When people tell me about the best ballparks in the minor leagues, very rarely is Toledo’s Fifth Third Field mentioned. It should be.
Perhaps if the ballpark existed when M*A*S*H was in its heyday, Fifth Third Field would be as world famous as the Toledo Mud Hens, which the team it hosts is thanks to the support they received form Jamie Farr’s character, Corporal Max Klinger, on the long-running TV show.
Ironically enough, the Mud Hens’ never played a game in Toledo during the time period they became a household name, as their home was Ned Skeldon Stadium in Maumee, a suburb 8 miles to the south.
It wasn’t until 19 years after the final episode of M*A*S*H became the most-watched television broadcast in history that the Mud Hens became Toledo’s team again, which happened in 2002 when the second pro ballpark in the state of Ohio to bear the name Fifth Third Field opened (the other Fifth Third Field was christened in Dayton in 2000).
Toledo’s Fifth Third Field boasts an idyllic downtown location and brick exterior that blends in perfectly in the city’s historic brick-laden Warehouse District, where architect HNTB designed and Lathrop Construction built a nearly perfect ballpark for $31.3 million.
With the Toledo skyline serving as the outfield backdrop and the remains of Fifth Third Field surrounded by old brick buildings, fans anywhere on the ballpark’s eight acres of property are sure to be wowed by the non-baseball views.
Fifth Third Field has four entrances, each named for their relative position to the bases, but fans need not enter the ballpark to be able to watch the game. That’s because only a black wrought iron fence serves as a barrier between the sidewalk and concourse in much of the outfield, where fans have great views of the playing field that is 14 feet below street level whether they paid to or not.
The sidewalk beyond left field is a freeloader’s paradise while a clever knothole gang inspired sculpture in right-center field captures the spirit ever so eloquently. Titled “Who’s Up,” the artwork shows four life-sized youths peering through holes bored into an approximately 10-foot wide wooden fence.
Just like the exterior sculpture, the ballpark’s exterior is a beauty. The majority of the façade that extends the length of the foul lines is built with brick but before the two sides can intersect they give way to a small open plaza that was created outside of home plate and a main entryway that is made of a light-colored stone.
Atop the stone façade the ballpark’s name is emblazoned in big letters between two Fifth Third Field logos, which effectively serve as the ballpark’s coat of arms.
Between and beneath the logos at street level is the ballpark’s main gate, which is flanked by oversized wood bats that are attached to a blue sign that says “Home Plate.”
Nearby, three small trees planted in the concrete plaza a few paces from the ticket windows almost obscure the historical marker erected in honor of Moses Fleetwood Walker, who in 1884 became the first African American major leaguer when he caught for the Toledo Blue Stockings. The signage isn't easy to spot, but the official name of the main entrance and its plaza is Moses Fleetwood Walker Square.
The ballpark’s other gates are anything but obscure, although the one in center field (named the 2nd Base Gate) is only open when big crowds are expected.
Gates in each of the ballpark’s outfield corners do a brisk business, as they are better situated to parking lots than the home plate gate is. The 1st Base Gate (right field corner) is the more notable of the two, as it’s adjacent to the big and busy team store, dubbed The Swamp Shop.
Regardless of which gate fans enter, a free copy of the Mud Hens’ full color game magazine awaits. Packed with insightful info, The Muddy Times has a map of all 17 concession stands/carts and a list of the items offered at each. The program also includes an impressive embedded scorecard with a tutorial on how to keep score, something that's become a lost art these days.
On the subject of art, fans not entering the ballpark through the 3rd Base Gate in the left field corner should at least venture over there to check out the catchy “I Got It” sculpture that is set atop a turntable behind section 101. The bronze sculpture shows three boys wearing baseball gloves positioning themselves to catch a home run. Although they face the field during the game, the turntable allows the skyward looking youths to be rotated to welcome the crowd before it.
Taking what's great with the new breed of major league parks but downsizing it to a minor league scale, Fifth Third Field has plenty of private party areas, scoreboards, quirks, perks and a concourse that encircles the playing field.
The ballpark has two decks. The upper one, known as the club level, extends most of the length of the lower (main) level, and has six rows of seating for a total capacity of 1,200. All seats in the club level are padded, have cup holders, and are angled towards second base. An open-air concourse separates the club level seats from the 32 suites behind them and party decks – The Coop in left, The Nest in right – bookend the ballpark’s upper level, which can only accessed by steps at each end, although suite holders can use an elevator behind home plate.
The upper level overhangs the lower level, placing fans up high very close to the action while providing cover for the main level concourse below. Additionally, the upper rows of seats in lower level sections 103-119 are covered by the overhang.
