The Grand Tour, part two

The first installment of this series can be found here.

Our leg to Nashville, as I noted before, didn’t involve baseball, except as being a convenient step in a trip to Cincinnati that would have been tough to make in a single run from Asheville. My on-the-fly planning had slipped in a concert here, for an artist Paul and I both appreciate. So on Thursday, we got to spend the evening with “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Half of you are now saying “Who?” Half of you are saying “He’s still around?” To the third half who are saying “Cool!” I reply: Yes. It was.

If Al had done any baseball-related material, I would have written him up here. He didn’t, though, so I will have to refrain. Okay, I will just mention that it’s always an unusual night that begins with being seated next to a man dressed as a banana, and ends with getting your picture taken with R2-D2. (This was not my first encounter with a banana-man, but I’m leaving my 5-K racing out of this narrative as well. Despite all my years doing science fiction conventions, though, it was my first meeting with R2-D2.)

I will say that we had a very nice pre-concert dinner at a little place called 417 Union. It’s a retro-diner/bar with fine food and prompt service. I can include it because, among the World War II-era pictures adorning the walls, there was a shot of a Mr. Cubbage leaping joyfully out of the field-level stands at Sportsman’s Park, in celebration of the St. Louis Browns winning their one and only American League pennant. Way to plan for your good review, 417 Union.

The next morning back at our hotel room, the outside world peeked in again through our TV screen. The manhunt in Boston had gotten deadly overnight, and the name “Tsarnaev” had entered the rogues’ gallery of American history.

We drove through some truly lovely Kentucky country on our way to Cincinnati. In fact, unless otherwise noted, our drives were pictures of beauty. And cows.

Our in-car listening en route included the radio call of the first game in New York Mets history, from April 11, 1962. The file mysteriously conked out midway through, but not before shattering my illusions. I had heard or read somewhere that the first run ever scored in a Mets game came in on a balk by the Mets pitcher. This ignominious tale is untrue: a soft liner to left by Stan Musial drove in Julian Javier. Roger Craig did then balk, but it didn’t score anyone. I can’t remember now where I got the misinformation, and it bothers me.

Once in Cincinnati, we ensconced ourselves at the hotel, drove over to event parking (more reasonable than any other big-league stop, as I recall), then walked over to the ballpark. But not directly to the game. Our subsidiary stop, right next door to Great American Ball Park, was the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum.

Bill McKechnie, seated; Sparky Anderson, standing and about to pull Gary Nolan in the sixth.

Paul and I visited Cooperstown in 2006, drinking in that Hall of Fame. The Reds Hall is naturally smaller, and probably a step below in quality, but not a long step. There’s a lot of Reds history to draw from, all the way back to Harry and George Wright of the original Red Stockings, and they cover it well, with a certain understandable emphasis on the 1970s.

One impressive sight was the stretch of frames containing hundreds of signatures by Reds players, going back to around 1900. Now that is a collection. The museum is packed with other Reds memorabilia: scads of signed jerseys and balls, baseball cards from the 19th century onward. They have a couple display cases of non-Reds stuff, movie star autographs and the like, that was filler and the only real disappointment of the place.

The museum is well-stocked with Pete Rose items, notably the wall display of 4,256 baseballs representing his career hit total. The case is maybe nine feet wide, and easily a couple of stories tall, rising past flights of stairs. This celebration of Rose is balanced by his conspicuous absence from the Reds Hall of Fame itself. (At least, if his plaque is there, I utterly missed it.) That speaks clearly to the ambiguous place he has in baseball history.

Even for Rose-haters, there is little excuse to pass up the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum if you’re ever in town for a ballgame. Parcel out at least an hour—and if you want to take a picture of their statues of the Great Eight (Rose, Griffey, Morgan, Bench, Perez, Foster, Concepcion, Geronimo), use a better camera than my dinky iPod. It couldn’t handle the lighting, or you’d be getting a shot of that, too.

