Toledo Free Press celebrates 10 years of home team coverageWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
This season marks the 10th year of Toledo Mud Hens coverage by Toledo Free Press. To mark the milestone, we took a trip down memory lane by paging through our old issues and put together this look back on season highlights.
Coming off a 65-78 record in 2004, the Mud Hens had a lot to prove in 2005 and had their eyes on an elusive International League title. The losing season didn’t seem to deter fans, however, as the team reported more than 300,000 tickets sold before Opening Day. Outfielder Curtis Granderson led a “squad of players expected to graduate to major league success,” according to a TFP headline. “This team looks good on paper, but let’s see what we can do between the lines,” manager Larry Parrish told TFP. “I am very excited about the prospects of the 2005 season.” His instincts were correct — as the Hens did go on to win the International League (IL) championship, sweeping the final series 3-0 against the Indianapolis Indians to earn the Governors’ Cup. It was Toledo’s first championship since 1967. “A franchise record 556,995 fans witnessed the Hens go from worst to first,” Toledo Free Press reported. Team president and general manager Joe Napoli later told Toledo Free Press, the team averaged nearly 7,500 attendees per game during the playoff run, which is “really unheard of” in Minor League Baseball and Minor League playoff games, he said. He said typical attendance for minor league playoff games is around 2,500 people. Describing the season, Napoli told Toledo Free Press: “In ‘Field of Dreams,’ someone said something along the lines of ‘the cosmic tumblers clicking into place.’ That happened here this summer. Toledo got to enjoy that where everything just fell into place.”
With Hens fans still basking in the glow of the league championship, TFP’s Opening Day cover in 2006 featured a championship ring and the headline “HENS RULE.” The team, looking to repeat their IL championship, once again enjoyed high attendance, setting an all-time Toledo baseball season attendance record of 569,380. Third baseman Mike Hessman, who led the 2005 squad with 28 home runs and 74 runs batted in, was quickly becoming a Toledo star. The team hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game that July, which coincided with the LPGA Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic. Packo’s at the Park opened Downtown. And the Hens achieved their goal, earning back-to-back league championships.
Opening weekend 2007 featured a celebration of the Hens’ back-to-back championship seasons and a focus on defending their title. Had they succeeded, the team would have been only the second to ever three-peat as IL champions. Batters Mike Hessman, David Espinosa, Jack Hannahan, Kevin Hoooper and Ryan Raburn returned along with pitchers Corey Hamman, Jason Karnuth and Jordan Tata. Hessman pounded 31 homers for the Hens, setting a new Toledo record with 83. Frank Gilhooley started his 55th season as a sports broadcaster and his 21st season with the Mud Hens. The team of Gilhooley and Jim Weber were recognized as the longest-running broadcast duo in IL history.
Manager Larry Parrish returned to the Mud Hens after a year off recovering from ankle surgery and A.J. Sager, a former University of Toledo quarterback, joined the club as pitching coach. Mike Hessman hit .271, crushed 34 homers and drove in 72. He also hit five homers for Detroit and one more at the summer Olympics, where he won a bronze medal with the U.S. team. The Tigers trade for third baseman Miguel Cabrera and pitcher Dontrelle Willis was expected to bump a few good players back to Toledo, making the Hens lineup stronger.
Opening Day 2009 was double the fun with back-to-back games April 16-17. Wilkin Ramirez joined first baseman Ryan Roberson, another slugger from Double-A Erie, and returning third-basemen Mike Hessman, outfielders Brent Clevlen and Ryan Raburn and catcher Dusty Ryan to give the Hens and manager Larry Parrish another powerful lineup. A new video board was installed at Fifth Third Field.
The team also jumped into social media in 2009 and reported “447 followers on Twitter and more than 767 friends on Facebook at press time.” Former Mud Hens star Curtis Granderson, now with Detroit, recalled Toledo fondly, telling TFP he still regularly consulted hitting coach Leon “Bull” Durham. PizzaPapalis had opened Downtown in February and owner Joe Sheena reported being excited for baseball season to start. “We expect to be busy from open to close on game days,” he told TFP. Huntington Center and the new Walleye hockey franchise started their inaugural seasons.
In 2010, the Hens were feeling the pinch of the recession. “Companies and people are spending fewer dollars for entertainment,” Napoli told TFP. “We understand and have made appropriate adjustments.” Ticket sales were also impacted negatively by uncertainty regarding an entertainment tax proposed by Mayor Mike Bell, Napoli said. Still, overall attendance in the history of Fifth Third Field surpassed 5 million toward the end of the season. By comparison, that same milestone took 30 years to reach at Ned Skeldon Stadium, Napoli said. Elliston native musician Crystal Bowersox helped with attendance, drawing a record-setting Fifth Third Field crowd of 13,200 when she visited the ballpark during her “American Idol” finalist hometown tour in May. “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,” Scott Jeffer, former assistant general manager of marketing later told TFP. Among other celebs to have watched a game at Fifth Third Field are Katie Holmes, Chris Klein, Bret Michaels, Kurt Busch, the Goo Goo Dolls and more. Among the Hens’ promotions was a Royal Wedding theme night in honor of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s upcoming nuptials.
