May 2—As the countdown clock for Mud Hens opening day nears zero, the most pressing question has been answered.
Yes, Muddy and Muddonna will be at Fifth Third Field this season. But plenty else will be different.
After Toledo's first baseball-less summer since 1964, the city is longing for the sport's return. And while opening day usually signals an overflow crowd of some 11,000 fans, a spirited group just shy of 4,000 won't put a damper on downtown's reintroduction to a civic icon.
"The emotions are hard to put into words because they are sincerely a range, from ecstatic to cautions," Mud Hens president and CEO Joe Napoli said. "When I say cautious, it's because we want to open safely and successfully. But we realize the importance of opening day to the community. Our front office team has worked really hard to make it as joyful and safe as possible. They've been tireless in that effort and have spoken to everyone who's opened already to pick up tips, advice, and perspective."
A percentage capacity for outdoor venues no longer exists in the state of Ohio, but they still must adhere to the six-foot social-distancing guidelines. So Fifth Third Field could have as many as 4,000 people in attendance. Amending the six-foot protocol to three feet would get the ballpark over 50 percent full.
Tickets are currently sold in pods of two, four, six, and 10.
Fans are required to wear masks at all times, except when they're eating or drinking.
"We want to be good for all of our downtown neighbors," said Michael Keedy, the Mud Hens' director of strategic projects and planning. "We want to bring people to the city. We want to engage with our community partners. We want to get back into playing a prominent role in Toledo. Having Mud Hens baseball back feels like positive change and progress, and we're so thrilled it's happening."
The Mud Hens have been one of the biggest draws in all of minor league baseball since Fifth Third Field opened in 2002. And the same earnestness has been displayed by fans in the run-up to the 2021 season.
"For the month of May, we only have about 300 tickets left for every game," Napoli said. "So it's been a very positive response. For opening day, we have a waiting list."
The biggest difference, aside from fewer people and social distancing, is the lack of on-field promotions. The Swamp Squad will not have access to the field, so flying baseballs, sub-o-war, and the Jim Flealand race will have a new spin.
Fan cams, video promotions, and entertainment will take on a larger presence because of the circumstances.
"We're trying to not change as much about the game-day experience as possible," Keedy said. "We've created a fan experience zone off the field where we can still do first pitches, our national anthem performances, and a lot of our contestants that will participate in between inning contests and promotions. We'll be able to execute that safely on the concourse."
The concourse is also the site of an innovative new feature: patio suites. The private space is prepared for six guests, with bistro chairs, soft furniture, a table, and a drink rail. The lower-level position provides an optimal view of the ballpark and the concourse location allows easy access to food, beverage, and restrooms.
"We took that six-person pod concept and we tried to create an elevated experience," Keedy said.
Seven Tigers alternate site spring training games in Toledo proved to be invaluable for Mud Hens staff members. Even though attendance was limited to about 800 fans per game, it got game-day employees back to work for the first time since 2019 and full-time staff had a retraining of sorts as they reacquainted themselves with working at the ballpark.
Unfamiliar protocols were in place, mimicking the rules for Mud Hens games, so the test runs were beneficial for each employee.
"It was a great experience for us," Keedy said. "We learned a lot, and, most importantly, we learned that it's still Mud Hens baseball. It's going to be the same great experience downtown. We're outdoors. We're at the ballpark. It's going to be warm out. The experience of Mud Hens baseball is going to be the same."
Reaching this point has not been easy. Employees were laid off and furloughed. There were frightful thoughts about what would happen if the 2021 season wasn't played. Could the Mud Hens' existence be in jeopardy?
The doomsday scenarios can be forgotten. Hens fans will again flock to Fifth Third Field. The summer chorus of Jim Weber and the crack of a baseball and bat will ring throughout northwest Ohio.
"It's been a community affair," Napoli said. "We were really struggling to get the tv broadcasts on the air and BCSN stepped up and played the part of an outstanding community partner to make sure the games in May are televised. You really learn to appreciate where the Mud Hens and Walleye fit into the community by the outpouring of support. It kind of leaves you speechless. In times of crises, you really see true colors."