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Published: Wednesday, 4/2/2003

Crowded house

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

The 2002 season was a dream come true for the Mud Hens.

How amazing was the team's first year at Fifth Third Field? Even the Hens themselves couldn't have expected some of the successes they enjoyed in 2002:

The team broke the Toledo baseball single-season attendance record - by the end of July. The Hens finished with an attendance total of 547,204 to obliterate the previous high by more than 200,000 fans.

The Hens finished with 25 regular-season sellouts in their new 8,943-seat home, four more than the total number of sellouts in the final eight seasons at their former home, 10,025-seat Skeldon Stadium.

On the field the Hens earned their first playoff berth since 1984, winning the West Division with an 81-63 record. That win total was the second-most for the team since joining the International League in 1965.

So after all that success, did Hens general manager Joe Napoli consider retirement?

“Well, I guess you do want to go out on top,” he said with a smile.

Then Napoli said he and his staff think the Hens are capable of more, not less, in 2003. This time he was serious.

“The thought process throughout our office was that we saw the team's `sophomore' season [at Fifth Third Field] as a terrific opportunity to do more than survive the sophomore jinx,” Napoli said. “We still think there is an opportunity to do as well or, with all of the pieces falling into place, maybe do even better.”

The history of several other new parks in the IL indicates that this is possible. For example, Syracuse and Norfolk set season attendance records when opening new ballparks, and each club broke that record in the new park's second season.

Of course, there are no guarantees. At the major league level, attendance at Comerica Park in Detroit dropped by nearly a million fans in just three seasons since it opened in 2000, a trend mirrored by new ballparks in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and others.

Napoli knows that bettering last season's attendance total won't be easy.

“A market the size of Toledo should do about 440,000 people in attendance in their first season, and we did 547,000,” he said. “Even though we had an incredible season in many respects - the team performed well, the weather was outstanding - we did have one thing we could control: The effort that goes into selling tickets and being very active in the community.”

So the team made selling tickets a priority this off-season, focusing on season tickets and group sales. That work has paid off - by Opening Day on Thursday the team expects to have sold about 350,000 tickets for the season.

Napoli said the team also has made a change in its philosophy regarding promotions. Last year the team doubled up on some promotions, combining fireworks with entertainment acts on Saturdays, for instance.

This season, the fireworks, as a general rule, will remain on Saturdays, but five entertain-ment acts - the Blues Brothers, Myron Noodleman, Reggy, Skyy Dogs USA and Zooperstars - will come on Fridays.

“We know that fireworks is a big event in itself,” said Kerri White, the team's director of promotions. “We moved the entertainers to Friday to make them a big event too.”

White said the team will continue to use traditional promotions, such as fireworks and kids running the bases.

The most notable change this season is one made to Fifth Third Field itself: Scoreboards have been mounted on the overhang of the upper deck on both the first and third-base sides. The scoreboards will keep track of balls, strikes and outs as well as pitch speed and the game linescore. It will also have a message board.

The most noticeable change will come on the field, though, as many of the players from last year's team have moved on. And at the major-league level success on the field is a key to success at the box office; part of the reason Detroit, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh have struggled to draw fans to new ballparks is the struggles all three teams have experienced recently.

But Napoli isn't worried about the team Detroit will put in Toledo; in fact, he's so confident the Tigers will put together a good team that last October he and the Hens added four years to the player development contract between the two.

“Our perspective is that the major-league team has a program in place for the minor leagues,” Napoli said. “And when you affiliate with a team, you have faith in its ability to sign players, promote players and develop players. We have a lot of faith in the people in Detroit.”

Will all of these changes add up to an even bigger year than last season? Napoli certainly hopes so.

“We think getting to 500,000 people is a reasonable [attendance] objective,” he said. “We'd like to get to 550,000 to set a new attendance record. I would not be disappointed if we didn't, but we're going for it. That's the mindset of everyone here.”



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