It's cool to be a fan in Midwest League

An early look at MWL's best ballparks, top promotions

Roofman is a constant, foul-ball-catching presence at Fifth Third Field in Dayton, Ohio. (Dayton Dragons)

March 2, 2006 6:52 AM

You don't have to be young to be cool in the Midwest League. In fact, some of the coolest people in the MWL are a bunch of senior citizens in Dayton.

There's plenty of cool stuff going on this season. Read on to find out more -- if you're cool enough.

Roofman just has cool coming out of every pore in his Lycra-clad body. Roofman, in case you didn't know it, is a baseball superhero. He's also cool because he seems to have a lot in common with blogger Zack Hample in that they both are magnets for foul balls. Hample, unfortunately, doesn't wear a green cape, black gloves and dark sunglasses to games.

As the legend goes, Roofman lives on the roof at Fifth Third Field, home of the Dayton Dragons. He collects foul balls that land on the roof and uses his special magic powers to turn them into "softee balls," which he autographs and tosses down to kids in the crowd.

As if Roofman wasn't enough of a character, the Dragons also have their own in-house musical group called The Retirement Village People. You can't help but love these guys. They're a senior citizen dance troupe that imitates The Village People. Don't be surprised if some of the original members of the '70s disco group look to join up soon.

The gallivanting grandpas dress in full costume and do dance routines, just like the original group. There are slight allowances made for age, of course. The construction worker has a walker and the Army guy has a cane. Other than that, all the fellas are here -- the cop, the cowboy, the biker and the Indian, who wears a full headdress and white war paint. We're fairly certain that Roofman doesn't let these guys anywhere near his softee balls.

To appeal to the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the Dugout Dancers. A group of 9- and 10-year-olds, the Dugout Dancers perform with the club's mascots -- Heater and Gem (so named because Dayton is known as the Gem City) -- on the dugouts prior to the game and in between innings.

But First Third Field isn't just about colorful characters and unusual sights. It also has probably the best view in the league. That's because it's the only stadium in the Midwest League with an upper deck. The design is similar to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park in that the upper deck has just six rows. Each of the seats is a little wider than those in the main concourse and offers an expansive view of the ballpark. The seats are 20 to 30 feet above field level, so watch out for the occasional foul ball that might come in with some heat on it.

In Clinton, the LumberKings are laying claim to having the oldest stadium in the league. Apparently, the Swing of the Quad Cities is making the same claim. The Swing's John O'Donnell Stadium was built in 1931, but, according to LumberKings director of operations Derick Stoulil, it was completely rebuilt in 2004 except for the facade.

Clinton's Riverview Stadium was built in 1937 as a WPA project and has undergone a $3.7 million renovation to be ready for Opening Day. The stadium was renamed Alliant Energy Field in 2004 after that company bought the naming rights. The renovation means there will be new seats, a new scoreboard, a completely rebuilt field and a new home clubhouse, which the players likely will think is very cool.

But one of the coolest things about this stadium is just a short walk away. The Mississippi River is just a few hundred feet from the stadium, as is a riverboat casino. That certainly qualifies as cool. The riverboat, however, is safe from batted baseballs. It rests an estimated 500 feet beyond the left field wall.

Anyone planning a bachelor party or an outing for a fraternity might want to head over to C.O. Brown Stadium in Battle Creek, Mich. The home of the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays features the largest outdoor bar in the state.

The wood bar measures 110 feet long -- 20 feet more than the distance between bases -- and can accommodate as many as 400 people. Capacity dips to 300 when the Devil Rays have live music at the ballpark. The team brings area bands in to perform after every Thursday home game, as well as other random dates throughout the season.

The bar has six beers on tap, including what may be greatest name for a beer you'll ever see -- Ivy Walls Ale. The Chicago Cubs won't be able to import any of this brew because it is made only for the patrons of C.O. Brown Stadium. A variety of bottled beer and wine is also available.

