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Published: Wednesday, 4/6/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

SPECIAL SECTION

It became a whole new ballgame when Mud Hens moved

10th season begins at Fifth Third Field

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
For the first opening day on April 9, 2002, 12,134 fans flocked to Fifth Third Field. The Mud Hens played at Skeldon Stadium in Maumee from 1965-2001 and the largest season attendance there was 325,532 in 1997. For the first opening day on April 9, 2002, 12,134 fans flocked to Fifth Third Field. The Mud Hens played at Skeldon Stadium in Maumee from 1965-2001 and the largest season attendance there was 325,532 in 1997.
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Erik Ibsen has worked for the Mud Hens in some capacity for the past 16 seasons.

But in 2002, his responsibilities were dramatically altered.

"It was like I changed jobs, even though I still worked with the same people," he said. "It felt like I packed up and moved to a whole new organization, because of the changes in my job from day-to-day. In a lot of ways, it was like taking a brand-new job."

The change for Ibsen, now the Hens' assistant general manager for ticket sales and operations, was caused by the team's move from its former home at Skeldon Stadium in Maumee to Fifth Third Field.

The Hens' downtown house celebrates its 10th-season anniversary this year. And the key word, at least for the Mud Hens, is celebrate, since the move to Fifth Third Field signaled a seismic shift in the fortunes of the franchise, both on and off the field.

On the field, an organization that had just one record above the break-even mark in the last 16 seasons at Skeldon Stadium met with instant success in its new home. The Mud Hens made the International League playoffs in 2002, breaking an 18-year drought, and since that time have made three other playoff appearances and won two Governors' Cup titles.

General manager Joe Napoli said the move downtown and the move up in the standings weren't coincidental.

Click to view the Top 10 games since the Mud Hens have been playing at Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo. Click to view the Top 10 games since the Mud Hens have been playing at Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo.
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"Our major league affiliate in Detroit always has enjoyed its affiliation with Toledo, but we were feeling increased pressure to make a move," Napoli said. "The Tigers were frustrated that top minor league free agents did not want to sign with them because of the facilities in Toledo.

"Also, they would remind us that their prospects were playing in better facilities in both Double-A and Single-A, so we knew we needed to make a change."

When last year's team finished three games under .500, it broke a string of five consecutive seasons that Toledo had surpassed that mark.

"It's clear that Fifth Third Field has become a selling point," Napoli said. "I know our coaching staff and our players have raved about this facility -- and the fan support."

Attendance shifted dramatically once the new ballpark was opened: In its first nine seasons, Fifth Third Field has helped produce the nine largest season attendance figures in Toledo's pro baseball history. And even the smallest season total, the 517,331 fans who came to the ballpark in 2003, is roughly 170,000 fans more than the largest attendance figure in any previous Toledo ballpark (343,672 at Swayne Field in 1953).

Ibsen said the change Fifth Third Field has sparked goes beyond raw ticket totals.

"We're near the top of the [International League] in terms of season tickets," he said. "We have ranged between 3,100 and 3,800 season tickets here. At Skeldon Stadium we had roughly 1,500 season tickets, so that's obviously a change.

"And between season tickets and groups we have roughly 325,000 tickets pre-sold [for this season]. That's more than the total number of tickets we would sell at Skeldon for an entire season."

FILLING THE FIELD
Season attendance at Fifth Third Field:
2002: 547,204
2003: 517,331
2004: 544,778
2005: 556,995
2006: 569,380
2007: 590,159
2008: 584,596
2009: 559,037
2010: 558,059

Another change Fifth Third Field has brought about is the perception of the franchise, especially among area corporations. Neil Neukam spent nine years at Skeldon Stadium on the Mud Hens staff, and he said some corporations viewed their involvement with the team along the same lines as giving to charity.

"They didn't take clients to Skeldon Stadium to 'wine and dine' them -- it wasn't conducive to that," said Neukam, the Hens' assistant general manager and director of corporate partnerships. "That's definitely a big change here, and that's definitely a positive difference between now and the old days."

Neukam said the crowds downtown are one difference, but another was the updates from Skeldon Stadium, which was pieced together in 1965, and Fifth Third Field.

"You couldn't get people to look at [things like on-field contests] back at Skeldon, primarily because we didn't have enough people watching these contests," he said. "Now it's become one of those things that everybody gravitates to.

"Another difference [in the two parks] is the way technology has changed -- for example, we are able to put the games on television, which we weren't able to do there."

Even areas that were strong at Skeldon Stadium -- for example, sales of merchandise bearing the Mud Hens' famous logo -- have continued to grown.

"Our selection in a variety of items has grown since I've been here," said Craig Katz, the Hens' director of merchandise and licensing. "Our women's department was a four-way rack when I started working here [in 2003] -- now it's about a third of the Swamp Shop. Our kids section has doubled since I've been here."

In short, the new home has led to a new perception of the Mud Hens franchise.

"Obviously Skeldon Stadium has a place in my heart because I spent nine years out there," Neukam said. "But I remember the days when people would roll in at 6:55 for a 7 p.m. game, watch the game and then get right back in their cars. There was no synergy before or after the games. If we didn't have Skeldon, we wouldn't appreciate what we have now."

Contact John Wagner at : jwagner@theblade.com or 419-724-6481.


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