The Dayton Dragons former players and coaches who were invited back for the team’s 20th Season Celebration Game on Saturday were excited to see baseball again at Fifth Third Field.
But the weather didn’t cooperate. The game was originally delayed for an hour, then another 30 minutes, then the umpires emerged from the home dugout at 3:44 p.m. and signaled there would be no baseball. The threat of rain kept fans away, but it did not dampen the enthusiasm of those who were invited to be here to play against this year’s Dragons team or to be recognized as special guests.
The Dragons’ inaugural Midwest League season was in 2000. Former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Austin Kearns was on that team and played in the league the previous summer. Stadium construction was incomplete when the 2000 season began, but that didn’t deter the fans. The first night was a sellout and so has every night been since.
“You play in a lot of games where there’d be 50 people in the stands,” Kearns said. “And so you walk out here and there was eight, nine thousand people out here every night. It was like a party every night almost.”
Kearns kept the party going during an eight-game stretch that season when he hit 10 home runs in eight games, hitting at least one homer in each of those games. He had a monster season with 27 homers, 104 RBIs and a .306 batting average. He was with the Reds by 2002 and finished third in rookie of the year voting.
“It was one of those times when everything’s kind of in slow motion,” he said. “That was definitely a lot of fun.”
Reds Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Sr., a key cog in the 1970s Big Red Machine, was the Dragons’ hitting coach in 2010. His minor-league memories — especially his first two stops — are quite different than what he experienced in Dayton.
“In Bradenton, we didn’t see any fans,” he said. “In Tampa, Florida, which was high A, we didn’t see many fans, may a hundred, 200. But to break in at his league and you’re at capacity every night is a fun time.”
Tom Browning, another Reds Hall of Famer and the only Red to pitch a perfect game, was the Dragons’ pitching coach in 2012 and 2015.
“When I came here for the first time in 2012 I was awestruck by just the facility itself, the fan support, the host families, everything that you really want out of an organization, especially at the lower levels like this,” he said. “I tell people it’s probably the best-run organization in all of minor-league baseball. I often thought that we were the sideshow because of the Green Team [fan entertainment crew] and all that they do.”
Browning was also impressed by the team boosters and all that they do for the players.
‘They are the greatest boosters in all of America,” he said. “A lot of these kids are playing night baseball for the first time or a long season for the first time, so this is a good introduction into that.”
Two recent Dragons also have a strong appreciation for their time in Dayton.
“The fans here are unbelievable,” said Taylor Trammell, an outfielder who played for the Dragons in 2017. “The atmosphere is out of this world. Everybody that’s affiliated with the Dayton Dragons it’s first class. You know what you’re going to get every single time you come here. We got here this morning and it was just one of the best experiences.”
Tyler Stephenson, a catcher, played with the Dragons in 2016 and ‘17.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “I kind of miss this place.”
So does Trammell.
“I loved hitting here,” he said. “It was a great place to play.”