Kyle Leppelmeier, left, and Jim Chambers prepare the pitchers mound at Fifth Third Field on Wednesday in preparation for the Mud Hens home opener Thursday.
The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
For many Mud Hen fans, the first home game of the new season is special.
But Thursday's home opener, which begins the celebration of the Hens' 10th year at Fifth Third Field, will be special for another reason.
Why? Toledo will host what is believed to be the first scheduled season-opening doubleheader in professional baseball history.
Mud Hen officials say a crowd in excess of 12,000 fans is expected to descend on the downtown ballpark Thursday for the start of the home schedule, with the first pitch of game one against Columbus taking place at 4 p.m.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view preparations
Why two games instead of one?
"First, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Fifth Third Field," Mud Hens general manager Joe Napoli said. "Also, this is the 25th anniversary of our player development relationship with the Tigers.
"This isn't the type of thing we'll do on a regular basis, but we thought this was something that could make a special day even more special."
Napoli said the idea of a season-opening doubleheader first came up last summer when the team saw its tentative schedule for 2011.
"At that time we said, ‘Is there anything we can do that would be fun and interesting to honor the 10th anniversary of Fifth Third Field?'?" Napoli said. "We started to investigate, and we have yet to find anyone who has ever started its home season with a scheduled doubleheader."
In past seasons, professional baseball teams have played season-opening twinbills that were caused by weather-induced postponements. But no professional team is believed to have scheduled a doubleheader for its first home date.
Staff members of Baseball America, which devotes much of its coverage to minor-league baseball, said they are not aware of a professional team scheduling a doubleheader to start the home season.
The biggest advantage of the concept is to extend the time the opening day crowd spends in the ballpark.
"We'll have six hours of baseball in downtown Toledo instead of the usual three or four," Napoli said. "This way, people will spend even more time before and after the game in downtown bars and restaurants, as well as the ballpark."
Napoli acknowledged the biggest potential negative: bad weather.
"If it's a lousy weather day, it could make it a long afternoon," he said. "On the baseball side, we know that April [weather] is tough on the players.
"We wouldn't have considered playing a doubleheader had our opener been scheduled earlier in the month."
The Mud Hens had a day off Wednesday, and Napoli said thought was given to playing two games Wednesday and taking Thursday off.
"We decided Thursday was the better day because a lot of people will take Friday off [and make it a long weekend]," Napoli said. "This was the best way we could think of to extend the opening day celebration."
Napoli said the Mud Hens also worked with the Tigers and the International League to gain approval for the event.
"Believe it or not, we don't need permission to schedule a doubleheader to start the season," he said. "But because we have a great relationship with the Tigers, we talked to [Detroit minor league operations director] Dan Lunetta, and we got a great buy-in from the organization, all the way up to [president and general manager] Dave Dombrowski.
"The Tigers understood the economic benefits of this, and we are respectful of the players' role in the contest."
Napoli said the International League endorsed the concept as well.
"If we were playing Buffalo, or a team from the North or South Division that we play only once at home all season, we couldn't do this," he said. "Since those teams only come to Toledo once a year, losing two games would be impossible to deal with.
"But since we're playing Columbus, and they return to Toledo several times this season, [IL president] Randy Mobley and the league were great about it."
Napoli said he hopes fans attending Thursday's opener enjoy the day as much as he and the Hens staff have enjoyed putting the event together.
"We know that many people view opening day as an unofficial holiday, so we looked at [playing two games] as a way to extend the holiday," he said. "Playing two games instead of one is the best way to extend the celebration."
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.