Late life of the party

Remembering the rise of Fifth Third Field

By Marc Katz

Freddie Benavides, now a coach for the Reds, heard whispers on his bus from staff members and even some players as they stopped at Fifth Third Field a few weekends ago for the Futures game.

“This is Low A [baseball]?” they asked, referring to Dayton’s minor league status.

They looked at the outside of Fifth Third Field in downtown Dayton, and to tell you the truth, it looks a lot better than even some major league parks.

So let’s go back 18 years and remember what used to be on that patch of land.

It used to be a parking lot for Mendelsons, the liquidation outlet across First Street. Before that, it was a manufacturing area.

The year was 2000, when major league ballparks were still wedded to those cookie-cutter bowls that could be used for both baseball and football, and plenty of minor league parks were wooden bleachers, tiny outfield scoreboards, and nails in the clubhouse for players to hang (and sometimes tear) their clothing.

A few cities were beginning to build nicer places to play.

Dayton was one of them, and was supposed to open the season at Fifth Third Field on April 6. A couple months out, they realized the stadium would not be in any shape to host fans. It was decided the Dragons would open the season on the road.

Within a few weeks, even the optimistic view of when the stadium could open faded, and the Dragons moved the date a second time.

The Dragons would open in Lansing, Michigan, with four games; go to Battle Creek for five; then Clinton for three and Burlington, Iowa, for five before doubling back and playing in Fort Wayne for four before officially opening Fifth Third.

It was decided I would follow the Dragons bus on that trip in a car when I began adding up the mileage and time obligations.

There would be no days off, so a game that ended after 10 p.m. in Cedar Rapids required driving eight hours to Fort Wayne, with just a few hours to eat and get ready to cover another game.

I suggested we cover the Michigan part of the trip and then pick up the team again in Fort Wayne, which is what we did.

It was April, but it wasn’t spring. I needed a parka I neglected to pack for the first game in Lansing, which was played in subfreezing weather.

The Dragons didn’t even get to play the second day because of rain.

The third day the game was snowed out.

The fourth day the place was an ice-skating rink as sleet invaded.

At Battle Creek—which is no longer in the league but is still the Cereal Capital of the World—the park was first used in the 1930s, and looked like it hadn’t been touched since then—wind shot up through cracks in the press box floorboards.

The pizza we got was used to warm our hands as much as to eat.

Four of the five games were somehow played, with only one rained out.

All along the trip, Benavides watched the progress of Fifth Third Field through his computer, and often asked what the stadium was like.

“Twenty days on the road, and we got here, and we didn’t know what to expect, of course,” Benavides says. “I thought it was a great place for development in general.

“There were sold out crowds, and loud. It doesn’t matter if it’s sold out and it’s loud. The atmosphere is big. You’re at opening day and it’s a packed house. And the next day, again!

“And then another seven days. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and they tell you it’s sold out for the whole year. It’s amazing. It’s amazing. It really was.”

Seven players from that team eventually made the major leagues, including Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. The team was average—71-68—but Benavides kept with the organization rule to develop first, win later.

The players liked the stadium and fans so much, Benavides remembers when some players were promoted to High A Sarasota in the first few years and weren’t excited to go.

At Sarasota, in the Florida State League, 50 was good attendance.

“They’d get promoted and say, ‘Oh, man, that’s a promotion?’” Benavides says. “They’d rather play in front of 9,000.”

Different organizations also treated their teams and facilities differently.

“I thought, ‘this is not a minor league facility,’” Benavides says. “You go to different places and people have a good crowd on certain days for promotions, but here, it’s day in and day out. It’s unbelievable.”

The first home game was played April 27, 2000. The scoreboard was hanging off the back of a truck. Aluminum venting was unboxed and stacked in some corners of the concourse. There was no players’ bench, so individual plastic chairs were lined up in the dugouts as if they were at some beach by the ocean.

This is the now the 18th year for the Dragons. The ballpark looks brand new. Sellouts remain nightly.

“Ask any player,” Benavides says. “They loved it. This is just a great place, a great facility.”

The views and opinions expressed in On Your Marc are the views and/or opinions of the author and do not reflect the views and/or opinions of the Dayton City Paper or Dayton City Media and are published strictly for entertainment purposes.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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