Early in the 2014 baseball season, the minor league Dayton Dragons will sell out their one-thousandth consecutive ball game at home, a record in North American professional sports. There hasn’t been an unsold ticket for a Dragons game since 2000, when they played for the first time in the $23 million stadium built for them by the city. Community Voices Producer Stephen Siff and student-reporters Chris Cullum and Kathleen Sullivan explore Dayton’s love for these Dragons, and why it almost never came to be.
“There’s an electric vibe that happens downtown on the streets, you can feel the summer coming, feel the spring coming, baseball’s happening and it’s just … it’s electric, it is awesome. It is hard to describe, it is like a feeling every year, like a freight train coming in the wintertime. It just changes the mood and atmosphere of everybody downtown.”
That’s Chris Bhai, the manager of Brix Ice Company, a restaurant and bar across the street from the Dayton Dragon’s stadium, Fifth Third Field, in an area of industrial buildings and brick warehouses. Like much of downtown, it is mostly empty at night, except when the Dragons play at home. Then, you will see people on the sidewalks, cars on the streets and hear cheering in the air.
“I’ve heard all kinds of things such as like: lifesaver, Godsend, couldn’t have survived without it. Just amazing things that some of the fans have said,” Bhai said.
Before Fifth-Third Field opened, Dayton was one of the three largest cities in the country without a minor league baseball team. Not because Dayton didn’t care about baseball. Since the 1880s, the roster of minor league teams that called Dayton home included the Gem Cities, the Reds, the Old Soldiers, the Veterans, the Aviators, the Marcos and the Dayton Ducks. The Dayton Indians won the Central league championship then folded—despite strong attendance—when their league disbanded in 1951.
When City Commissioner Tony Capizzi began pushing for new minor league team and stadium forty years later, even the memories of baseball in Dayton had disappeared. Capizzi is now Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge.
“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a baseball team here,” Capizzi says, “I really felt that Daytoninans love baseball. We’re UD basketball fan[s], Wright State basketball fan[s], but I think that people in Dayton really love baseball. And I could tell from looking at the numbers that we knew how many people from the Dayton area, the greater Dayton area, the Miami Valley were going to Cincinnati Reds games. And I felt strongly that if we could convince those people that we have a good product here, beautiful facility, cheaper price tickets, they could afford to bring their family. Because frankly, unless you are very well off, tickets to Cincinnati games are over the heads of most people. You’ve got to spend $100 to take a family of four to a Reds game, to sit way, way back. You could spend $100 at a Dragons game and have almost front row seats. Big difference.”
Capizzi’s vision was for a downtown stadium. He believed it would draw the greatest crowds and spur the most economic growth. As the proposal gained steam, alternatives emerged to put a minor league team at Wright State University and other spots outside the downtown core.
“Remember, this was happening in the ‘90’s, and major, major facilities had been shutting down. So I do think that people were afraid to take a risk,” Capizzi says, “Dayton is a great place to live, a great place to raise a family, a great place to have a business, but so many people in Dayton seemed so negative about [the city.] So when I brought up bringing baseball to Dayton, 90 percent of what I heard was the negative side of it. ‘Commissioner, it won’t work because, it won’t work because.’ And I kept on saying, ‘Let’s find a way to make it work.’ That is what we are creative about. Let’s just look at it in a positive way. So that in itself was a challenge, to get people to think there was a possibility it could work and be successful.”
One Daytonian wrote to the local newspaper: “This is the dumbest idea to waste tax money to come around in a long time.”
Who would pay to watch minor league baseball in Dayton anyway, when Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Reds were only an hour away? There was one person, in particular who needed to be convinced. The controlling owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, was dead-set against a baseball team in Dayton. Organized baseball gave her veto power over any minor league teams within her market. A Dayton team would just about have to be a farm team for the Reds, and the only way Schott would allow it was if she believed the Dayton team would sell more—not fewer—tickets for the Cincinnati Reds.
“Her office, I thought it would be this beautiful new presidential office … it was nasty,” Capizzi says, “It looked like it had been built when the stadium was built and never renovated. In her office, on the back wall behind me there was a coke machine where you had to put money to get your coke out, and it had those little seven ounce bottles of Coke in it. She asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said sure, and she goes, ‘There is a pop machine behind you,’ and I had take out money to put in to get my pop. So that was Marge. I’ll never forget it.”
But Marge Schott did sign off on the plan.
“We know our baseball here,” says Bhai. “We grew up with the Cincinnati Reds being the oldest team in sports. We were here for all the milestones. To get the Dragons, a Single-A affiliate of the Reds, is an extension of that. So we are going to support our home teams.”
The stadium that the city ultimately built for the team is very nice. It has antique-looking wrought iron fences and brickwork. Game night may include a portable petting zoo, Frisbee catching stunt dogs, face-painters, balloon animals, and a middle-school student singing the national anthem. Kids love it. Tony Dunlap takes his five-year old son to nearly every home game.
“I have two full-time jobs going on between my son and Pizza Hut and our little escape is the Dayton Dragons games,” he said.
Although Dragons games sell out, advanced tickets can usually be purchased online or through various promotions.