The bar is even covered in case it rains. In fact, being that it's situated down the right-field line and faces the field, it would be a perfect destination at the onset of a shower. Save a stool -- and a cold pint of Ivy Walls Ale -- for us.

Brown Stadium also has a couple of areas named after some players who spent time in Battle Creek on their way up the Minor League ladder. The Carl Pavano First Base Patio is located up the right-field line. The Johan Santana Third Base Picnic Garden is up the left-field line. There's also a Roy Oswalt Bullpen Deck. In case you couldn't tell, Battle Creek is still waiting for a hitter to distinguish himself in the Major Leagues. David Eckstein and Shea Hillenbrand have come closest thus far.

In Beloit, the Snappers will be celebrating their 25th season with several promotions involving the number 25 at Pohlman Field. On May 25, every seat will cost 25 cents. Expect a sellout for that one.

As if that deal wasn't good enough, on Sept. 4 you can use your quarter for a newspaper or to make a phone call. Admission will be free for that game in celebration of Fan Appreciation Day. The team also has scheduled 15 fireworks shows during the season and will attempt to give away a hot tub before each.

Bring the antacids on June 26, July 17 and Aug. 14. The Snappers will hold "All You Can Eat Night" on all of those three dates. To quote a word Roger Clemens once used, people will be "feedbagging" on those nights.

Fans might be startled or forget where they are when they look out into left field at Peoria's O'Brien Field. Nine palm trees have been situated on the left field berm, which has become a popular spot with fans. When the stadium opened in 2002, there were 20 palm trees, located inside and outside the stadium. After that first season, the club decided to put trees more native to Illinois outside the park, but kept the nine palm trees in left field.

"It just gives a summery, warm feeling for the fans and it's something they don't see every day," said Nathan Baliva, the broadcast and media manager for the Chiefs. "Fans are usually surprised when they see them for the first time." The Chiefs also have a statue in front of the stadium that celebrates Pete Vonachen and his contributions to Peoria baseball. If you don't Vonachen, you likely will know his former best friend, Harry Caray. Vonachen delivered the eulogy at Caray's funeral. Vonachen actually bought the club twice and is credited with saving baseball in Peoria.

If you want to see patriotism on display, head for Burlington, Iowa. The Bees have the tallest flagpole in Iowa located in their parking lot. The pole stands 150 feet high and flies a flag that measures 60 by 90 feet.

The Mississippi River is close by Burlington, too, and the Bees paid tribute to the Great River Bridge when they did renovations last year. A huge canopy roof hangs over the concourse and was designed to remind people of the bridge.

If you like to see damage -- think A.J. Burnett throwing a warm-up pitch through the window of a pickup truck or the home run that broke a car window, both of which are shown on blooper reels in ballparks all over the country -- then the Lansing Lugnuts' Oldsmobile Park may be the place to be.

The left and right field corners both have 23-foot high walls to protect passing cars -- especially the Oldsmobiles -- longballs. That doesn't mean motorists are entirely safe, though, so beware and make sure your insurance premiums are paid.

The Kane County Cougars offer one of the coolest locations in the league, being in suburban Chicago. Even cooler than a good location is a pocketful of money, which the Cougars gave away to a lucky fan last season after they scored exactly 15 runs as part of their 15th anniversary celebration. The fan took home $15,000.

More money is up for grabs this season. A $10,000 check will be awarded to a lucky fan if a Cougars pitcher tosses a no-hitter. There is also a $15,000 award for a series of wins and a potential $250,000 prize if a Cougars player hits a bulls-eye with a home run. Yes, it's a small bulls-eye.

The club will also take a crack at setting a world record for the Largest Pillow Fight this season. Pajamas are optional.

But if you're looking for the absolute coolest thing in the MWL this season, you'll have to go to South Bend and Coveleski Regional Stadium. That's where the 2005 Midwest League championship trophy will reside. Nothing in sports is cooler than winning.

Tim Leonard is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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