Day two of my five days drive through Ohio, to Louisville, and finally, Pittsburgh. I was on my way to Cincinnati. These were possibly some of the best days on my long journey to all of the major league ballparks and associated landmarks.
Why? Why would the ballparks in Ohio and Pittsburgh excite me more than the more exotic locales I previously visited? Undeniably, San Diego and San Francisco are beautiful places to watch a ballgame. San Diego, situated next to the Gaslamp District and just a few blocks from the ocean creates a memorable and unique experience. San Francisco with its beautiful view of the bay and the sea breeze is breathtaking.
However, the little ballparks in these forgotten Midwest cities that used to be part of the “rust belt” have a lot of charm. Cleveland’s Progressive Field is close to the Cayuga River and has views of downtown, highlighted by the ornate Terminal Tower. Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark is on the Ohio River near the historic Roebling Bridge. It also has excellent views overlooking the city. Finally, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is an extraordinary ballpark. From most seats, the panoramic views of the skyline, the Clemente Bridge, and the Ohio River are riveting. It may be the second-best exterior view after San Francisco’s. These great ballparks, in their often maligned cities, prove that the game can be beautiful anywhere.
Thursday – August 15th – Cincinnati
My hotel in Cleveland was right next to the highway on Orange Place. We previously stayed in this area when we visited my father on family visits. We liked that the area was close to where dad lived and convenient to restaurants and, of course, the highway. Thus my baseball stay was fraught with memories of life’s passing.
The proximity made it easy to get on the road early Thursday morning. However, the Nomad needed sustenance. I first, stopped at McDonald’s for a couple of Egg McMuffins before I started the four-hour drive to Cincinnati. I ate them while I drove.
I arrived at my hotel in Cincinnati by the early afternoon. It was located downtown, just a few blocks from the river and Great American Ballpark. I decided to spend the afternoon walking around that part of the city on my way to the game.
The Roebling Bridge
My first stop was the Roebling Bridge, originally named the “Cincinnati – Covington Bridge.” The bridge spans the Ohio River and connects Cincinnati with Covington, Kentucky. When it opened in 1866, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1,057 feet. 1 More importantly, John Roebling designed the bridge before he created the East River Bridge – more familiarly known as the Brooklyn Bridge.
I love the Brooklyn Bridge for its beauty and historical significance. Although I’d driven by the Roebling Bridge on other trips, I’d never explored it up close. I was very interested in seeing it.
I started my walk from my hotel on East 4th Street to Vine Street and took a left turn. Two blocks down the street, Vine becomes Rosa Parks Street as it passes the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Walking one more block took me to the park next to the bridge.
The park connects the Paul Brown Stadium, where the football Bengals play and Great American Ballpark, my ultimate destination. The Roebling Bridge is in the middle.
The bridge is a majestic structure that rises above the Ohio as the Brooklyn Bridge looms over the East River. Additionally, it’s ornate sandstone towers are reminiscent of Brooklyn’s bridge as well.
One of the baseball rituals for Cincinnati fans is to walk across the bridge to visit the hotels and bars in Covington, Kentucky, before and after games. I plan to stay in Covington next time I visit and take that walk across the bridge.
The Reds 150th Anniversary?
As I walked through Cincinnati, I noticed many signs and banners celebrating professional baseball’s 150th anniversary. Unfortunately, some of the banners and signs mistakenly suggest that it’s the Reds’ 150th anniversary, which confuses the story. While Cincinnati should be celebrating professional baseball’s 150th anniversary, with the Reds participating, it’s not the Reds anniversary. Instead, the Atlanta Braves should be celebrating its 150th anniversary.
The true story goes like this. The Cincinnati Red Stockings, formed in 1869, were the first professional baseball team. As it turns out, the Cincinnati Reds had nothing to do with this development. The “Red Stockings” did not become the Cincinnati “Reds,” as some of the signs suggest. The Cincinnati Reds started play in 1882 in the American Association and joined the National League in 1890.2 The Red Stockings played in Cincinnati for just a year, then disbanded and reformed in Boston as the Boston Red Stockings.
Additionally, the Boston “Red Stockings” did not become the Boston “Red Sox.” Instead, they used many names before they became the Boston “Braves” in 1912. These Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 and then to Atlanta in 1966.
Riverfront and Three Rivers Stadium
I’ve discussed the era of boring, multi-purpose stadiums in many of my posts. These stadiums dominated the sports landscape before Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened. 3 Interestingly, this trip took me to the epicenter of the cookie-cutter craze.
As I approached Great American Ballpark, I was near the site of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. In 2001, they demolished a portion of Riverfront’s left field to make room for Great American.
Riverfront opened on June 30th, 1970. Two weeks later, and just a few hundred miles up the Ohio River, Pittsburgh opened Three Rivers Stadium. As sportscaster Howard Cosell would say, it was located “at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers.” Heinz Field, Pittsburgh’s football stadium, occupies the site now. PNC Park is on the Allegheny River, just a short walk away.
In the era of “cookie-cutter stadiums,” Riverfront and Three Rivers were seemingly more similar than most. This similarity was very apparent. The Pirates and Reds dominated the National League at this time and met in the playoffs on a few occasions. Television viewers watched the first games at one of the stadiums. Then the teams would move to the other one. While they would change locations, the stadiums didn’t seem to change.
Cincinnati’s Great American and Pittsburgh’s PNC are a welcome departure from that rule. They’re both beautiful, little ballparks on the river and next to pedestrian bridges, but they don’t look alike. Thus it’s so much fun to go to each one. Luckily, I went to both on this leg of my trip. Thursday, I went to Great American, and then I went to PNC on Saturday.
