By: Steve Miller – Sports Editor
The Boston Red Sox. The Duke Blue Devils. The Washington Redskins. And the Dayton Dragons? In 2007, Sports Illustrated listed the “Top 10 Hottest Tickets in Sports,” and Dayton’s Class A Minor League Baseball team earned a spot at number 10 among the aforementioned juggernauts of American sports.
Fifth Third Field, the downtown home of the Dayton Dragons, has put the Gem City on the map of America’s sporting world since it opened in 2000. Now at 1,188 consecutive games, Fifth Third Field has sold out every Dragons game it’s ever hosted–a sports sellout record for North America.
That distinction was achieved as much by the ballpark’s pristine architecture as by the dedication of the people within it.
Dayton’s premiere sports venue features 7,320 fixed seats as well as a grass berm in the outfield, which raises the seating capacity to around 8,200. Built in the eastern part of downtown, dated industrial buildings still loom above the rustic architecture of the relatively-new ballpark.
This charm flavors a night of Dragons baseball as well as any on-field performance, and helps Fifth Third Field rise above its competitors elsewhere in the Midwest League.
Juxtaposed to the vintage, Rust Belt feel of the surroundings, though, are some of professional baseball’s most state-of-the-art features.
Notably, a seven-story tall LED scoreboard above the left field wall draws in fans to replays, statistics and animations. Installed in 2014, the scoreboard placed Fifth Third Field on the front line of ballpark technology.
“At the time it was the clearest and largest video board in single-A baseball history,” said Tom Nichols, director of media relations and broadcasting for the Dragons. “And in fact it was the clearest of any video board even including Major League video boards because it was brand new technology and everything else. They’ve probably come out with some newer models, but it was a huge addition for us. We can show replays, shots of fans, movie clips during the game itself to spruce up.”
While the stadium provides a comfortable, exciting atmosphere for the fans, the playing field itself certainly exceeds standards for the players as well.
The grass, which is re-sodded every few years, is Kentucky Bluegrass grown, ironically, in New Jersey at a farm that also serves NFL stadiums, according to Nichols. Two full-time and 10 part-time grounds crew employees work year-round to keep the field in pristine condition so that it can not only serve the Dragons, but various extra events including concerts, boxing matches and exhibition games throughout the calendar year.
The physical features of Fifth Third Field speak for themselves, but the staff within hold high values of customer service and community loyalty in order to further the positive experience for the patrons.
“Emphasis on family entertainment would be at the top of the list,” Nichols said. “It’s sort of aimed at that Disney style of production. We want everyone that comes in here to feel like they’re in a first class, first-rate event.”
He made an example of the Green Team, the Dragons’ in-game entertainment facilitators, to showcase dedication to the family environment.
“If you were to walk in the ballpark at 5:00 for a 7:00 game, you’d literally see that group of 15 or so rehearsing the skits and the sing-a-longs and the contests that they are going to do that night,” said Nichols. “Each night they get on the field for an hour or so and run through all that.”
Jessie McLaughlin, a junior pre-physical therapy major at UD, grew up in Dayton and reveled in the entertaining atmosphere of the ballpark.
“My dad used to take me and my sister,” she said. “I liked going because they would always shoot off fireworks [in the outfield] at the end of the game if the Dragons won.”
Beyond family entertainment, Nichols said, “We really, really emphasize here what we call unsurpassed customer service.”
The focus on customer service ranges from simple duties like keeping the restrooms as clean at the end of the game as they are at the beginning to long-term examples of employees going above and beyond to take care of Fifth Third Field’s patrons.
“A few years back, we had a season ticket holder who got to a point where she got a little older,” Nichols explained. “It became harder and harder for her to park her car and then walk from wherever she parked her car to the game. And she told her [season ticket plan representative] about that problem. And without telling anyone, he made a deal with her that he would let her call him on his cell phone when she pulled up, and he would come out and actually get her car, park her car, and walk back.”
And the ballpark’s customer service, it turns out, is just the groundwork for the Dragons’ community involvement. They partner with local schools, businesses, churches, the military and more to help hard-working citizens enjoy a night at the ballpark.
“You can’t just run a baseball team, you have to stay connected with the community,” Nichols said. “We have something called a Classroom MVP program where players go out to classrooms and speak to fourth and fifth grade classes. Each class that’s involved in the program selects a Classroom MVP and that child and his or her family comes to the game and gets a VIP treatment at the ballpark. And that’s literally thousands of classes around the Miami Valley.”
Fans have noticed the Dragon’s dedication to Dayton, clearly, and have responded by buying out 1,188 straight games. But the ballpark has also been commended by the players who have spent time on the Dragons, 80 of whom have reached the Major Leagues in the past 17 seasons, according to Nichols.
In 2012, Minor League Baseball conducted a poll asking players to rank their favorite Minor League cities to visit on a road trip. Dayton was ranked first, winning the top spot from 9% of all players surveyed.
Nostalgia for Dayton runs deep even among the players who have made the Major Leagues. Joey Votto, the Cincinnati Reds’ 2010 National League MVP, is quoted on a wall inside Fifth Third Field:.
“Fifth Third Field, in Dayton Ohio, is one of the most special places for baseball in all the minor leagues and maybe even all of professional baseball,” the wall reads. “I enjoyed it here back in 2009. I come back here today and I’ve received nothing but support and appreciation. Dayton has a fantastic fan base.”
Be it Minor Leaguers grinding their way through the ranks of professional baseball, Cincinnati’s Major Leaguers returning on injury rehab or season ticket holders watching from the seats, countless people have flocked to Fifth Third Field in the last 17 years to contribute to its designation as one of the hottest destinations in sports.
Why not etch your own name in that story? The Dragons open up their 2017 season on April 6, and have 12 home games throughout April. See for yourself how the Dragons and Fifth Third Field serve the city of Dayton and all of professional baseball.
Photos courtesy of Noah Leibold – Staff Photographer