Hearts and Minds in the Heart of Ohio

The Reds haven’t done themselves any favors over the years, which has contributed to Columbus becoming a Cleveland town. (via Wknight94)

On a cold, gray and drizzly Saturday afternoon, better known as spring in Ohio, Joe Santry makes his way from his office to the press box at Huntington Park in downtown Columbus. Every passerby, from intern to food service rep to P.A. guy, says hello. Santry has been with the Clippers forever. Everyone knows him.

How long is forever, exactly?

“Since before you were born,” he says, grinning like someone who’s used this line many, many times before. And more often than not, it’s true. Santry has been with the club since 1988, when the Clippers played in venerable Cooper Stadium, the team’s home from 1977 to 2008. It was the first minor league ballpark with luxury boxes; it’s credited for pushing minor league ballparks toward modernity.

Santry threw in that last bit about the luxury boxes. In addition to being the Clippers’ director of communications and media relations, he is the team historian, a walking, talking textbook who sprinkles his conversations with interesting facts and stories of former players, ballparks and seasons. When one of the interns pops into the press box to find the answer to a trivia question, Santry recites one factoid after another. He knows a lot about baseball in Ohio’s capital, a city that has had a professional team — except for that six-season hiccup from 1971 to 1976 — going all the way back to 1894.

A few examples, courtesy of the team’s media guide, include the fact that from 1980-83, the Home Run King played in Columbus, as Marshall Brant (1980), Steve Balboni (1981-82) and Brian Dayett (1983) out-clubbed the rest of the International League. Balboni and Brant rank first and second in career homers for Columbus, while Dayett’s total in ‘83 ranks as the highest number hit in a season. And in both 2007 and 2009, the Clippers failed to have a pitcher reach the minimum requirement of innings pitched to qualify for the ERA title. Chris Michalak threw an even 100 innings for the 2007 squad while Zach Jackson managed only 99.2 innings for the 2009 Clippers, the only season in which the Clippers have not had a 100-inning pitcher.

These and other facts are contained in a thick binder stuffed with pages filled with old photographs, stats and stories about Clippers players, executives and ballparks that Sandry pieced together. Many of those photos are on display around the concourse and in a museum-like timeline decorating the walls of the bar in the left field building.

If anyone can explain the evolving allegiances of a city set halfway between two vastly different big league cities — the German-influenced river town of Cincinnati to the south and the Hungarian flavored rust-belt city of Cleveland to the north — Santry is the man. What has he to say about it?

“It really depends on which [big league] team is winning,” he says. “And not just winning for a season or two, but a dynasty team that wins year after year.”

Lose badly for consecutive years, lose future baseball fans of Ohio. Hear that, Cincinnati Reds?

Redemption is possible, however, as the Houston Astros have shown everyone. Its ownership famously tore down its big league roster after 2010, producing three straight seasons of dreadful sub-.400 baseball and a regrettable yet well-earned nickname: the “Lastros.” That whole mess was essentially baseball’s answer to basketball’s “Trust the Process” mantra in Philadelphia. It was ugly at first, but there was a method to the madness.

Things started turning around in Houston in 2014, a season in which its once powerful rival to the north, the Texas Rangers, posted a worse record. While the Astros were in tear-down mode, the Rangers had made three straight playoff appearances, including two trips to the World Series. The Rangers, in fact, finished in the basement of the AL West, with Houston just above them. It was a harbinger for Rangers fans.

The Rangers won the West in 2015 and 2016, but by then Houston’s young and dynamic lineup — the fruits of its process — had the “it” factor. Fortunes have see-sawed since, and kids growing up in neutral territory in Texas right now are captivated by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel instead of Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor or Cole Hamels.

Meanwhile, the parents of those kids — who still remember the glory years of the Killer Bs and a 2005 World Series run — are buying into the Astros all over again.

And that brings us back to Columbus, caught between two big league parks 249 miles from each other. As Santry said, generations of the city’s baseball fans have swayed with the fortunes of the Reds and Indians. The Clippers’ major league affiliation hasn’t made much difference.

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Columbus has been the Triple-A team for the Indians since 2009, but over the years its affiliation has shifted among big league teams from outside of Ohio. Before the six-year dead period, Columbus hosted the St. Louis Cardinals’ top farm team, appropriately named the Redbirds, from 1931 through 1954.

The Redbirds were actually part of Branch Rickey’s pioneering effort to create an organized pipeline of teams feeding talent to the big league club, the precursor to today’s farm systems. Rickey bought the Columbus franchise to serve as the Cardinals’ second top affiliate, along with the Rochester Red Wings in New York. The Redbirds won a lot, earning seven American Association titles in that span.

It didn’t matter, though. The hearts and minds of Columbus baseball fans were squarely focused northward, where Feller, Boudreau and Co. kept the Indians at or near the top of an American League that had yet to split into divisions. Imagine how many more World Series titles the Tribe may have won in addition to its 1948 trophy had there been Wild Card berths.

The other non-Ohio affiliation of note is the New York Yankees, which had its Triple-A club in Columbus from 1979 until the Indians took over in 2006. Think about that time frame for a second. Every home-grown Yankee who helped the franchise win an amazing four World Series titles in five years (1996 and 1998-2000) passed through Columbus first.