Do beware on one score: the exit from the Hall of Fame area debouches directly downstairs into the Reds gift shop. Pretty smart planning by someone. Who knows, once you’ve been through the museum, you might even be in a buying mood.

Game 2: Friday, April 19, 2013
Great American Ball Park, Cincinnati, Ohio
Miami Marlins at Cincinnati Reds
Attendance: 26,112

Ballpark; Nuxhall; Robinson; Lombardi. Author standing in as umpire. Lessee how you frame it, Schnozz!

I’m aware that the name comes from corporate sponsorship: Heck, the Great American Insurance building was plainly visible to us as we drove into the city. That doesn’t matter. It’s self-aggrandizing and calculating, and it works.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Every major-league ballpark we visited is well-stocked with statues. While the museum has plenty, there are more at the main entryway to the park. A sleeveless Ted Kluszewski and Johnny Bench in mid-peg to second are there, and Joe Morgan is due later this year. The best tableau by far is an imaginary confrontation at the plate: Joe Nuxhall pitching to Frank Robinson, with Ernie Lombardi catching. Ernie is mask-less, which is probably all right: That nose would deflect any fastball.

I got several pictures of them, and would have displayed more here, except that cloud cover made for some poor lighting. (Too much light, then too little. It’s like my iPod isn’t a high-end camera or something.) The forecast called only for a moderate chance of light rain, so not to worry, right? Right?

The ballpark itself lives up to the statuary. You would expect that from a stadium built in the middle of the post-Camden Yards boom, but it’s nice to confirm with one’s own eyes. Jumbo scoreboard brimming with information: check. Picturesque outfield eye candy: check, with the steamboat smokestacks that shoot fire into the air on celebratory occasions. Seats in obvious team color: check. Scenic view: check. The Ohio River wasn’t visible from our seats, but a hill on the opposite bank was.

The main concourse is broad and roomy, running foul line to foul line, with an open-air walkway stretching behind the outfield stands. Concession stands are numerous and varied, but that was the case at all four big-league parks. I was amused to find a small square of it blocked off as an open studio for a pre-game show, the field projected onto the background, and fans ringing the set cheering themselves hoarse.

I would later note with some disappointment that the concourse was also where all the trash cans were located, necessitating a long walk to throw anything away. It turns out this is something common to all the big-league stadia we visited (save for one recycling can I saw in Philly). Minor-league parks are more convenient in that regard, stationing trash bins right by seating areas. They don’t have to worry how the stands look on TV, I suppose, but it’s something where the minors have the edge.

That and, perhaps, ballpark hot dogs.

Comparing wieners: Queen City Hot Mett ($5.75)
I had to have a Mett at the ballpark, Paul informed me frankly. (Oh, you think that pun’s bad? I can really make you squirm if I want to.) This advice came from seeing the name on a billboard, I believe. Yeah, good enough for me.

The hot dog was fairly large, though not in foot-long territory. This was a bit of a shame, as we had forgone lunch on the road, and I could have used that Asheville dog to fill me back up. The key part was the peppers inside the frank. Paul told me these were “kicking his butt,” but I enjoyed it fine with my higher tolerance for spiciness. It did repeat on me, but apart from that it was a very good dog, if not quite at Tourists standards.

If you think two mascots for a minor-league team are overkill, don’t come to Great American. The Reds have four mascots, three of them baseball-headed. There’s Mr. Red, kinda like the 1970s logo; Mr. Redleg, sporting an 1870s handlebar mustache; Rosie Red, a female ball-head (her curtsey toward the umpires as they took the field had Paul in stitches for obscure reasons); finally, there’s the obligatory fuzzy mascot, some creature named Gapper.

The anthem that evening was by a children’s chorus. A distinct improvement, I find, from a lot of adult soloists who milk every word, trying to put themselves above the song. I’ve heard that way too much in the minors.

Not ominous at all. Really. Perfect baseball weather.

Then came the first pitch. And very shortly after that, the first raindrops.

