David Briggs: How sweet the sound as baseball fans return to Fifth Third Field

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

Apr. 9—Call it a very wet dry run.

The skies opened over Toledo mid-Thursday afternoon, but not before the gates opened at Fifth Third Field, our baseball Eden at last welcoming us back.

For the first time in 19 months, fans filed into the downtown park for a pro ballgame, providing honest-to-God real crowd noise — "Open your eyes, ump!" — in a sunny-turned-rain-shortened exhibition between the taxi squads of the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs. The Tigers won 2-1 in five innings.

What a sight.

What a sound.

"My god, we're so happy," said John Garcia, a 62-year-old Mud Hens season ticket holder. "It's a beautiful day. I've got a cold beer. It doesn't get any better than that."

All around the park, where a thousand or so fans scattered throughout the lower deck, the joy was much the same.

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No, the game — a rematch, for the record, of the 1945 World Series! — was not the real thing, and these were not the Mud Hens, not in name, at least. While many of the prospects we saw Thursday will play in Toledo this season, they're in town now as members of the Tigers' extended spring training camp. The alternate-site roster will play six more games in Toledo. The Hens open the Triple-A season on May 4.

Yet whether the contest counted or not, no one seemed to care.

What mattered was more elemental.

After the coronavirus unofficially called off summer last year — wiping out the minor league season — baseball in Toledo was back.

Beth Williams came to the game with her 12-year-old son, Carter, and his 11-year-old friend, Conor Lutz. The boys were so ready to go that they arrived downtown at 12:30 p.m. — a half hour before the gates opened in advance of first pitch at 2:15 — and watched through the gates on St. Clair Street as the Cubs took batting practice. (OK, maybe mom was so ready to go, given the well-said message on her shirt: "Sorry. Can't. Baseball. Bye.")

"I got a ball," Carter said, excitedly showing off the souvenir a Cubs player had given him. "The guy threw it over the fence [onto the street]."

Beth looked on with a smile.

"It's been so long," she said. "This is what our family usually does for entertainment in the summer, so we missed it a lot. This is great."

Yes, consider it another milestone on the road back.

"Being here feels like getting back to normal," said Austin Foster, 24.

We're not there yet, of course. Not even close, as Thursday made clear.

Vigilance remained the order of the day. Seats were roped off to assure six-foot distancing. Traffic flow on the concourse was one way, as marked with arrows. Masks were mandatory. Autographs were verboten. (Another quirk of coronavirus protocols: No bat boys. Instead, in a strange sight, players and coaches fetched the bats and brought new balls to the plate ump.)

Yet, for all that was different, the scene was more familiar than not, the rhythms of a ball game just like riding a bike.

Fans in a crowd almost evenly divided between Cubs and Tigers, and Hens supporters cheered the big plays, including Detroit outfielder Daz Cameron's two-run home run in the fifth inning. They jeered the umpires. And they filled in the dead time in between, providing the soundtrack you don't fully appreciate until it's gone (don't get us started on piped-in crowd noise).

It was all chicken soup for the baseball soul, offering not just a preview of the Tigers' future, but our own, the return of the pastime to Fifth Third Field lending a reminder — to the Hens, downtown businesses, all of us — that brighter days are coming.

"These spring training games give us an opportunity to kind of do a soft open," Mud Hens general manager Erik Ibsen said before the game. "Make sure we're getting things right, see where we can learn from, and get ready for May 4.

"But it's fantastic. We're an event-driven business. We depend on fans for our business. Minor league sports has been a rough industry to be in the last year, so to see people here ... watching baseball is what it's all about. It's going to take us some time to get past what's happened over the past year, but this is the first step in that right direction, and it makes you feel like we're getting there."

First Published April 8, 2021, 8:56pm