To call Toledo's Fifth Third Field a baseball stadium, one of the finest of its kind in America, would be an understatement.
Fifth Third Field is so much more than home to the Triple-A Mud Hens. For Toledoans, it's a source of pride, a place to socialize, and a reason to visit downtown after working hours.
Now in its fourth year, Fifth Third Field has changed the perception of downtown, helped it to become a born-again destination in northwest Ohio.
On Thursday, the Mud Hens announced the overall attendance at Fifth Third Field had surpassed two million. Not bad for a ballpark where the first-year projection of around 425,000 fans remarkably turned into 567,804 and where the team has never posted an annual attendance total of less than 517,000.
"Fifth Third Field is definitely an asset to downtown," said Jim Donnelly, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Toledo Convention Center and Visitors Bureau. "We have marketed and advertised to conventions and sell ourselves as a destination, and the Mud Hens are in the package. We encourage people to have their delegates come in a day early or stay a day later [to attend a Mud Hens game], and a lot of people do."
Donnelly related a story about recent visitors to Toledo who witnessed a postgame fireworks show at Fifth Third Field from their 11th floor room at the Radisson Hotel across the street.
"They said it was the most spectacular thing they had ever seen," Donnelly said. "It encouraged them to go to the ballpark the next day."
The Fifth Third Field phenomenon is directly responsible for why the Mud Hens are on pace to break their attendance record set three years ago.
Die-hard fans would pay to watch the Mud Hens if their games were still being played at Ned Skeldon Stadium, so great is the need to satisfy their baseball fix.
But the biggest difference between the current popularity of the Mud Hens versus the pre-Fifth Third Field era is that people went to games at Skeldon Stadium strictly for baseball.
There was little economic spin-off to the few businesses and restaurants in the residential neighborhood surrounding the Mud Hens' old ballpark. When the game ended, they left and took their entertainment dollars with them.
No offense to this year's Mud Hens, but a good percentage of people who visit Fifth Third Field don't know the Mud Hens have the best record in the International League or who their best player is, nor do they care.
What they care about is taking part in the Fifth Third Field experience.
They come downtown for games, where they're encouraged to eat, drink and be merry.
The Mud Hens are the lure, but a lot of Fifth Third Field patrons will tell you they enjoy the ambiance of where they are more than what they're watching. When they leave the ballpark, many of them couldn't tell you who won the game.
"It's good, quality family entertainment. Second, it's affordable. And third, a lot of people go for the socialization," Donnelly said. "My observation is the socialization [holds more appeal] than the game."
Fifth Third Field also redefined how Toledoans have come to view their downtown.
The stories have been told and re-told so many times until they became folklore of how people shied away from downtown after 5 p.m. If they didn't work downtown, why bother?
With the Mud Hens moving to Fifth Third Field, that all started to change.
Fifth Third Field begat downtown restaurants and pubs, which begat downtown dance clubs, which begat upscale downtown housing.
"People come downtown early, maybe go to a restaurant or bar, go to the game, and then after the game perhaps party," Donnelly said. "So there is a definite economic spin-off having the Mud Hens downtown.
"All the naysayers who said no one would come because of parking problems, everybody has found their own favorite place to park their car and walk to the game."
Fifth Third Field can't solve all of downtown's ills, but it's a start in the right direction.