Fifth Third Field’s 8,943-seat capacity is small by Tripe-A standards – only Colorado Springs’ ballpark holds less in the minors’ top classification – but crowd counts can exceed five figures in Toledo thanks to a bountiful amount of standing room, most of it in the outfield, where the fence zigs and zags at different heights to give the playing field asymmetrical dimensions.
With nooks and crannies galore, the outfield can be a challenge for outfielders but it is where the ballpark’s designers shone brightest.
Among the innovations are three tiers of picnic tables that flank each side of an alcove in center field, which contains the hitter’s background. Directly behind the batter’s eye is Muddy’s Marsh, a kid’s play area with a tree trunk-themed playground.
A tall screen running the length of the concourse in left field is reminiscent of the one that used to be atop Boston’s Green Monster. The screen in Toledo serves a similar purpose, as it protects cars driving along the four-lane city street behind it.
The ballpark’s signature feature, a home run porch, is in right field and was inspired by the longtime home of the Mud Hens’ longtime parent club, the Detroit Tigers. Perched above the concourse and attached to two old warehouses, the home run porch evokes memories of the upper right field seats at Tiger Stadium. Called The Roost, it can seat 282 people in nine rows that taper to reveal a patio.
Named the best seats in all of Minor League Baseball by ESPN.com in 2007, The Roost is adjacent to an indoor party space that can be rented out by groups of 25 or more. That party space is incorporated into one of three old warehouses that have been restored to become a prime example of adaptive reuse.
Toledo’s version includes the six-story building that the right half of The Roost is attached to. It contains banquet rooms, team offices, a rooftop deck and the team shop. At 3,500-square feet, the first floor Swamp Shop is one of the biggest team shops in the minors, and rivals many of those found in the majors.
Because Fifth Third Field isn’t as tall as the numerous brick buildings that surround it, the tower that juts above the multi-purpose building’s sixth floor provides more than just a decorative touch, as the rotating sign placed atop the tower alerts passerby’s to the location of the ballpark. The two-sided sign features the official logos of the Mud Hens and their ballpark.
Among the establishments to take up residence in the other converted warehouses is Fricker’s at the Park, an appropriate name for a restaurant with eight windows overlooking the playing field. Tables behind those windows are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Although there are lots of trendy and novel features within Fifth Third Field, the placement of the bullpens is not one of them. Their location is decidedly old-school, as they are simply in the limited foul territory found down each outfield line.
Dual video boards stand in the outfield. The line score is always displayed on the main scoreboard in left, while the primary function of the smaller scoreboard in right-center is to list the full line-ups of whichever team is at bat. Ribbon scoreboards attached to the façade of the upper level contain current game info and player statistics.
At the far left end of the upper level facade is a baseball-shaped marker with the number 1 in it. Although its placement and design would indicate the number has been retired by the team, there is no readily available explanation for its presence or what the number signifies. Only after doing a lot of digging was I able to uncover the answer: Uniform No. 1 was retired after the first inning on the ballpark's inaugural Opening Day in honor of Gene Cook, a former Toledo city councilman who had a 20-year run, from 1978 to 1998, as the Mud Hens general manager and who was on the International League board of directors when he died at the age of 70 just two months before Fifth Third Field opened.
Toledo has a long and storied history with the national pastime. Professional baseball made its debut in the city in 1883 and the first team to sport the Mud Hens moniker took the field in 1896. Much of the sport’s history in the city is chronicled at Fifth Third Field, but unfortunately it’s done so out of sight of the common fan.
If the ballpark has one fault, it’s that the only fans exposed to the fabulous Toledo Baseball History Wall are those that can walk the interior halls of the suite level. There, a lengthy and insightful exhibit covers over a century of Toledo baseball in four groupings that correspond to the four eras depicted on the original Toledo Baseball History Wall, which was installed in 1998 at Ned Skeldon Stadium by the Toledo-based chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Selected items from the original wall now line the hallway behind the suites at Fifth Third Field. The four eras detailed through photos and other artifacts are 1883-1900, 1901-1929, 1930-1955 and 1965-1998.
The marquee exhibit of the current wall is the Toledo Hall of Famers display, which honors the 15 people associated with professional baseball in Toledo that have been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Pictures with captions of the eleven players, two managers, and two umpires with Toledo ties adorn this portion of the History Wall, which was officially designed by the Roger Bresnahan/Mud Hens Chapter of SABR.
While the rank and file fan has no access to the impressive amount of history displayed in the upper level, those confined to the street-level lower concourse do have access to a wide array of tasty treats from the bevy of concession fare that is available along it. The width and openness of the concourse, the signage above it, and the variety of food found on it give Fifth Third Field’s main level a major league feel.
