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Still a gem: 17 seasons in, Fifth Third Field among IL's best

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    Fans fill the stands to watch the Toledo Mud Hens play the Columbus Clippers during a baseball game Tuesday at Fifth Third Field. The downtown Toledo venue is rated among the best parks in the International League.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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    Toledo Mud Hens outfielder Mike Gerber makes a play against the Louisville Bats Saturday at Fifth Third Field in downtown Toledo.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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    Fireworks after a baseball game at Fifth Third Field.

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    A lone fan watches the Toledo Mud Hens play the Louisville Bats from The Roost during Friday's game at Fifth Third Field.

    BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH

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In 1996, The Blade put together a poll to rank the ballparks around the International League.

The results were not pretty for the Mud Hens.

Three IL ballparks were ranked at the bottom of the standings, and two of them were being replaced the next year. The third ballpark? You guessed it: Toledo’s Skeldon Stadium.

More than 20 years later, Skeldon Stadium merely is a memory for many Mud Hens fans. So is the time where Toledo’s ballpark ranks near the bottom of the IL.

Recently, The Blade polled broadcasters from around the league — as well as a few announcers who recently broadcast games in the league but have since left — to rank the 14 ballparks. The broadcasters, who have contact with players and coaches and also witness for themselves each of the ballparks, were asked to list each ballpark except their own from the best to worst and were promised anonymity.

RELATED: Baseball nation: Our favorite ballparks across the countryFrom first to worst, ranking the major league stadiums | Charlotte tops ranking of International League ballparks

In the final results, Fifth Third Field climbed near the top. Downtown Toledo’s venue placed a solid fourth in the poll behind the IL’s newest stadium in Charlotte and those operated by fellow West Division rivals Indianapolis and Columbus.

“That’s exciting,” Mud Hens general manager and executive vice president Erik Ibsen said. “It means we’re grading out at the top in terms of the things Fifth Third Field can offer in terms of fan experience. …

“This has gone better than any script we could have written before the ballpark opened.”

One of the biggest surprises has been the yearly attendance figures for the ballpark, which opened in 2002. The Mud Hens never have drawn fewer than 517,000 in a season at Fifth Third Field; the previous single-season best for a Toledo baseball franchise was the 343,614 that filled Swayne Field in 1953.

“All of the original pro formas for the ballpark estimated we would draw roughly 425,000 in attendance,” Ibsen said.

“That’s gratifying because it means we as an organization have done something well.

“The other piece of the puzzle is being a part of downtown development. Looking at all the things that have transformed around Fifth Third Field — and to know that we have been a part of that — is also rewarding.”

VIDEOMud Hens general manager Erik Ibsen talks about “the future” of Fifth Third Field.

Longtime Indianapolis broadcaster Howard Kellman was not surprised at the ranking of the Toledo ballpark.

“There’s a lot of pride around town about this ballpark, you can tell,” he said. “It’s neat to see what has happened here, and what has happened around the International League.

“The fan support is terrific. The broadcast location is outstanding, and we have only a five-minute walk to the ballpark.”

Charlotte’s BB&T Ballpark, which opened in 2014 and provides a panoramic view of the city’s downtown, was voted the league’s best ballpark with an average of 11.8 points per voter. Victory Field in Indianapolis was second with 10.9 points per voter, followed by Huntington Park in Columbus at 9.9, and Fifth Third Field close behind at 9.7 points per voter.

“My only concern with the Charlotte and Columbus ballparks is that they favor the hitters,” Kellman said. “I think Fifth Third Field is fair, and that helps farm directors and teams judge players fairly. It’s just a terrific venue.”

RELATED: Tiger Stadium still holds a special place in hearts of fans

Syracuse broadcaster Eric Gallanty agreed, adding, “[Fifth Third Field] is the right size for the city, giving it a chance to feel full as often as possible. I like a concourse where you can see the game, and what they have done with Hensville is spectacular.

“I think it’s the best example of what a downtown ballpark can do to revitalize a section of town and bring to a city as a whole. It also feels five years old when it is more than 15 now.”

While Toledo manager Doug Mientkiewicz did not vote in the poll, he said players and coaches around the IL all like the stadium.

“The grounds crew here does a phenomenal job,” he said. “It’s a beautiful place. … It’s got great atmosphere, and it’s a great place to work and play.”

Perhaps the most eloquent compliment of Toledo’s home ballpark came when the Mud Hens’ manager was asked if he would change anything about Fifth Third Field.

“Nope,” Mientkiewicz simply said.

Contact John Wagner at jwagner@theblade.com419-724-6481, or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.

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