Cover Story: Hot Game: Enter the Dragons

New Dayton team and stadium bring baseball back to the Gem City

 
Brad Quinn



Say what you will about the financial aspirations of big league ballplayers but, at the end of the day, they want the same thing as the fans — to win a World Series championship.

The minor leaguer, however, has different goals. While they all, I'm sure, would be glad to win a championship for their club, what they really want is to get the hell out of the minor leagues.

That minor league baseball is essentially a game of every-man-for-himself is only natural. There's no unity of the pack when the dingo dogs are fighting for that last scrap of emu meat. Similarly, there are very few spots in the majors — just ask Reds first baseman D.T. Cromer, whose .429 batting average was just good enough to earn him a trip back to Louisville and the AAA River Bats when Sean Casey returned from the DL.

To describe it in even less romantic terms, watching a minor league game is basically watching a bunch of ballplayers trying to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes down to it, they could give a flying fungo ball about the fate of their club. They want to get ahead.

So what's in it for the fans of a minor league team?

If you're lucky enough to get some top prospects on your club, you can be sure they won't be around the next year if they perform up to expectations. Great players don't stay in the minor leagues. Basically, it's like dating someone who's just using you until they can hook up with someone more attractive and with a lot more money.

To tell the truth, though, that's really only the cynic in me talking. I'm not unmoved by the romance of the minor leagues — the quaint ballparks, the ridiculous team names, the hokey promotions. Besides, if you're a baseball fan and don't have the luxury of living in a major league town, what are you to do? Sure, there's always a game on if you have cable, but a baseball game is an event. It makes for a great outing even if you stay sober.

And even at its lowliest professional levels, watching a baseball game is more fun than just about anything else — which might explain why there's so much excitement up in Dayton over the new Single-A Reds affiliate Dragons and their new ballpark, Fifth Third Field.

The Dragons and the new ballpark have been a long time coming for Dayton, which hasn't fielded a professional team since 1951 when the Dayton Indians played in the Central League. Even before then, baseball in Dayton was an on-again/off-again proposition. The city's original club, the Dayton Gem Citys of the Ohio State Association League, formed and disbanded in 1884, and professional baseball didn't return until 1889, when the Dayton Reds came to town. But they disbanded after only two years, and there was no baseball in Dayton until the Old Soldiers entered the Interstate League in 1897.

In those days, the Old Soldiers faced stiff competition from the Youngstown Puddlers and the Wheeling Nailers, though they were lucky enough to avoid the equally fearsome Des Moines Prohibitionists and the Cedar Rapids Bunnies, who played over in the Western Association.

In 1899, the team became the Dayton Veterans. But they must have thought better of the switch, because they once again became the Old Soldiers in 1901 when they joined the Western Association, home of the aforementioned Bunnies and Prohibitionists. In 1903, they again had second thoughts when they returned to the Veterans and moved to the Central League, home of the Stogies, Hottentots, River Rats, Chinamen, Babes, Infants and Rubbermen.

The Veterans name stuck until 1928, when they became the Aviators — and then the Ducks, the Wings and finally the Indians in 1948. The Indians kept at it through 1951 when the club went out in first place on the strength of pitcher Ryne Duren's 238 strikeouts.

After 50 years, professional baseball is back in Dayton, and from all appearances it was worth the wait. The entire 2000 Dragons season is sold out except for a few scattered singles and lawn seating, though, according to the team's box office manager, there might be a few games where you can find a couple of seats together.

I recently ventured up to Fifth Third Field on a rainy Monday night to see the Dragons do battle with the Clinton Lumber Kings, another Single-A Reds affiliate. Despite the heavy rain, the park was packed and the teams were determined to get the game in.

Generally a rain out for a minor league club is no big deal. I used to go see the Capital City Bombers of the South Atlantic League, and they'd cancel a game just at the threat of rain. Then again, the Bombers didn't have the lucky problem of trying to honor rain checks for sold out games.

Of course, a lot of the enthusiasm for the Dragons has to do with the new stadium. And no doubt about it, it's a great little park. It has all the amenities you find in the big leagues — comfortable seating with plenty of leg room, luxury boxes, tight sight lines and a concourse that allows patrons to keep up with the game while standing in the concession lines, which were pretty short on the night I was there.

Unfortunately, Fifth Third Park takes another cue from the Bigs with major league prices for food and merchandise, but, then again, you don't build a $24.7 million ballpark and sell stuff on the cheap.

Like a lot of new ballparks, the scoreboard is the stadium's visual centerpiece, and it rivals its big league counterparts, if on a smaller scale. In Dayton, two giant green dragons peer around the jumbo-tron. They haven't yet installed the hydraulics — Fifth Third Field is still undergoing a few cosmetic modifications — but when they do, the dragons' red eyes will light up and smoke will pour from their nostrils.

The successful design of Fifth Third Field is particularly interesting in light of the controversy surrounding the new Reds stadium. The biggest complaint around here seems to be that the new Reds park, shoved into "The Wedge" as it is, will be isolated from the rest of downtown. The folks at HOK and Hamilton County have countered this criticism with "the notch," which will allow people downtown to peek into the ballpark from several blocks away.

But at Fifth Third Field, the entire outfield along the first-base line is open to the street. Literally hundreds of people could stand and watch the game through the iron railing.

The Dragons have done a great job of creating a strong identity for the franchise. Many of the fans I saw were decked out in team gear. And, of course, there's nothing like a couple of giant, fire-snorting dragons in centerfield to drive the message home.

With the high turnover of minor league players, you can't create consistent interest based on player personnel, so you do it with ballpark aesthetics. Fifth Third Field is utterly fan-friendly and, even if it can't deliver the most compelling baseball, it promises a fun night at the ballpark. ©

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