From Rockford to Dayton: How the Dragons started as a dream and became a sensation

A view of Fifth Third Field (now Day Air Ballpark) during its construction in downtown Dayton.

Credit: Dayton Daily News

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A view of Fifth Third Field (now Day Air Ballpark) during its construction in downtown Dayton.

Credit: Dayton Daily News

Even though Rockford, Ill., has a long history with professional baseball, the team known as the Rockford Reds was only in town for one lame-duck season before it became a sensation in Dayton.

The Rockford team became the Dayton Dragons in the summer of 2000, but the path there wasn’t easy.

Rockford actually was the home of a franchise in the very first minor and major leagues (the National Association in 1871 and the Northwestern League in 1879). The city also boasted one of the more successful All American Girls Professional Baseball League teams, the Rockford Peaches, from 1944-1954. The Peaches were featured in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own .

And while there is talk in Rockford of a future Frontier League team or some other lower-end minor league team taking root, for the 2000 season, Rockford is baseball-less.

Rockford’s association with the Class A Midwest League began in the mid-1980s. Prior to the one-year stint as the Reds, the team was an affiliate with the Cubs for two years, and from 1985-1996, the Expos and Royals each took turns. None of the teams fared very well at the gate, so the team’s future in Rockford was frequently in doubt and a prime candidate for relocation.

Former Dayton City Commissioner Tony Capizzi first mentioned the possibility of Dayton’s own field of dreams in the early 1990s. That proposal eventually led to the news in February 1999 that Mandalay Sports Entertainment had bought the Class A Rockford affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and was moving the team to Dayton.

Capizzi’s quest to bring minor league baseball to downtown Dayton didn’t really take off until 1997, when Chicago-area investor Sherrie Meyers had plans to buy the Rockford team and move it to Dayton. But she and her husband owned another team in Rockford’s Midwest League (the Lansing Lugnuts), so she was blocked from completing the sale.

Besides Meyers’ efforts, boxing promoter Rock Newman and his Sports Spectrum group also attempted to land a team in Dayton. But Newman was also denied.

Then Mandalay, with principal investor Hank Stickney, stepped to the plate, and Dayton’s dreams of baseball came closer to reality.

Mandalay Sports Entertainment won approval by Major League Baseball in late February 1999. With that came the announcement that a new $22.7 million stadium would be built downtown, and the Rockford Cubbies would become the Rockford Reds for 1999 before moving to Dayton in 2000.

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