Opening Day

Budweiser clydesdales

Photo: 5chw4r7z, used under Creative Commons

One of the surest signs of spring is opening day for Major League Baseball. From Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium, fans stream into their favorite team’s home field to watch the beginning of a new season and remember why it’s called the Great American Pastime. Football is dropping temperatures and shorter days. Basketball is indoors and, during March Madness, a disappointing end if your local teams all implode, assuming they made it to the dance at all. But baseball is warm weather, longer days, and the end of winter. For most of the US and Canada, that end hasn’t come soon enough.

In Cincinnati, however, Opening Day is a high holy day. Woe to the commissioner who schedules the Cincinnati Reds to open their season on the road. If you thought the city of Cleveland went ballistic when it lost the original Browns, you should hear some of the howls of agony when their beloved Reds open in another city. The Reds are the oldest franchise in the Major Leagues, indeed in all of professional baseball. They open at home, dammit. They have always (with few exceptions) opened at Redlands, at the late, lamented Crosley Field, at the legendary Riverfront Stadium, and now at Great American Ball Park. You can skip Mass on Christmas. You can eat meat on Friday during Lent. But Opening Day is sacred here.

This was a bit of culture shock to me. I arrived in Cincinnati from Cleveland in 1991 (by way of Holmes County of Amish Mafia fame. That’s another blog post.) Opening day often occurred on the road. And let’s face it. If you were an Indians fan before 1993, people had to take pity on you. My hometown team was in the midst of a thirty-plus-year playoff drought, and did not have the lovable loser aura of the Chicago Cubs. Municipal Stadium was a dump, and it’s only real purpose was to house the legendary original Cleveland Browns (and, unfortunately, to send John Elway to the Superbowl. Twice. At Cleveland’s expense.) Coming to Cincinnati?

Hey, the Big Red Machine was part of my childhood. Come on. Tommy Veryzer. Remember him? No? Well, you remembered his counterpart down on the Ohio River, Dave Concepcion, who had just retired only a couple years before I showed up. The Reds were in the National League, so any rivalry with the Indians was completely bullshit. Unlike the Yankees and Mets, the Cubs and the White Sox, or the Dodgers and the Angels, the Tribe and the Reds do not play even remotely close to each other. Pittsburgh is closer to Cincinnati, and they, too, play in the National League, whereas the Indians are an AL team. I could adopt the Reds as my own without any guilt whatsoever. (Some West Siders have tried to argue with me about that. They lost every time.)

But Opening Day? My girlfriend at the time insisted I take a day off work to go see the game. In those days, when the Reds played in the old Riverfront Stadium, you could get Opening Day tickets right up to about three days before the game. But there was more to it than that. There was the Findlay Market Parade. I swear the only reason Marge Schott bought the Reds was to be in the Findlay Market Parade. It’s a ritual Cincinnatians have engaged in since native son William Howard Taft sat on the Supreme Court.

And downtown is always more alive during Opening Day than it is any other time of the year, even Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. The parade usually features past Reds legends – this year, Dave Concepcion and Barry Larkin, who combined to hold the shortstop position between them for thirty years. We’ve had three since Barry retired. – local celebrities, and various organizations. Keep your St. Patrick’s Day parades. We do St. Paddy’s in the bar with a nice pint o’Guiness Draft or some green Hudey. Opening Day is where it’s at in the Queen City.

There are more street musicians working on Opening Day, which amps up the festive atmosphere even more. Forget getting any work done. If you’re at work that day, you’re probably lonely, especially if, as I did for eleven years, you work downtown.

One of my most memorable Opening Days was spent at home. I had injured my foot at work and was ordered off of it for a week. I spent the day with my foot up, two six packs of beer next to me, with the Reds on WLWT (their old television home before Fox and ESPN took over televised baseball) and my hometown Tribe playing Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field) for the first time. My girlfriend came home to find me blissfully drunk and just plain blissful. Both the Reds, under Davey Johnson, and the Tribe, powered by Denny Ramirez, won. Back then, the strike of 1994 had not yet happened, and I still loved baseball with an almost religious fervor.

