Fifth Third Field has history of drawing celebritiesWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
From singers to sports stars to politicians, Fifth Third Field has seen its share of famous faces.
“American Idol” runner-up Crystal Bowersox of Elliston, who visited on May 14 during the show’s hometown tour portion for top finalists, drew a record-setting crowd of 13,200, the largest crowd in Fifth Third Field history.
Strategizing actually started eight to 10 weeks before, as Mud Hen staffers tried to determine if she would make the top three and what a hometown visit could mean for the ballpark, said Scott Jeffer, who until recently served as assistant general manager of marketing, advertising and sales for the Mud Hens. He left in March for a job with the New York Yankees.
“When she made the final three, she told the ‘American Idol’ folks, if you’re going to do something in Toledo it has to involve the Toledo Mud Hens,” Jeffer said. “And that was our ticket to get things done. From there it snowballed.”
Numerous conference calls between Mud Hens staff and FOX producers in California followed, said Mud Hens Director of Public Relations Jason Griffin.
“Obviously, that was such a big deal,” Griffin said. “It was a lot of work but all very exciting. We knew going into it we wanted to put on a good show for ‘American Idol.’ We all knew going in all this work would only get six seconds on the show, but it was worth it because you don’t get those chances very often. When the day arrived, we were all on adrenaline. It was neat to see so many people out there that weren’t Hens fans and had never been to a game.”
Jeffer compared the electricity in the air to the Mud Hens championship seasons of 2005 and 2006.
“It was along the same lines of excitement, but really only the sports fans cared about that and local fans got behind it too, but it’s wasn’t a national story,” Jeffer said. “Because of her, we really got a boost in the arm for national publicity. That was definitely the biggest media circus, but it was a real fun time.”
The “Idol” producers were amazed by Fifth Third Field, Griffin said.
“They said, ‘This is unbelievable. We’ve been on the field at Dodger Stadium and it doesn’t look this good,’” Griffin said. “It’s obviously a lot smaller but they said it was beautiful. That was quite a feather in our caps.”
The organization tries give Mud Hens apparel to any celebrities coming through town in the hopes they will wear it onstage somewhere, Griffin said.
It paid off on March 26 when Bob Seger performed in Toledo wearing a Mud Hens jersey.
“That was fantastic,” Griffin said. “Sometimes we hit a home run like Seger and sometimes I’m sure they probably throw it in a bag and move on. Bret Michaels wore one when he was here too.”
Most celebrities don’t ask for much, but one of the few who did was Michaels, Griffin said.
“What he wanted to do more than anything was play catch on the field,” Griffin said. “He said he’d wait till after the game, so we escorted him down there 45 minutes after the game ended and he and his band were out there playing catch on the field. He got a real kick out of that.”
Another exception was Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds.
“He wouldn’t go anywhere without a security guard, even to the restroom,” Jeffer said. “They’re usually more humble than that. He’s the only one who’s requested that.”
Sports author and columnist Rick Reilly wore a Mud Hens cap on the cover of his 2010 book “Sports From Hell: My Search for the World’s Dumbest Competition.” Actor Lucas Neff recently wore a Mud Hens shirt on the FOX network show “Raising Hope.”
The most famous Mud Hens name dropper is Glass City native and “M*A*S*H” actor Jamie Farr, who frequently wore Mud Hens jerseys and talked about Toledo during episodes of the hit TV show.
Farr, a yearly staple for at least one Mud Hens game, loves to show off Fifth Third Field and often brings golfers or other celebrities along when he’s in town for his LPGA golf tour, Jeffer said.
Farr is a true Mud Hens fan.
“Jamie is fantastic. Obviously he’s a huge cheerleader for the City of Toledo, but he’s a great Mud Hens fan too. He’s so gracious with his time when he comes to the ballpark,” Griffin said. “And sometimes I’ll be doing a broadcast and all of a sudden I’ll get an email from Jamie saying ‘Go Hens’ so I know he’s watching the game and following online.”
Celebrities come to Fifth Third Field for a variety of reasons and the Mud Hens front office may or may not know about the visit, Jeffer said.
“Sometimes it’s the morning of and you catch wind that somebody’s in town or a suite holder says ‘Hey, I’m bringing so-and-so to the game’,” Jeffer said. “Sometimes they just show up.”
One who has a tendency of just showing up — at least in the past — is Toledo native Katie Holmes, Griffin said.
“I know of three visits she made to Toledo ballgames,” Griffin said. “She came with [ex-fiancé] Chris Klein in 2001, the last year of Ned Skeldon. Nobody even knew. She wasn’t a big star then, but now she’s a mega, mega star. To be honest I think one of the female front office members noticed him first and word spread.
