David Briggs: Mud Hens' return a sign 'our civic soul is healing'

David Briggs, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·3 min read

May 5—What is Toledo without the Mud Hens?

Well, what is Paris without light? Las Vegas without sin? Chicago without wind?

The clucking hometown team with the perfectly quirky name isn't just part of our tapestry. It's as Toledo as glass, Jeep, and loaded Hungarian hot dogs.

"A summer without the Mud Hens last year didn't feel right, and it wasn't right," Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz said. "Outside of maybe New York and the Yankees, I don't think there's any city in the country that identifies with its baseball team the way Toledo identifies with the Mud Hens."

So, on Tuesday night, you might say we found ourselves.

Welcome back, Mud Hens.

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, Toledo wrapped its arms around its baseball team like few times before.

For the first time in 610 days, the Hens played a game at Fifth Third Field, ringing in the 2021 season and the return of life to downtown with an 8-6 win over the Nashville Sounds.

Sure, it was a little strange.

I mean, it was opening day ... at night ... in May ... against a team from Nashville ... in front of a capacity crowd of 3,510 fans.

Ongoing restrictions dialed back what is normally an all-out civic banger to a modest bash. On the road back to normal, this toe dip was like driving through a school zone. Hopefully, we'll be able to open the throttle on the highway by the end of summer.

And, yet, it sure beat the alternative.

While we all need to remain smart — and continue to get vaccinated — what a scene it was walking to the stadium late in the afternoon.

I'd put the first-game party at about a fourth of its usual size, but still ...

Bars and restaurants bustled. Music played. Joy filled the air (along with an armada of banner planes).

Opening day doubled as a grand reopening of downtown and a reminder of the sense of community and connection that sports can bring.

Inside the stadium, too, the overcast night lent a preview of brighter days ahead.

Funny thing is, it looked like any other game on a spring weeknight in any other year.

No, not entirely, what with all the bunting, the full pregame introductions, and the notables in attendance, including Roger Clemens — on hand to watch his son, Kody, a Hens infielder — and the top brass in Detroit. Tigers general manager Al Avila was here, along with assistant GM Dave Littlefield and Jim Leyland.

I'll note the stadium sounded different, too.

As if fans were cutting loose a year's worth of saved-up cheers, the crowd sounded like twice the announced total.

"For not that many fans in the stands, they were pretty loud," Hens manager Tom Prince said.

But, altogether, as the game settled in — and the Hens overcame a disappointing start from the heralded Matt Manning — it felt like a normal contest on an early May weeknight.

Yes, I said it, normal.

Never has a baseball season brought with it so much hope.

"Generally speaking, there's been baseball in Toledo pretty steadily for more than 140 years," Kapszukiewicz said. "Not having the Mud Hens hit us in the wallet, but it also hit us in the heart.

"Now, our civic soul is healing as COVID recedes and we can get back to rooting for the home team. ... We're one step closer to getting back to normal."