We’re talking the core four and more. Robinson Cano. Derek Jeter. Andy Pettitte. Jorge Posada. Mariano Rivera. Bernie Williams. Alfonso Soriano. And just for good measure, Clippers fans also got to see Don Mattingly, Dave Righetti and Deion Sanders pass through on their way to Yankee Stadium. That’s an impressive list of stars.

And yet, Ohio was Reds country throughout the Yankees’ tenure. The fabled Big Red Machine had recently won two consecutive World Series titles, in 1975 and 1976, when the Yankees came to town as proprietors of the franchise. And the Reds had just lost the 1979 NLCS. If replica jersey wearing was as prevalent back then as it is now, old Cooper Stadium would have been crawling with people wearing Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and Joe Morgan jerseys.

Oh, and there’s something else.

“Having the Big Red Machine in the ’70’s made that young generation of kids at that time become Reds fans in the ’80’s and ’90’s,” says Santry.

As many long-time Reds fans will tell you, the 1980’s were a strange time, highlighted by Mario Soto’s dominance with just a fastball, a changeup and a fiery temper. Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s record at Riverfront Stadium. Also notable was the arrival of Eric Davis and Barry Larkin and lots of second place finishes as well as some of the worst teams in franchise history.

The Ohio Gen Xers languished as kids in a baseball netherworld, because if the Reds were bad, the Indians were even worse. Clevelanders had Super Joe Charboneau in 1980 and one season (1981) when the team cracked the .500 mark. One saving grace is that decade never featured a uniform as hideous as the all-red 1975-76 editions. That was about it for the ’80’s.

The hearts and minds of Ohio’s earliest Millennials were ripe for the picking back then. And it was the Indians that finally cultivated and harvested those fans with the same kind of young and dynamic lineup the Astros feature now. The 1995 Rookie of the Year, in fact, was a guy Cleveland traded with the Astros, of all teams, to get. Kenny Lofton became one of the anchors of a team that spent the second half of the 1990’s flirting with World Series glory.

All the Reds could do in that span was get swept out of the NLCS in 1995. Since the mid-’90’s, the Indians have had a hold on much of Ohio, including Columbus. Yes, the Reds made the postseason in 2010, 2013 and 2014. But the Indians have also gotten there three times in that span, and they have gone further. The 2016 Indians took the Chicago Cubs to seven games in the Fall Classic.

So what kind of town is Columbus today?

“Oh, it’s an Indians town, definitely,” says Santry. “It’s helped that we’ve had all the great current Indians come through here. Brantley, Lindor, Kipnis and Kluber all played here at one point.”

And now, those guys are challenging for another postseason spot, after having won the American League Central two years in a row. Just as importantly, the Reds are going nowhere fast. They’re playing .250 ball so far this season on the heels of three straight last-place finishes in the National League Central.

Columbus’ Generation Z is already beyond the reach of the Reds. That’s the price of having Bryan Price manage your club for four seasons. And investing perhaps too much money in one player, no matter how good he is. And for investing way too much in a pitcher who can’t stay healthy. And for waiting too long to trade big league talent and getting less than they could have. (Sorry, this one requires a second link to illustrate. And a third)

But if the Reds braintrust can figure out how to put it all together in a few years and create a winning dynasty in the mold of the Big Red Machine, they can look forward to impressing a new generation of fans in Columbus and elsewhere in Ohio. Fans who will be old enough to buy tickets and merchandise by, say, 2035 or so.

A lot will be different by then. Perhaps the Clippers will be looking to upgrade on Huntington Park. But bet on Joe Santry being there, marking the passing of another phase of allegiance in a state torn between two big league teams.


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Browns0286
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Member
Browns0286

Great piece!

As a Columbus native, one very minor correction: It was the Washington Nationals who took over the Clippers’ affiliation from the Yankees from 2007-2008 (before the switch to the Indians in 2009).

svan
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svan

Seconded! Very good read.

As a Pittsburgh native living in Columbus, I’ll be submitting this piece as evidence in support of getting the Pirates’ blackout restrictions lifted here in town.

Richie
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Richie

No particular reason to think the Indians would’ve won more World Series titles with a Wild Card. The years they did win, they then would’ve had to play their own way through an extra playoff round in order to first get to the Series.

oceanpoet87
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oceanpoet87

I’m neither an Indians or a Reds fan, but you forgot 1990 when the Reds swept my Oakland A’s. I think that was the only glaring omission from this piece. That had to have affected fandom in Columbus.

kmassey99
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kmassey99

I was with you until the end. The Reds have been awful since 2013 (you incorrectly note they last made the playoffs in 2014) because they haven’t developed any good pitching. The trades of the guys on the 2012-2013 teams were a mixed bag but returned some intriguing players (see in particular your third trade link). Implying that the Votto contract is responsible for the current malaise is classic blaming the best player on a bad team. It’s sports radio level analysis.

tribefaninnc
Member
tribefaninnc
Yeah, Columbus was definitely a Reds town in the 90s when I lived there. I had pretty much assumed it had always been that way. The success of the Indians in the late 90s made a little difference, but not much. Though it wouldn’t surprise me that the Indians have made inroads since the Clippers became an Indians affiliate. Smart business move for the Indians to plant roots in both Akron and Columbus. Columbus Clippers, ring your bells!!!! Two corrections: Kenny Lofton finished second to Pat Listach in the AL RoY voting and the year was 1992 not 95.