I’ve been to four Opening Day games – three at Riverfront and the first game at Great American Ball Park. I don’t miss either Riverfront or Municipal Stadium, though Riverfront had an aura of tradition about it. Great American Ball Park is much more comfortable, even in the cheap seat, and you’re always close to the field. It compares quite nicely with its neighbor to the north, Progressive (Jacobs) Field. It’s actually a lot better than Turner Field, the only other Major League park I’ve been to. Mind you, the Jake and GABP are downtown stadiums surrounded by entertainment districts. The only reason to be anywhere near Turner Field is to go to Turner Field.

The most memorable game should have been the hometown debut of Ken Griffey, Jr., the legendary Seattle Mariner and son of Big Red Machine player Ken Griffey. That one got rained out, but GABP has always been worth the trip.

Most cities love baseball. Ask anyone in a fifty-mile radius of Manhattan about the Yankees or the Mets. No neutral opinions whatsoever. But in Cincinnati, it is a religion. Today, Nita and I will be watching the spectacle of the Opening Day Parade.

MTM Monday: October Baseball In Cincinnati?

The year I first contemplated moving to Cincinnati, the Reds had their wire-to-wire season, culminating in a World Series sweep of the Oakland A’s.  I moved to town the following year, 1991, and watched the Reds under Lou Pinella and Davey Johnson make serious runs at the post-season.  In 1993, I remember being in O’Bryonville, a neighborhood on the East Side, and hearing the roar from Riverfront Stadium (then called Cinergy Field).

Reds logo

Cincinnati Reds

But then Davey Johnson left.  Marge Schott sold the Reds to Carl Lindner, who sold it to Bob Castellini.  Riverfront Stadium gave way to Great American Ball Park.  And the post-season?

It almost feels like Cleveland before 1994 here.  The 1990 series is a rumor.  No one remembers the 1993 run.  Junior Griffey came to town in 2000 and spent most of his time injured.  The managers since Davey Johnson are mostly forgettable.  Mostly.

When Bob Castellini bought the team, he said, “I want to win.  Now.”  That took a while.  The Reds had languished since their final days in Riverfront Stadium.

That takes time, so Castellini brought in some talent, starting with manager Dusty Baker.  He grew talent in the minor leagues and made some trades.  He’s not the trading wizard General Manager Jim Bowden was, but then he brought in former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty.  The result is one of the best Reds teams in two decades.

Former Red Sox ace Bronson Arroyo now anchors the starting rotation, which features Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, and home-grown pitcher Homer Bailey.  Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Scott Rolen provide the bats.  And in the bullpen is the Reds future starting ace, Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman.

So how has it paid off?

I’m writing this on Sunday morning.  As of this morning, the magic number – that is, the number of Reds wins and/or Cardinals losses needed to reach the post-season – is 8.  The Reds could clinch the NL Central this week.

It’s been a long drought.

More at the My Town Monday blog.

MTM Cincinnati: Major League’s Oldest Team

In 1869, an amateur baseball team did something no other athletic team had done in American history:  They got paid.  That year, the Cincinnati Reds became the first professional baseball team.  Known as the Red Stockings back then, they had actually been in existence since 1866, the year after the Civil War.  In other words, they’ve been around about as long as the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

The Red Stockings became charter members of the American Association, one of the original major leagues, in 1882, but defected to the National League in 1890.

Shortly after the 1870 season, many of the Red Stockings’ best players relocated to Boston to become the Boston Red Stockings.  The Cincinnat team carried on, keeping the name and forcing the Boston team to adopt the name “Pilgrims” and later “Red Sox.”  During the 1890’s, the team shortened its name to the Reds.

In 1912, the team moved to its most famous stadium, a concrete-and-steel structure near Union Terminal named Redland Field, better known as Crosley Field.  There, the team’s fortunes rose, and by 1919, the team won the pennant and the World Series.  Their Series victory was tainted, however, by the infamous Black Sox scandal, where eight Chicago White Sox players were accused of throwing the Series at the behest of gamblers.

