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.
Last week, I blogged about the six caps I’ve bought during my travels around Major League and Minor League Baseball.
This week, I want to continue the sports-centered wardrobe theme and talk about some of the shirts I’ve bought and received through stadium giveaways. As I’ve said, I don’t buy a hat at every park I visit. The same holds true for shirts and other memorabilia. Still, when the price is right and I like the look of something, I’ll add it to my collection.
Dating back to my first baseball road trips for The Ballpark Guide in 2010, here’s what I’ve picked up:
Cleveland Indians – Travis Hafner jersey shirt
This isn’t a traditional jersey shirt; you’ll see that it has Hafner’s nickname, Pronk, on the back. I’m a Hafner fan, and thought this shirt was unique.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats 1
When I visited New Hampshire’s (now called Northeast Delta Dental Stadium) in September 2010, the team was about to play what would be its final playoff game of the season. As such, most of the products in the team shop were on sale. I picked up this T-shirt for under $10.
New Hampshire Fisher Cats 2
I got this one for around $10, too. Not bad for a Nike product, and I like the look of it.
Great Lakes Loons
When I watched the Great Lakes Loons play in May 2011, I visited the team shop during a long rain delay. This shirt was priced way less than other comparable products, so I bought it. What I didn’t notice at the time is that the logo is significantly closer to the left sleeve. (Hence the price reduction.) Still, I like this shirt because it’s one baseball shirt that isn’t gaudy.
West Michigan Whitecaps
Speaking of gaudy (in a good way, of course), this bright red Whitecaps shirt featuring their logo is eye catching. Most of the shirts I’ve gotten are white, so this one stands out in my closet.
Fort Wayne TinCaps
Perhaps partly influenced by my amazing visit to beautiful Parkview Field, this TinCaps shirt is one of my favorites. I like its design and the fact it uses the MiLB logo in a prominent spot. Plus, who doesn’t like angry apples?
Lake County Captains
I wasn’t around to see Lake County win the first half of the Midwest League championship in 2010, but I liked this shirt enough to buy it in 2011.
I’m a big fan of this simple Shorebirds T-shirt by Nike. I like Delmarva’s logo and the simple design of this shirt.
Baltimore Orioles 1
When I was in B-More, I was lucky enough to attend a game with a T-shirt giveaway. The T-shirt this day was J.J. Hardy.
Baltimore Orioles 2
Last summer, Chevrolet heavily promoted the Volt at MLB stadiums, including Camden Yards. If you signed up to receive Chevrolet marketing material, you got a free T-shirt. Count me in! And, if you wanted to sign up multiple times, you’d get multiple shirts ….
Washington Nationals 1
A couple days after I was in Baltimore, I was in the nation’s capital over the July 4 long weekend. The Nats gave away American flag-themed T-shirts at the gate.
Washington Nationals 2
Just like in Baltimore, Chevrolet had a kiosk promoting the Volt. I managed to get, uh, a few of these shirts, too.
On July 4, I stopped in Binghamton to see the B-Mets battle the Portland Sea Dogs before an impressive fireworks show at NYSEG Stadium. During the game, I picked up what’s become one of my favorite items — a B-Mets pullover. These are the shirts the players wear during BP, in the dugout and while warming up. It’s awesome.
But what about game-used items? You’ll just have to check back tomorrow for some goodies that fall under that category.
After I left the game between the Great Lakes Loons and South Bend Silver Hawks at Dow Diamond on May 22, I drove all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan in anticipation of the West Michigan Whitecaps game on May 23.
Like the Lugnuts and Loons, which I’d seen previously on this trip, the Whitecaps play in the Midwest League. They’re the affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
The Whitecaps play at Fifth Third Ballpark (not to be confused with Toledo’s Fifth Third Field), which is in the Grand Rapids suburb of Comstock Park. The ballpark itself is right off the highway, and simple to get to. After I parked, I took a photo of the sign …
… and bought my ticket:
Fifth Third Ballpark is built up on top of a hill, and is surrounded by a lot of green space:
Touring the outside of the facility, I came across the players’ parking lot, which is to the rear of the stadium. I always like looking at players’ lots, whether it’s an MLB team’s lot or one at an MiLB park. MLB lots are full of expensive cars. MiLB? Not so much. I always like to take a brief look at the vehicles and see how many nice ones there are, then compare that number to the team’s first-round draft picks. See the brand-new Range Rover?
