By Aaron Fitt
December 7, 2005
Just a decade ago, visiting players so disliked trips to Toledo that they referred to Ned Skeldon Stadium as “The Morgue,” a depressing, dark, quiet place where baseball careers went to die. The moniker was especially appropriate given the moribund state of the franchise that called the facility home.
The Toledo Mud Hens were the quintessential loveable losers of minor league baseball. They were one of the most recognizable franchises in the minors thanks to actor and Toledo-native Jamie Farr, aka Corporal Max Klinger, who frequently sported Mud Hens gear on episodes of “M*A*S*H”. But when it came to the business of baseball, the Mud Hens were a nickel and dime operation struggling to attract fans to a run-down stadium in the International League’s smallest market.
Current general manager Joe Napoli got his start with the Mud Hens after reading a quirky Sports Illustrated piece about them in 1990 and deciding to call then-GM Gene Cook to inquire about a sales position.
“During the conversation, he said ‘We don’t have a very large staff,’ ” Napoli recalled. “At the time, minor league staffs were small, might be eight or 10 people. I was young, a little wet behind the ears, and didn’t think anything of it, so I moved to Toledo, eager to meet the staff. He introduces me to the bookkeeper and the receptionist and says, ‘Well, there you have it.’ I said, ‘Oh my god, what did I get myself into?’ “
After stints with the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Tigers, Napoli returned to the Mud Hens as GM in the late 90s, and he now heads a full-time staff of 30 with a host of part-timers. The Mud Hens of 2005 have become one of the crown jewels of Triple-A, completing a remarkable transformation from the downtrodden and earning a 2005 Bob Freitas award for excellence in the business of minor league baseball.
The first and most vital step in resurrecting the Mud Hens was building a new ballpark, of course. Ned Skeldon Stadium had originally served as the grandstand for a horse-racing track at fairgrounds outside the city before being converted to a baseball field in 1965. Though it was a less-than-ideal place to watch a game, Skeldon Stadium actually engendered feelings of sentimentality among Toledo residents when the idea of a new ballpark was hatched in the late 90s, presenting one of a series of obstacles to getting the new park built.
“There were fits and starts for nearly five years before we got the project going,” Napoli said. “There was a time there when we thought it was not going to come together.”
The city and county butted heads over the new ballpark, and a consultant had to be brought in to try to address the concerns of all the local officials. Citizens balked at the suggestion of a small tax to help fund the stadium project. They griped about the apparent lack of parking. They dismissed the idea that a ballpark could work downtown, because nobody went downtown for anything.
But the Mud Hens firmly believed a downtown ballpark could revitalize an area filled with dilapidated, abandoned warehouses, and they turned out to be right. After the opening of beautiful Fifth Third Field in 2002, upscale restaurants and nightclubs followed suit. The area was designated as an entertainment district to allow for more liquor licenses, and businesses thrived in renovated warehouses. Now there is a push for a new hockey arena two blocks away from the ballpark, which will infuse even more life into the district.
That’s to say nothing of what Fifth Third Field has meant to the Mud Hens themselves. They set a franchise attendance record in their first season in the new park, drawing 547,204 fans in 2002. The club managed to break that mark in 2005, drawing 556,995 fans during the regular season and selling out 30 times including the playoffs. There have now been 107 sellouts in the four-year history of the downtown ballpark.
Even on Mondays early in the season when the weather is bad, the Mud Hens still attract 4,000 to 5,000 fans. Back in the Skeldon Stadium days, a bad night was 700 to 800 fans, and good nights were dependent upon a major promotion or newspaper giveaway–and good weather. Because the Mud Hens had such a small season ticket base (barely 1,000) and booked so few parties (about 120 per year), it meant that about 75 percent of their attendance was made up of walk-up customers. That meant a weekend washout or two during key months could be crippling.
But now demand has caused the Mud Hens to cap their season tickets at 3,500, and they have averaged 600 parties and 1,600 group outings per year since moving into their new home. That means the club sells 65 percent of its goal of 525,000 tickets before Opening Day even arrives, which neutralizes Mother Nature’s impact. The staggering success has surprised even the Mud Hens, who expected to draw between 400,000 and 425,000 fans annually in their new park, with a high-water mark of 440,000.
“The way we market to kids and families, it’s now become the place to be in the summer time, because there’s really nothing else going on around here unless you want to drive to Detroit,” said longtime Mud Hens radio announcer Jim Weber, who has not missed a scheduled broadcast in 31 years. “We are like the only game in town in the summer.
“Now the big goal is to prove the theory wrong that (a new park) works for three years and that’s it. This was fourth year and we got even more people coming in.”
The marketing efforts of their creative and energetic staff have ensured that the Mud Hens won’t be a new-park success story that flames out when the novelty wears off. Because of their small market, the Mud Hens target different geographic regions in a 60-mile radius of downtown Toledo. They employ primarily database marketing and telemarketing but also advertise on TV, radio, print and outdoor media in outlying areas.
Marketing the Mud Hens was even easier in 2005, as the club posted the best record in Triple-A baseball and won the IL Governor’s Cup for the first time since 1967. The Mud Hens have fielded competitive teams in three of their four seasons at Fifth Third Field, making it an easy choice for them to extend their affiliation with the Tigers through 2008. The Detroit-Toledo relationship, which began in 1987, already made sense from a geographic standpoint, and the Tigers were only too happy to secure one of the top franchises in Triple-A for the foreseeable future.
“When you go to a Mud Hens game, there is very much a feel similar that you get going to a major league game,” Tigers director of minor league operations Dan Lunetta said. “The way they present their product; the way that they present the entertainment aspect to the fans; the way that they market the novelties and the souvenirs, it just seems to me that they’re ahead of the curve. They draw exceptionally well, and you can tell when people come to a Mud Hens game, they are thoroughly entertained.”
The Mud Hens introduced a new logo in the offseason to accompany their new image as a minor league success story, but they have not abandoned their roots. The classic Mud Hens logo will still be featured on their home caps, and the “M*A*S*H” ties have not been forgotten, either.
“Jamie Farr still visits every year, and we still receive Internet orders from around the world wherever ‘M*A*S*H’ is running in syndication,” Napoli said. “The ties are still there, and we’re even going to debut some new merchandise this year that he wore on the show, so we’re still having a little bit of fun with that.”