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Published: Sunday, 7/24/2005

Banking on baseball

BY MAUREEN FULTON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Fans sitting in Toledo's Fifth Third Field get a great view of the city. And some hotel rooms offer a view of the field, which occasionally makes out-of-towners Mud Hens ticket-buyers. Fans sitting in Toledo's Fifth Third Field get a great view of the city. And some hotel rooms offer a view of the field, which occasionally makes out-of-towners Mud Hens ticket-buyers.
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Sitting 150 miles apart in the heart of the Rust Belt, Dayton and Toledo are two towns that live off the same vein, and not just I-75.

They exist in the shadows of major sports markets and feverishly support those teams, but take pride in having their own identity. The summer centerpiece in both places is the passion for minor league baseball.

So it is more appropriate than coincidental that each owns a remarkable home base with the same name and the same spirit.

In both downtowns, Fifth Third Field has become the gathering point. Toledo s Fifth Third has given new life to the historic Mud Hens franchise. Dayton s Fifth Third gave birth to a new team, the smash-hit Dragons.

The new parks, Dayton s opening in 2000 and Toledo s in 2002, have appealed to large segments of each community. They have delighted the minor league purists, but the setting and the affordability have turned more families into fans.

Recently a poll released by Scarborough Research ranked Toledo and Dayton as having the highest interest in minor league baseball in the country. Toledo topped the survey, with 13.1 percent of residents in the area showing interest. Dayton landed at No. 3 with 12.1 percent.

The Dragons have sold out every game since their 7,200-seat Fifth Third Field opened and currently maintain a waiting list of more than 5,000 people for season tickets. The Cincinnati Reds' affiliate has reset the Single-A attendance record in three of the past five years.

The Triple-A Mud Hens have had a waiting list for club level seats in their 8,900-seat stadium for three years. The club is on pace to break its attendance record set in 2002.

Fans scatter across the lawn terrace at Dayton's Fifth Third Field, where promotions often create a wild atmosphere. Fans scatter across the lawn terrace at Dayton's Fifth Third Field, where promotions often create a wild atmosphere.
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So it is no surprise that each park has received national recognition. Toledo's Fifth Third Field was called the "best ballpark in the minors" by Newsweek, and more recently, Dayton's park was recommended by the Wall Street Journal last month as one of 10 minor league parks in the country to visit.

"That's what we're in the business to do, our business is basically to entertain our guests and persuade them to be fans in the long term," Mud Hens general manager Joe Napoli said.

The success of the two new parks was envisioned by Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank years ago. The bank spent $5 million to put its name on the Toledo park and $4.3 million on the Dayton park.

The investment has paid off in what Napoli estimates as tens of millions of dollars of free media from Toledo's park alone. Along with the stadium in Dayton, Fifth Third has attached naming rights to a minor-league ballpark in Michigan and the University of Cincinnati basketball arena. The marketing strategy has paid dividends exceeding even the bank's high expectations.

"For us, the visibility is tremendous, and our employees and their families are excited and proud of our investment," said Karen Fraker, Fifth Third senior vice president of marketing in Toledo. "Early on, Fifth Third Field became a landmark.

"The signage on I-75, from one end of Ohio to the other, just adds to the exposure."

It's become more than just a landmark, rather a downtown destination in each of the Ohio cities. New restaurants, bars and other businesses have sprung up around both ballparks, a trend that started in the mid-1990s elsewhere.

"It put a bright, clear face on that aspect of downtown," said Mark V'Soske, Toledo-area Chamber of Commerce president. "People are willing to invest there, take risks, and it's made it a great area of Toledo."

It wasn't long ago a red-light district existed where Toledo's Fifth Third Field is located.

"I think people have really adopted Fifth Third Field as a place that they're really proud of," Napoli said.

"I think they characterize the ballpark the same way they talk about the zoo and the art museum, and their love affair with those attractions."

Downtown Dayton followed its Fifth Third Field by opening a performing arts center in 2003.

"Fifth Third is one of the hottest tickets in town," said Phil Parker, president of the Dayton area Chamber of Commerce. "It's been a real surge for us in our downtown development. People inquire more and more every day about it. It takes a while, but we're now starting to see the larger effects. You have to have a little bit of patience with it. You have to continue to make a case for it."

Although there are similarities in their situations and impacts, the characters of the ballparks follow somewhat different paths.

The accents of Fifth Third Field in Dayton reflect its owner, Mandalay Sports Entertainment, which owns five minor-league teams. Where Toledo displays black and white photos of former Mud Hens, the decorations in the suites and corporate offices in Dayton mainly consist of movie posters produced by MSE's sister company, Mandalay Entertainment. Baseball is just a fraction of the entertainment at Dayton's Fifth Third. It's a good choice because the team's record, 61-78 and 48-92 the past two seasons, has often merited looking away.

Dayton's Fifth Third Field thrives on the bizarre to captivate its fans. There's the "Retirement Village People" jumping up and down on top of the dugouts. The toddler races, where two things are implicitly guaranteed: one of the tots will refuse to run, and the other two will bump into each other (don't worry, they wear helmets.) Late in the game, one of the team's four mascots, Roof Man, appears atop, you guessed it, the press box roof to "transform" the foul balls into plush toy balls.

"They really allow us to try different things that most owners would be wary of," said Bob Murphy, the Dragons' president.

A foghorn sounds for 10 seconds to signify the gates opening. Where Toledo shoots its free Mud Hens T-shirts out of projectors, Dayton has a staffer wear 10 shirts atop one another, rip them off and throw them as he runs around the stands. There's musical chairs, karaoke, music videos during pitching changes. It's near mayhem.

The Dragons employ a full-time director of entertainment, Shari Sharkins. Sharkins oversees a staff of 18 during game days, half inside in the "control room" with her.

Dayton's park is on the cutting edge of technology. It has laptops affixed to the wall in each of 30 suites, and an LED outfield fence that Murphy says he sees fans point to when they see it.

In each park, passers-by can watch from the sidewalk outside the outfield fence, and both have family-oriented features, too. Beyond center field in Toledo and Dayton are kids' play areas, and there are seating areas in each park that cater to the family.

In Toledo, it's a section of seats, and in Dayton, it's $7 lawn seats beyond the right-field wall.

Although some might assume the higher level of baseball is what keeps the atmosphere in Toledo a little more low-key, Napoli said the difference isn't necessarily derived.

"What we'll find in our surveys is that people don't know what class we are," he said. "That doesn't mean that baseball's unimportant, but it's the overall experience that we have found our fans truly enjoy."

Toledo's Fifth Third relies on its appearance as a classy, classic ballpark. The design was pieced together from several old-time big league parks including Tiger Stadium, the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium. But it has its taste of technology, too, in the video board installed last month in right field.

In Toledo, executives look at Dayton's prolonged success and are assured the honeymoon won't end soon. The excitement is building toward the Triple-A All-Star game the Mud Hens will host next season.

"We're really setting our sights high," Napoli said. "The fifth year could be truly memorable."

In Dayton, they're trying to keep a step ahead in the minor league scene, serving garlic mashed potatoes as a side dish, for example. And the stunts are ever-changing.

"I try to keep my eyes open for ideas, I watch Nickelodeon," Sharkins said.

Many fans in Dayton and Toledo can't keep their eyes off of their minor league team.

Contact Maureen Fulton at: mfulton@theblade.com or 419-724-6160.



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