Fans in Toledo have certainly taken notice of the diamond in their downtown and so has the national media. Newsweek named Fifth Third Field the "best stadium" in their 2002 "Cheat Sheet" to Minor League Baseball, while Baseball America exclaimed the Mud Hens’ house to be the fourth best ballpark in the minors in 2009.
In between those accolades, fans have flocked to Fifth Third Field, where sellouts have become common. There were 38 of them in 2008, when the ballpark welcomed its four millionth fan and hosted its 200th overall sellout.
Those lofty numbers and low numbered rankings have been well earned, as I concur with Newsweek, Baseball America and countless Toledoans who have all come to the conclusion that Fifth Third Field is one of the best places in the country to watch a ball game. Corporal Klinger would be proud.
Location and Parking
Fifth Third Field is in the section of downtown Toledo that is referred to as the Warehouse District, a once thriving, then mostly abandoned, and now reborn neighborhood on the southern cusp of downtown, where the ballpark revitalized an area filled with late 19th century brick buildings and warehouses. Much like the ballpark they surround, those old buildings now teem with activity on game day and draw visitors into downtown when the Mud Hens aren't around, a double play that the city hoped for when a handful of public and privities entities ponied up about $39 million to build an urban field of dreams.
Taking a queue from the Mud Hens, entrepreneurs and established business have surrounded the ballpark with a blend of residential and commercial enterprises that include both chain and regionally recognized restaurants, two of which are named for their proximity to the ballpark. Fricker’s at the Park opened in 2003 quite literally at the ballpark, which it overlooks in right field. The more famous Packo’s at the Park was established in 2006 across the street from the 1st Base Gate.
Fifth Third Field both complimented existing and spurred further entertainment facilities in downtown Toledo. Two blocks north, the $105 million Lucas County Arena opened shortly after the 2009 baseball season ended. The SeaGate Convention Centre opened in 1987 and is protected by the screen erected in left field along Monroe Street. Normally you can take a right from Monroe onto N. St. Clair Street, but that road is barricaded during games, a la Yawkey Way in Boston. The outfield screen and ballpark facade also give the place a Fenway vibe, with the bars, restaurants and large team shop somewhat reminiscent of what the Red Sox have in Boston's Back Bay.
Just like in Beantown, parking near the ballpark in Toledo can be problematic, as Fifth Third Field has no official lot. Fortunately, there is plenty of surface street parking and spaces in garages nearby, with the price for one ranging from $4 to $8.
An alternative to parking downtown also exists, courtesy of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority, better known by its acronym of TARTA. For a dollar, their round-trip "Muddy Shuttle" bus takes fans to and from the ballpark from one of 13 designated park & ride locations.
From 1965 to 2001 the Toledo Mud Hens actually played their games in Maumee, where Ned Skeldon Stadium
still stands, mostly unused, on the Lucas County Fairgrounds.
Now, the Mud Hens play a couple blocks away from the Maumee River in a ballpark that acquired its name the year before it opened, when on August 16, 2001 Fifth Third Bank made a $5 million commitment to the ballpark that progressed from a feasibility study in 1997 to a completed reality five years later. Besides the naming rights fee, funding for the $39.2 million project came from a joint venture between the Mud Hens, Lucas County, the state of Ohio and TARTA.
When the Mud Hens opened their park on April 9, 2002 with a 7-5 victory over the Norfolk Tides in front of a paid crowd of 12,134, it marked the first time that the team had played a game in the city of Toledo since 1955, when they departed Swayne Field for Wichita, KS, leaving residents of The Glass City without a pro baseball team to support for a decade.
The current Mud Hens can trace their lineage to the Yankees and Richmond, VA, where New York's Triple-A affiliate was located prior to transferring itself in 1965 to Maumee, where yearly attendance totals ranged from 86,428 (1970) to 325,532 (1997). The team's move to Toledo in 2002 didn't just revitalize downtown, it also reinvigorated the fan base -- 547,204 came through the Fifth Third Field turnstiles in its inaugural year.
Fans today continue to flock to 406 Washington Street, where Fifth Third Field was built with 1,100 tons of steel, 8,100 cubic yards of concrete and has undergone a handful of improvements on its 150,000 square feet of real estate since opening.
The most noticeable addition, a second video capable scoreboard, made its debut in right-center field in 2005. Four years later, the original video scoreboard in left was upgraded to a 33" x 32" LED display made by Daktronics, who also manufactured the 40" x 20" display in right-center and the digital ribbon scoreboards that are on the facade of the club level.