It’s been a couple years since my last foray into Midwest League territory, but with my May 22 visit to Dayton to see the Dragons, I was back. I visited five Midwest League ballparks in 2011 — Fort Wayne, Great Lakes, Lake County, Lansing and West Michigan, for those keeping score — but was pumped to see Dayton, which Sports Illustrated has called “one of the 10 hottest tickets in sports.” More on that later.
The drive from Columbus to Dayton isn’t far, and if you’re in either city, it’s worth seeing if the team in the other city is playing. I noted that Columbus’ Huntington Park is a great place to watch a game, and from the moment I pulled up to Dayton’s Fifth Third Field, I could tell the same was true here. Unfortunately, Mother Nature wasn’t too happy on this day. I’d experienced great weather each day of my trip, but when I got to Fifth Third Field, the rain started to fall. I parked across the street and ran to the suite entrance. By the time I got inside, the quick downpour had all but stopped.
Although I’m always excited to check out a new ballpark, this visit was extra special. I was lucky to get a tour from Brandy Guinaugh, the team’s director of sponsor services. She met me in the lobby at 5:15 p.m. and for the next hour, took time out of her busy day to show me the ins and outs of Fifth Third Field, including many stops behind the scenes.
One of the neat things the Dragons do is honor each past star with a framed photo. Recognizing alumni is nothing new in the minor leagues, but this wall — which is forever growing — has a photo and interesting stats on each guy. I could’ve spent an hour here, but had time for a quick photo before we kept moving:
Across the hall from the alumni wall is another display honoring celebrities who’ve appeared at Fifth Third Field, often to throw out the first pitch. One notable guy I saw was Johnny Bench (the Dragons are an affiliate of the Reds), and it was neat to see him, given I’d seen him just a few days earlier at the Field of Dreams game. Two other ex-athletes were notable — Magic Johnson and Archie Griffin, each of whom owns a stake in the team. The team’s principle owner is Mandalay Sports Entertainment, whose name you might recognize. The sports division of the enormous entertainment company also owns the Erie SeaWolves, Frisco RoughRiders, Oklahoma City RedHawks and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Up next, we descended into the lower level of the ballpark, where the walls were painted with not only Dragons logos and color schemes, but also the logos of each of the Midwest League franchises. Here’s that hall:
Brandy explained that ex-players often maintain their connection to Dayton, given the team’s avid fan base. As you might know if you’re a baseball die hard, the Dragons currently have the longest consecutive sell-out streak in all of sports — not baseball or the minor leagues, but all professional sports. They set the mark with their 815th-straight sellout in 2011 and are still going strong. Incredible! How much do former players like the city? Todd Coffey, who’s played with four MLB teams, named his child Dayton. And a Joey Votto quote is displayed on the ballpark’s wall:
Even though I’ve got a chance to do it several times, it’s always a thrill to be behind the scenes at a ballpark. As I learned about the team, a number of the opposing West Michigan Whitecaps walked by us down the hall. Before long, we too were headed down another hallway toward the dugout, but not before I snapped a shot of this sign to show where we were:
Then, with a quick turn, we were through a tunnel and out into the Dragons dugout. Awesome! The first sight I saw was the team’s notable video board:
I mention it because when the team scores a run or wins the game, the dragons’ eyes light up and steam shoots out their noses. But more on that later. A handful of Dragons were sitting in the dugout, and that was the only sign of player activity; the tarp was on the field and there was no batting practice:
After a few minutes in the dugout, we went up to the suite level where the tributes to past players continued. The Dragons, despite having never won a Midwest League title, could field a pretty darned good all-time team, and many of these players’ jerseys are displayed along the hallways. Here’s a guy who should hit the 500-home run plateau in another few years:
We stopped to see the team’s suite …
… and then went out to the seats in front of the suite where I took this panorama that shows the dark sky:
See this building beyond left field?
And this one beyond right?
Brandy pointed them both out because Adam Dunn and Votto have each hit the buildings with home runs. Look how far they are beyond the wall!
Our next stop was a big highlight — we went into the official scorer’s booth and spoke to the man who has the best job in the ballpark. He’s the guy who presses the button to activate the scoreboard dragons, and he asked me if I wanted to press the “most important button in the park.” My answer?
I pressed away and watched the two sets of eyes glow red and steam cut through the air. Super cool — I’ve never done anything that’s affected a video board in my travels.
By now, the grounds crew was taking the tarp off the field, and after watching them work for a few minutes, we went back to the suite hallway and I learned about all the notable non-baseball events that Fifth Third Field has hosted. Notable speakers have included Barack Obama and John Kerry, while musical acts including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and the Counting Crows have performed. Here’s Obama speaking during a 2008 campaign stop:
Our last visit was the enormous team shop on the concourse level, and after all the time Brandy had spent with me, she had to get back to her pre-game duties. Thanks for the tour and your time, Brandy!
The team shop, by the way, is enormous. Take a look at this photo and tell me if you’d guess this belongs to a Class-A franchise:
Now on my own, I made my customary lap of the ballpark and took in the sights. Here’s what Fifth Third Field looks like from center field:
The next half-hour breezed past and before long, the game began. I watched the first couple innings from various spots, including the second deck, where I had this view:
The between-inning entertainment, I should note, was fun. The hosts were really energetic and my favorite part was the one-eyed mascot, Wink, messing with a Whitecaps player:
I was soon ready for some dinner, but faced a dilemma. As is often the case by the end of the first week of my baseball road trips, I was ready for something healthy. Brandy had recommended the park’s healthy concession choices, but I wasn’t so sure after this exchange with the concession staff member:
Me: I’ll have the salad, please. (Holding out my money.)
Him: I’ll wait to take your money until you see the salad.
Hmmm. The Dragons have a different salad choice each month, and this one was outstanding! It was a little small, but had fresh greens, toasted pine nuts, crumbled blue cheese and a homemade-tasting dressing:
I was pleasantly surprised and while this exact salad might not be on the menu when you visit Dayton, give the healthy choices some consideration.
After eating, I took this photo of Dayton starter Pedro Diaz:
And then captured this rainbow over the ballpark, before putting my camera away and sitting back to enjoy the rest of the game:
Despite the threat of rain, the game went off without a hitch and I was glad to get another Midwest League city under my belt. Fifth Third Field is an awesome place to catch a game and definitely worth visit — as long as you can get a ticket.