Now, I have no idea who it actually belongs to, but I looked up that first-rounder Nick Castellanos (who coincidently attended the same high school as Tigers catcher Alex Avila) was a first-round draft pick of the Tigers in 2010. His signing bonus? $3.45 million. So, I’m guessing he’s not driving a minivan. (This is reason 1,357 that I love baseball — it’s awesome to tour the stadiums, take in the sights and form your own conclusions about what you see.)
After walking up and down the hills surrounding the ballpark, and taking the photos to make up this panorama …
… I went around to look at the front. Here’s a view looking up the steps toward Fifth Third Ballpark …
… and a view looking down the steps:
If all the stairs make you worried about accessibility, you can get up to the gate via a long ramp:
There’s a ticket office located at the top of the stairs/ramp:
And through the chain-link fence, I could peruse a concession menu while I waited:
Once the gates opened, I headed in quickly in search of a batting practice ball. Like other MiLB parks, the gates to Fifth Third Ballpark open after BP is done, but you can occasionally find a ball in the stands.
I headed straight to the first-base side dugout and, in the second row, found this:
The picture doesn’t show it, but the other side of the ball had a huge gash, as though it had hit something sharp. Nevertheless, it was another Official Midwest League Ball! A tour of the rest of the seating turned up nothing, so I started taking in the ballpark’s different features. From top to bottom: An extensive picnic deck in right field; a picturesque waterfall area beyond third base; the pressbox area, with the Whitecaps’ five league banners from 1996, 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2007 (pretty consistent, huh?); and the two-tier Pepsi Stadium Club, which is located in right-center:
As you can see in the two photos below, Fifth Third Ballpark has both bleachers and box seats in the lower deck and suites up above:
Soon, the Whitecaps, who were playing the Fort Wayne TinCaps (Caps vs. Caps) came out to stretch:
After watching them for a bit, I took a tour around the concourse:
Fifth Third Ballpark has all sorts of concessions, including a unique tiki hut:
But everything pales in comparison to the Fifth Third Burger, which has been featured on Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food:
Note the 4,889 calories, 299.5 grams of fat and other ridiculous numbers. This burger costs $20, and is about the size of a hub cap. If you conquer it (without “reversing” it, as indicated in rule #6) you win a T-shirt. There’s an official competition area and a referee to watch you:
I didn’t tackle this monstrosity, mainly because I was at this game alone and engaging in eating challenges by one’s self = loserish. Had I been with a few buddies? Uh-oh!
Behind home plate, a daily-updated board shows the Midwest League’s standings:
I thought this was much nicer than simply writing it with a Sharpie on a white board, as many ballparks do. As you can see, the Whitecaps are dead last in the East and second last in the league, but you wouldn’t know it by their fan base. The park was loaded with passionate fans who were really into the game. And as you’ll see below, the Caps are actually fourth in Midwest League attendance:
A note to fans of the Beloit Snappers: Step your game up. Really. 628 fans a game? Brutal. Canada has lost a ton of Minor League franchises over the years because of a lack of fan interest. And it’s awful. Once it’s gone, it’s not coming back. Get out and support your team, which has an impressive alumni list including Prince Fielder.
Note: If you’re visiting Fifth Third Ballpark, see if you have an old glove you can donate. You can leave gloves in a bin inside the front gate, and the Caps will see that they’re distributed to kids who need them:
By now, the game was set to begin, so I grabbed a picnic area spot up high on the first base side to watch. Here was my view:
And here’s the foul ball I caught on a one hop in the top of the first inning:
A day earlier, when I was in Midland to watch the Great Lakes Loons, I caught a foul in the first inning, too.
After a couple innings, I grabbed an order of “super nachos” and settled in behind first base:
Once the nachos were down, I walked around the concourse again, noting the nice wooden ceilings and flat-screen TVs throughout:
I checked out the team store behind third base, and bought a Whitecaps T-shirt, then watched the next several innings from a picnic area up high on the first base side, and eventually, the sun began to set, so I snapped this panorama:
The game itself was interesting — and probably infuriating for Whitecaps fans. West Michigan starter Antonio Cruz had his best outing of the season, going 6.1 innings and allowing just one run on four hits, while striking out eight. He left the game with the lead, and after a hold by Ramon Lebron (don’t freak, Cleveland — it’s a different Lebron), Dan Gentzler allowed three earned runs in the eighth and ninth. Final score: Fort Wayne 4, West Michigan 2.
Detroit tomorrow for the first of two Tigers games!
As I write this, I’m still debating going to Syracuse in the morning for the Chiefs game against Rochester at 2 p.m. It’s a big driving commitment, but I’m anxious to get one game under my belt in 2011. Plus, as you may have read here, I’d like to get a bit more information about Alliance Bank Stadium before I write its official guide for my website, TheBallparkGuide.com.