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Published: Friday, 4/9/2004

Opener gives fans breath of fresh air

Few events bring the city of Toledo together like Opening Day.

It has become an unofficial holiday.

Everyone from general managers to Jeep workers to secretaries cut out of work early yesterday and headed to Fifth Third Field.

Some kids played hooky from school and some old-timers skipped their afternoon nap, just to be among the announced record crowd of 12,250 on hand for the Hens 8-3 season-opening loss to Durham.

Despite the setback and the shaky attendance figure, Opening Day was not a total disappointment. There is nothing quite like it in sports. It makes things OK again. It allows you to forget about the worries of the world, if only for a few hours.

A long line of mini-Mud Hens patiently wait to be introduced along with the players as part of the Opening Day ceremonies at Fifth Third Field. The game drew a record 12,250 fans. A long line of mini-Mud Hens patiently wait to be introduced along with the players as part of the Opening Day ceremonies at Fifth Third Field. The game drew a record 12,250 fans.
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“Opening Day is like a ritual,” said Jim Weber, the Mud Hens veteran radio announcer who worked his 30th opener yesterday and his 3,553rd game overall. “People can t wait for Opening Day. They talk about it all during the off-season. And when it finally comes, it s the big We re over the winter thing.

“More than the game, it s really an event. People go to the restaurants and bars around the stadium, there are several radio stations doing remotes, more than you see all season, and there is a lot more media here than normal.”

Opening Day is a time to reflect, a time to look ahead. The grass looks greener. The weather is warmer. And summer is just around the corner.

It is the one day each year when the Hens marketing people can rest easy, because tickets are scooped up almost as quickly as they are put on sale.

For me, Opening Day has become a love affair. Usually, the buzz lasts a little longer than Britney Spears 55-hour marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander.

“Hearing the words play ball on Opening Day, it doesn t get any better than that,” said Mike Zerner of Toledo, a long-time Mud Hens fan who attended yesterday s game. “People come out of hibernation. They re talking to one another and smiling and having fun again.

“Of course, it helps make the day more enjoyable when you have a fantastic ballpark like we do.”

There is little doubt that Fifth Third Field has provided a symbolic new foundation for Mud Hens baseball.

The $39-million beauty that opened in 2002 has helped erase most of the memories of Toledo s dreadful past, which included just one season above .500 in the Hens last 15 years at the old barn on Key Street in Maumee, better known as Skeldon Stadium.

Yesterday was the third Opening Day staged at Fifth Third Field. It gave the fans and the players an opportunity to ignore the steroids scandal that has been swirling around baseball this spring.

“It s like a fresh start,” said Pat Ahearne, the Mud Hens starting pitcher. “It s a chance to play again after a long time off with no real games. It s an awesome feeling, an awesome day. There is nothing quite like Opening Day.”

Ahearne, who allowed two first-inning home runs against Durham but just one earned run among his three in 52/3 innings, should know.

Yesterday marked his second Opening Day start for Toledo. Ahearne also got the nod in 1995 when the Hens opened the season with a 4-3 victory over Pawtucket in 14 innings at Skeldon Stadium. In both games, Ahearne got no decision.

But the 34-year-old right-hander did go on to win seven consecutive games with the Hens in 1995 and was promoted to Detroit on June 14. He was 0-2 with an 11.70 ERA in four games with the Tigers and was shipped back to Toledo, where he dropped his last nine decisions.

That brief stint nine years ago was the extent of Ahearne s major league pitching career, but he would not trade the experience for anything.

Returning to the majors is a long shot for Ahearne, but forgive the 13-year journeyman for dreaming big. That is what Opening Day is all about.

It brings a renewed sense of hope, promise, and possibilities, even if you play for the hard-luck Hens.



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