on a long piece of white athletic tape: “No talking during The Simpsons!!”