The Black Sox scandal dogged the Reds up until the 1930’s, when the team was nearly bankrupt and the stadium in horrible condition.  In 1933, local electronics magnate Powell Crosley, Jr., scooped up the franchise at a bargain basement price and turned it around.  He introduced night games, Rozzi’s Famous Fireworks (who still do the team’s pyrotechnics), and regular radio broadcasts.  The Reds’ most famous player from the 1930’s was Johnny Vander Meer, who pitched two shutouts back to back in 1938.

During World War II, when most regular baseball players were overseas fighting, teams turned to stunt players such as the St. Louis Browns putting a midget in the lineup.  The Reds signed local phenom Joe Nuxhall at the age of 15.  Until the 1970’s, Nuxhall held the record for the youngest pitcher in the Major Leagues.  By the time the record had been broken, Nuxie had retired from playing and moved into the broadcast booth as the Reds’ longtime analyst.

During the 1950’s, the Reds changed their name to “Redlegs” in order to avoid communist overtones in the paranoia of the McCarthy Era.  However, once they returned to their real name in the 1960’s, the farm system began producing some major talent:  Hal McRae, Tommy Helms, Pete Rose, and Johnny Bench.  The nucleus of the most famous Reds team was taking shape.  Soon, they would move into the venerable Riverfront Stadium, which they would share with new football team, the Bengals.

At Riverfront, the Big Red Machine emerged, winning four pennants and back-to-back World Series in 1975 and 76.

In the 1980’s, the farm system was rebuilt under ownership of the eccentric and controversial Marge Schott.  A new crop of farm system phenoms emerged in Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Chris Sabo, and the Nasty Boys – Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble.  In 1990, the team came out of the gate strong and went wire-to-wire to win the pennant and sweep the Oakland A’s in the World Series.

Since then, the Reds have struggled.  Ownership passed from Schott to local financier Carl Lindner to current owner Bob Castellini.  In 2003, the Reds moved to their current home at Great American Ball Park, signing Ken Griffey, Jr., who wanted to come home and play for his dad’s team.

Under Castellini’s ownership and Dusty Baker’s management, the Reds have gelled into another promising team.

MTM Cincinnati: Opening Day

There are four high holy days in Cincinnati:  Easter, Christmas, Oktoberfest, and…

Reds Opening Day.

More often than not, America’s oldest Major League Baseball team starts the season at home and often before anyone else plays.

I’ve been in Pittsburgh and Cleveland on their home opening days, but Cincinnati is the only city I’ve seen that has Opening Day.  Employers pretty much write the day off as a loss, especially downtown, as everyone’s attention is focused on the game.

And the parade.

Every Opening Day, even when the home opener is a few games into the season, the Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine mounts the Opening Day Parade.  Since 1921, two years after the Reds took its first World Series from the White Sox in the Black Sox Scandal, the downtown market has sponsored a parade to kick off the new baseball season.  For many years, the grand marshal was Reds owner Marge Schott.  So if you’re wondering how this city could tolerate Schott’s off-color comments, which resulted in her suspension, then ouster, from baseball, consider that beloved drunken uncle everyone has, the one who is as harmless as he is offensive.  Marge was, for the longest time, our strange, potty-mouthed aunt.  Not even Bud Selig could keep her out of the parade.

In recent years, grand marshals have included Keith Maupin, father of local MIA soldier Matt Maupin (who’s become a local hero) and, this year, Reds Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson.  Robinson’s stint is a big one for me.  He managed the Cleveland Indians for two years when I was a kid, ending his playing career as the Tribe’s player-manager in 1975.

Opening ceremonies have had everyone from Johnny Bench to both President Bushes show up to throw out the first pitch.  When local financier Carl Lindner owned the team, the Air Force and National Guard would do fly by’s in various aircraft from F-18’s to (most spectacularly) the Stealth Bomber.

I’ve been to four Opening Days, three at the old Riverfront Stadium and one at Great American Ballpark.  One of them was Ken Griffey, Jr.’s first game as a Red.  This being Cincinnati, we were treated to 40’s and rain.  The weather varies.  Some years it’s unseasonably warm.  Today calls for 43 with the threat of snow flurries.

I will be working today, but BigHugeCo has a downtown headquarters.  I can look out the window and see the parade.

What?  It’s Cincinnati.  You expect me to work at work?  On Opening Day?

[More My Town Mondays posts with Travis.]