Great American Ballpark
As I walked through the park, past the Roebling Bridge, the ballpark slowly appeared through the trees.
Great American Park is on the corner of Joe Nuxhall Way and Johnny Bench Way. Most people know who Johnny Bench was, but fewer know that Joe Nuxhall spent 60 years with the Reds. He started as a fifteen-year-old pitcher and was the Reds broadcaster after his pitching career ended.
A few hundred feet from the ballpark’s main entrance on Nuxhall Way is a small gazebo with busts of famous Red Stockings. Closer to the main entrance are statues of the members of the 1970s Big Red Machine. Pete Rose is sliding headfirst into a base, Tony Perez is hitting, and Joe Morgan is taking off from first. Possibly the most significant Red of them all, Johnny Bench guards the entrance.
Inside the gates, but still outside the park, is a group of statues that form “Reds Legends of Crosley Field.” The Reds played at Crosley Field before they moved to Riverfront Stadium. The figures are the “best of the best” players from various eras in Reds history, before the move. Ted Kluszewski, the power hitter from the 40s & 50s, stands on the on deck circle. A few feet away, Joe Nuxhall pitches to Ernie Lombardi. Lombardi is a Hall of Fame member who played in the 1930s and 40s. Finally, Frank Robinson, who played for the Reds between 1956 and 1966, is the hitter.4
This statue is the third of Frank Robinson I’ve seen on my summer-long journey. He also stands at Baltimore’s Oriole Park and Cleveland’s Progressive Field. He won his second Most Valuable Player Award in Baltimore – his first was in Cincinnati. In 1975, he became the first African American Major League Manager in Cleveland.
Attendance, Commitment, and Tanking
I walked around the near-empty ballpark before finding my seat.
On the promenade on the third base side of the park is a long bar serving beer, including local microbrews. Close to the bar are stands serving local favorites like Skyline Chili, Porkopolis Specialty Dogs, and others. While the dogs at Porkopolis looked interesting, I chose a more traditional Kahn’s hot dog. Although it was an average hot dog, I give the Reds points for making Dusseldorf German Mustard readily available. Of course, there is food everywhere. There are restaurants in the promenade and an area near the outfield dominated by barbecue.
The views inside the ballpark are engaging. The riverboat deck and smokestacks dominate the outfield view. The stacks explode after every home run.
Sadly, only 14,891 fans attended the game. It seems like a tiny park, but the capacity is actually 42,391,5 and it feels depressing when only one-third of the seats are filled. I asked some people around me about the attendance. While they mentioned that it’s tough to get people out on a weekday night, the overarching reason is tanking.
As the game started, the Reds were in fourth place, 7.5 games behind the first place Cardinals, tonight’s opponent. They would end the year in fourth, fourteen games behind the Cardinals. Over the previous four years, the Reds finished last and lost more than 90 games each year. The poor performance was likely intentional as their payroll was the 25th lowest in each of the previous three years.
The fans’ point was when the Reds made a commitment and started to win, people would flock to Great American Park again. Since the rebuild was coming to fruition and the Reds should blossom in 2020; the fans could return soon.
The Reds Sonny Gray struck out ten through five innings. In so doing, he extended his scoreless streak to eighteen innings in August. Michael Wacha pitched for the Cardinals and threw well. However, the two runs he gave up in the fifth were enough to lose the game. The Cardinals made it enjoyable in the ninth when Kolton Wong doubled with two outs scoring Marcel Ozuna. The final was Reds two, Cardinals one.
My seat was behind the plate, and some friendly Reds fans surrounded me. We had a good time chatting about the game and the Reds. Meanwhile, a beautiful red moon rose over the stadium. An usher watched me keep score and asked to see my book at the end of the game. He was suitably impressed with my detail and my journey.
Walking to the Hotel, Listening to the Mets
I walked back to the hotel and listened to the end of the Mets game. My walk started well; the Mets were in Atlanta, ahead ten to three going into the bottom of the eighth. However, the Mets’ brought Drew Gagnon in to pitch, and he promptly gave up a home run to Freddy Freeman. But, Gagnon survived the rest of the eighth, so why should I worry? The score was ten to four.
My nerves started to tingle when manager Mickey Callaway let Gagnon start the ninth. My concern grew when Rafael Ortega singled to lead off the inning. After Gagnon got the next hitter to ground out, Ronald Acuna homered on the next pitch. Mets ten, Braves six, and the Nomad was worried.
I breathed a little easier when Ozzie Albies popped up for the second out.
However, Freeman came up again and hit Gagnon’s two-strike pitch over the centerfield wall, making the score ten to seven. It was a good time, for a mound visit from pitching coach Phil Regan, to calm Gagnon down.
Gagnon’s first pitch to Josh Donaldson is a strike, so maybe the visit worked. Nope, Donaldson hit the next pitch over the centerfield wall, and the score was ten to eight.
My nervous frustration grew as Callaway replaced Gagnon with Edwin Diaz. Edwin Diaz was experiencing the worst year a relief pitcher may have ever had. I wasn’t confident.
As I got to the hotel, Diaz walked Brian McCann on four pitches. Really! Somehow Ender Inciarte is coming to the plate, representing the tying run. How can this happen? Somehow Diaz strikes Inciarte out, and the game was over. The Mets won; my heart attack was averted.
Now relieved, I was ready for tomorrow’s drive to Louisville.
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