The Hens celebrated their 10th season Downtown with a doubleheader. “It’s interesting because people tend to only remember all of the fond memories around opening Fifth Third Field,” Napoli told TFP. “It took us the better part of five years to persuade the community that this might be a good idea.” 2011 was the first season with the Mud Hens for new manager Phil Nevin, the first year for the Chicklets dance team and the first that Mud Hens games were available via Internet radio, through the iheartradio app. The Hens marked their 25th season as the Tigers’ affiliate. “I can’t say enough positive things about the Toledo organization, about how our relationship works,” Dan Lunetta, Detroit’s director of minor league operations told TFP. Napoli cited statistics that showed half of polled Mud Hens fans indicted no interest in minor league baseball. Instead, they come for the food, the drinks and the affordable family-friendly summer entertainment. Longtime Hens staffer Scott Jeffer left for a job with the New York Yankees, who had specifically sought him out, impressed by his work with targeted marketing strategies in Toledo. Bob Seger wore a Mud Hens jersey during a March concert at the Huntington Center. TFP’s Opening Day issue featured a photo illustration by lead designer James A. Molnar featuring Muddy rockin’ out in the ballpark with an electric guitar.
The big excitement in 2012 was a sold-out exhibition game against the Detroit Tigers. It was the first time since 2000 the Tigers had come to Toledo. 2012 marked the 76th anniversary of the Tigers’ affiliation with its spring training facility in Lakeland, Fla., the longest in minor league baseball. “We’re a smokeless factory in the community,” said Ron Myers, the Tigers’ director of Lakeland Operations. “And our job is to produce major league players.” The season also marked the 85th anniversary of the 1927 championship Mud Hens team led by Casey Stengel, who would go on to a storied Major League career, most notably with the New York Yankees. The Hens debuted their now-iconic Star Wars theme night, May The Fourth Be With You, on May 4. The Hens reported ticket sales were returning to pre-recession levels and the team debuted a signature beer, Broken Bat Kolsch, brewed by Maumee Bay Brewing Co. Penny Collins’ whimsical TFP Opening Day cover illustration featured a “Where’s Waldo?”-style scene, featuring various local celebs in a Mud Hens crowd, including Mayor Mike Bell, former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, Crystal Bowersox, Jamie Farr, Katie Holmes, and more.
Fifth Third Field underwent a series of renovations, including a new suite-level lounge and viewing area that offered a behind-the-scenes experience for club- and suite-level ticket holders. The result was a full-fledged TV studio — rare for the minor league level. Along with the typical slate of new foods, the Hens also debuted a full concourse facelift, featuring new names, signs and renovated facades for all concession venues to evoke the feel of a “downtown streetscape.” The signage at Fifth Third Field also got a facelift, changing colors from the former Fifth Third Bank colors of black and red to its new blue and green signage. Former Hens manager Larry Parrish was inducted into the International League Hall of Fame and Tigers’ No. 1 prospect Nick Castellanos started the season in Toledo. The Hens expanded their popular Star Wars Night to two days, adding Revenge of the Fifth to May the Fourth be with You, and the team’s Chewbacca jerseys garnered national attention. As an “Angry Birds” craze was sweeping the nation, TFP’s Opening Day cover by cartoonist Don Lee featured Muddy the Mud Hen as an Angry Bird. The team also announced an ambitious Downtown development project, now called Hensville. The project, which is said to include an expanded Swamp Shop, restaurant and rooftop viewing, is expected to be completed by 2016.
Opening Day 2014 will feature the first multisport doubleheader, with the Mud Hens opener April 4 leading into a Walleye hockey game that night. The 2014 winter, one of Toledo’s coldest and snowiest on record, forced the Mud Hens groundskeeping crew, including Sports Turf Manager Jake Tyler, to take drastic measures to make sure the field is in tip-top shape by Opening Day, including a heated tent to melt the on-field snow. Longtime Hens broadcaster Jim Weber will be inducted into the International League Hall of Fame and former Hens manager Larry Parrish is returning to lead the team, which will feature a strong pitching lineup. Also returning is Mike Hessman, who was part of the Hens’ championship 2005-06 seasons and who holds the Hens’ all-time homerun record. The Mud Hens have gained a reputation for creative promotions, said Manager of Online Marketing Nathan Steinmetz. The team’s “Ghostbusters” jerseys, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the film franchise, drew national attention. In December, Fifth Third Field will host the long-awaited Winterfest, featuring an outdoor hockey rink erected on the field.
— Compiled by Toledo Free Press Managing Editor Sarah Ottney
Tags: a former University of Toledo quarterback, A.J. Sager, Batters Mike Hessman, brewed by Maumee Bay Brewing Co., Chicklets dance team, David Espinosa, Detroit Tigers, Double-A Erie, Elliston native musician Crystal Bowersox, former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, Frank Gilhooley, general manager Joe Napoli, hitting coach Leon “Bull” Durham, Huntington Center, International League (IL), International League Hall of Fame, Jack Hannahan, Jamie Farr, Jason Karnuth and Jordan Tata. Hessman, Jim Weber, Katie Holmes, Kevin Hoooper and Ryan Raburn returned along with pitchers Corey Hamman, LPGA Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, manager Larry Parrish, Mayor Mike Bell, Mike Hessman, minor league baseball, Minor League playoff games, Ned Skeldon Stadium, Nick Castellanos, outfielders Brent Clevlen and Ryan Raburn and catcher Dusty Ryan, Packo’s at the Park, pitcher Dontrelle Willis, PizzaPapalis, Prince William and Kate Middleton, roken Bat Kolsch, Royal Wedding theme night, Ryan Roberson, sports broadcaster, Sports Turf Manager Jake Tyler, Star Wars Night, Summer Olympics, third baseman Miguel Cabrera, third-basemen Mike Hessman, Toledo Mud Hens, Triple-A All-Star Game, Walleye hockey franchise, Wilkin Ramirez, WinterFest, ‘Field of Dreams’, “American Idol” finalist, “Ghostbusters” jerseys, “HENS RULE”