“She came again in 2002 with Klein, just came up to the box office and bought an $8 ticket, like no big deal,” Griffin said. “We asked if they wanted to come to a suite and they did come for a while. They wanted to enjoy themselves but they certainly didn’t call ahead and say we need an escort or security.”
At the time, she was on “Dawson’s Creek” and starting her movie career, Griffin said.
“Everybody that comes no matter how big of a star, they are really cool,” he said. “There haven’t been really any prima donnas. It’s usually been us that try to go out of our way to offer things so that they have security and are not being bothered.”
NASCAR driver Kurt Busch also made a surprise visit to Fifth Third Field in 2006. He was racing at Michigan International Speedway and had been childhood friends with Mud Hens outfielder Ryan Ludwick, Griffin said.
“We had no idea he was coming,” Griffin said. “It was ‘Wait a second. Is that Kurt Busch in the crowd?’ It was a totally unannounced surprise visit.”
Usually celebrities offered a suite will take it, but sometimes they decline, Jeffer said.
Ken Griffey Sr. declined because he was scouting for the Reds and wanted a closer view. The Goo Goo Dolls also declined, Jeffer said.
“They had seats behind the dugout and they were just big baseball fans —they didn’t care to come upstairs. They didn’t want to lose their good seats,” said Jeffer, who also recalls the group’s drummer wearing a Mud Hens jersey on “The Tonight Show” years ago.
“That was out of nowhere. We didn’t give it to them,” Jeffer said. “I guess they had come to the old stadium and picked up a jersey. We got all these nice calls about it.”
Sometimes it seems the Mud Hens benefit from having an unusual and memorable moniker, Griffin said.
“The Mud Hens are such a unique name and brand, it’s kind of a neat thing to wear,” Griffin said. “I think that’s one of those examples of we just have a unique name and that worked out for us.”
Golfer Phil Mickelson created a stir when he came to Fifth Third Field in 2004 to try out for the team, Jeffer said.
“Somehow Phil had a dream to be a major league pitcher for some time,” Jeffer said. “He spent four days with the Mud Hens in full uniform and he was trying to get where they would let him pitch just one inning in a Mud Hens game. His agents were beside themselves and didn’t want him to do it. I mean, he could have gotten hit by one line drive and lost millions. But Phil was determined. He wanted to do it. The publicity was insane.”
Mickelson was “dead serious” about the effort, Griffin said.
“The Tigers were brutal that year — well on their way to losing over 100 games,” Griffin said. “I think a lot of people thought it was a joke or a publicity stunt, but he came to us. It was pretty wild.”
A new venture for the Mud Hens came last summer when a film crew set up at Fifth Third Field.
Directed by Oz Scott and tentatively titled “Home Run Showdown,” the movie featured Matthew Lillard, Dean Cain, Barry Bostwick, Annabeth Gish and Wayne Duvall and used locals as extras in several scenes.
The location scouts for the film toured at least half a dozen stadiums within a couple hours drive of Detroit before choosing Fifth Third Field, Jeffer said.
“They said this was by far the best stadium for what they were trying to do, which was trying to pose as a major league ballpark,” Jeffer said. “They’re adding an upper deck by computer. Apparently it was the closest to looking like it could pass for major league so that was nice to know that that was the reason they chose Toledo as the location.”
Another movie in 2010, about a family moving from Toledo to Chicago, requested Mud Hens shirts, hats and pennants to use as part of the storyline, Jeffer said.
The biggest movie lately to reach out to the Mud Hens was “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt and based on the book about baseball economics by Michael Lewis. The subject is Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane, who played on the 1986 Mud Hens team, Jeffer said.
“The other two would be considered low-budget, but this will be a major movie coming out,” Jeffer said. “We shipped the Muddy mascot costume to Los Angeles to be used for a flashback scene in the movie about the 1986 Mud Hens team. The rumor is that Muddy won’t make the final cut, so we’re not holding our breath, but we’re hoping there’ll be references to the Mud Hens somewhere in the film.”
Other celebrities to have visited Fifth Third Field include Toledo native Tom Scholz of the band Boston, Toledo native sports columnist and commentator Christine Brennan, politician Joe Lieberman and actors Gregory Harrison and David Lander.
Many baseball players have visited as well — often as traveling spokesmen for various products — including Sparky Anderson, Ernie Harwell, Hall of Fame pitchers Jim Palmer, Bob Feller and Rollie Fingers, Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn and Hall of Fame infielder Mike Schmidt.
To see a gallery of famous Fifth Third Field visitors, visit www.mudhens.com and click on the Fifth Third Field tab and then Fifth Third Field Photos.