TOLEDO, Ohio--Toledo epitomizes nowheresville for many.
But with negotiations in the baseball strike heading nowhere, more and more fans are flocking to this suburban town to see the minor league Toledo Mud Hens play the game they crave.
About two hours from Detroit and Cleveland, past Toledo's Soul City House of God and Ribs Ltd., lies Lucas County Recreation Center, a humble Midwestern oasis of baseball, hot dogs and organ music, where the Mud Hens struggle with the likes of Pawtucket and Tidewater in a battle to make the International League playoffs. And people starved for the national pastime and disinterested in the major league squabbling are lining up to watch these Mud Hens play.
One recent Saturday night, a larger-than-average crowd of 4392 saw the Mud Hens crush Charleston, 8-1. It's the kind of thrashing Toledo is more used to receiving, mired as they are this season in eighth and last place. A sizeable portion of the crowd came great distances to see the Minnesota Twins' top farm team smash the Cleveland Indians of the future.
"I'm excited to be here. I miss baseball and wake up some nights in a cold sweat," Peter Ford, who made the trip from Cleveland to watch his first minor league game, said. He sat in the best seats--$3.50--in the park.
Ford and others from the southern regions of Ohio and parts of Michigan differed from the folks from Toledo who took their seats on the warm, overcast, July evening. While most in the park came to see local favorite Ron Washington play the infield or Muddy the mascot play the crowd, Ford and others admitted they knew nothing about the Mud Hens or the world of International League ball. But they knew they would see a pro baseball game.
"I just like baseball anyplace," James Davis, of Monroe, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, said. "It doesn't make any difference where," he added. Nine-year-old John Pfund, also of Monroe, had a similar perspective. "It's just like the major leagues. They have the uniforms and everything," Pfund said.
According to Gene Cook, Mud Hen general manager, folks like Ford and Pfund have become more prevalent since the onset of the baseball strike--he's received many inquiries from groups hundreds of miles away, who travel en masse to Toledo. About 15 people from the metropolitan Detroit area, who consider themselves "baseball fanatics," were on hand Saturday, having travelled via caravan to the gravel lot--free parking--outside the stadium.
The long-distance travelers were treated to what many regarded as a refreshingly different brand of baseball. "Normally, I'd be in the Tiger Stadium bleachers drinking beer," Terry Ferris, of Detroit, and once a minor league ballplayer, said. "Everyone of these guys has the chance to make it--if it weren't for that, those guys wouldn't be out there," he added.
Beneath that dream which provides incentive for players and attraction for fans who drive for miles, there is a unique version of baseball played, with its own Toledo trademark. In the minor leagues, and especially in Toledo, for example, every night is a special night, says organist Jerry Dunford--one of only three in the International League--proudly wearing his blue Mud Hen T-shirt and green bermuda shorts. Coming up soon is a big night with a guaranteed large crowd--Downtown Toledo Night. And on Aug. 26, the San Diego Chicken returns for his own special evening. The promotions generate interest in the Mud Hens and provide residents with a chance to see their team cheaply or for free.
"We try to have it so that everyone in Toledo has a chance to see the Mud Hens for free," says Cook, who has raised attendance since joining the Mud Hens to a current average of about 3000 per game. One popular attraction offered often at the park is; Quarter-a-Beer night. Instead of causing inebriated havoc like such nights have preserved major league parks in the past, the nights are always a big success at Lucas County Stadium. "We got a policy--we try to let them all have a good time. If it ever gets to be a problem, we just ask them to leave," Cook says. A long-time member of the Mud Hens Diamond Club, a group of community leaders who sell season tickets and support Toledo baseball. Cook never recalls a fight or bad incident.
Although out-of-towners have recently filled the stands, most in attendance are colorful, local regulars, like 504-pound Toledoan "Tiny," who never misses a Mud Hen game, but doesn't do "a whole helluva lot else," according to one official.
A group of ten-year-olds from a little league team in nearby Sylvania stare at the action and cling to the autographs they have garnered from their heroes. They say they miss pro baseball, and teams like the Dodgers and Reds, but the Mud Hens are their favorites, they say.
Toledo baseball has its own, local stamp, and it is also distinctly minor league. Absent are the fist fights, but also missing are the hair-raising screams and cheers. A pair of back-to-back Toledo home runs in Saturday's second inning brought about a dozen people to their feet. There's no electronic scoreboard. And the field is parched.
But the bottom line is fun, the people from Toledo say. And they have it. One night last week, Dunford says he had three trombones and a tuba accompanying his organ work. "It was a great night. We even ran out of hot dog buns," he says.
Not all nights are like that in the minors. The Mud Hens are on the skids, ten games below .500. And sometimes, with crowds in the low hundreds, Dunford finds it hard to get the crowd cheering. It doesn't matter to him though. "We all love it out here. We have a good time," Dunford says.
This summer, people from all over are enjoying the Mud Hens. Some fault the players for the major league strike; others blame the owners. But all have found a satisfying, unique substitute. "They gotta come see baseball. They love baseball," Dunford says. "The Mud Hens are in last, but if you turn it upside down, they're in first place."