Monday, April 08, 2002

Ballpark brightens Toledo's outlook

The Associated Press

        TOLEDO, Ohio — Customers clutching Toledo Mud Hens jerseys and pennants snaked past unopened boxes of merchandise at the team's souvenir shop inside their new downtown ballpark. Across the street, there was a wait for tables at the two-week-old Durty Bird restaurant. Opening day is still a day away, and the ballpark already is a hit.

        What's more impressive is how Fifth Third Field has changed Toledo's perception of itself. Lifelong residents who seem to take pride in their dour outlook of the city are now beaming.

        “I'll admit I'm one of the skeptics who said it wouldn't happen,” Karen Pugh said. “I'm not a big baseball fan, but I can't wait to come to a game.”

        Ms. Pugh got an early look at the ballpark Thursday morning and said she almost didn't recognize her hometown.

        “We're amazed,” she said. “I can't believe it's really here.”

        The $39 million ballpark is bringing life to a dormant downtown area filled with brick warehouses dating to the late 1800s.

        Five buildings in the right field corner are incorporated into the ballpark and will house a book store and offices. The team office and souvenir store occupy one building. Nearby, construction workers are busy finishing other storefronts.

        “From my office I can see a new condo development, a bar and tavern, and a deli,” said Mud Hens general manager Joe Napoli.

        Fifth Third Field blends well into the neighborhood. The field is below street level, allowing the outside of the brick ballpark to match the height of surrounding buildings.

        “It's what ballparks were long ago,” said Patrick Zohn of the Gateway Group, which oversaw the project. “They were a fabric of the city.”

        There's also a renewed interest in the Mud Hens, the top farm team of the Detroit Tigers.

        Season ticket sales have tripled. Group sales have doubled. Tickets for the opener were gone in a little more than two hours.

        And by Tuesday's opener, the team will have sold about the same number of tickets for this season as it did for all of last year.

        “All of this is occurring without the ballpark even being open,” Mr. Napoli said. “We can't wait until people can get in the park and look around.”

        There are about 8,900 seats.

        It's a quite a change from the old “Hen House.”

        The International League team played before at Ned Skeldon Stadium in suburban Maumee. It was a renovated horse track plagued by poor sight lines and a lack of bathrooms and concession stands.

        “We are hearing from people who never would have considered coming to a game before,” Mr. Napoli said.


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