The Baseball-Reference recap of this game cites start-time weather as “Cloudy, No Precipitation.” That’s accurate as far as it goes, and no further. The game-time temperature of 46 degrees seems an over-estimate, too. The wind at over 20 mph does look right. The weather was bad enough that I had trouble keeping my hand steady to take notes, in a notebook that was getting rapidly spotted with rain. And this was in the first inning.

The game did provide some diversion from our meteorological woes. Reds starter Mat Latos got two strikeouts in the first, auspicious for highly mercenary reasons. LaRosa’s, a local pizza chain, was giving away free small pizzas to ticket-holders should Cincinnati pitchers strike out at least 11 opponents, an offer it’s making for every home game. Still, I remembered the Krispy Kreme debacle, and reined in my enthusiasm.

There were lots of roving vendors in our section. Indeed, too many. Their constant calls often overlapped one another, and they got into my line of sight annoyingly often. Late arrivals managed this trick several times as well. I was starting to flash back to the one game I ever attended at Shea Stadium, the late-birds parading between me and home plate seemingly non-stop for the first two or three innings. I had hoped never to have such an experience at a ballpark again. You could almost wish for the periscopes you sometimes see at golf tournaments.

Shin-Soo Choo led off the home first with a bomb off the wall at the 379 marker in left field, chugging in with a triple. (It’s a statement on the decline of the rails in America that fans greet him with a boo-like “Choooo” and not a rhythmic “Choo-Choo-Choo.”) Joey Votto got him home with an opposite-field sac fly, on a 3-0 pitch, and the Reds took the early lead.

Meanwhile, rain was coming down harder and harder, falling past the lights in those photogenic sheets that you’re surely familiar with watching games from home. After two innings, Paul and I had to abandon our seats for covered standing room on the concourse. I found us some space with a good view of the continuing game, but Paul was ready to retreat even farther, away from the wind that had pursued us.

I had other ideas. Latos had gone six up, six down, with four punch-outs and two easy grounders. I meant to stay and watch. “I’ve got a feeling,” I told Paul.

Have you ever heard a more certain jinx? Two pitches later, Nick Green banged one up the middle for Miami. It was his first at-bat of the season, raising his batting average a thousand points. A Donovan Solano single and a sacrifice by pitcher Kevin Slowey made it second and third, one down, for Juan Pierre. Pierre fouled off two attempts at a safety squeeze, then went down looking.

Placido Polanco picked up some of the pieces. His grounder through the right side scored Green, but Jay Bruce‘s throw home was on the money, and Solano was out. The Marlins had tied it 1-1, half a loaf being better than usual, for them.

The Reds’ PA announcer gave the names of the Marlins as though he resented even having them in the ballpark. A different energy level for the two teams is common, but it generally manifests in histrionics for the home club, not grumbling of the visitors’ names. Bob Sheppard would not have approved, though mainly because he was physically incapable of muttering.

In the fourth, Latos K’d Giancarlo Stanton for the second time, then got hit by a Joe Mahoney comebacker. The trainer checked him over, and he stayed in. Latos wisely concluded that strikeouts were safer, and put Justin Ruggiano away swinging for his seventh of the game. To show he had fully shrugged off his dinging, he smacked a two-out gapper in the fifth for a double, though nothing came of it.

By that time, the rain had finally subsided. We were getting a wind-tunnel effect from the concourse where we stood, so we decided we could be just as cold back in our original seats, and closer to the action.

Juan Pierre led off the sixth with a double, and took third on Polanco’s fly-out to right. Giancarlo Stanton then grounded to short, and Pierre went for the plate. Remember how Bugs Bunny would outfox Daffy Duck into shouting “Shoot me now!” at Elmer Fudd? Pierre was a deader duck than that. But it was our second play at the plate of the game, so I was well satisfied.

Miami threatened again in the seventh, aided by Nick Green’s third straight hit. His 1.000 batting average, and his momentum from my whammy on Latos, was intact. Mat weathered it by striking out pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs, his 10th K of the night. Get up and stretch! Sing, too.

Leading off the Miami eighth was, guess who, Juan Pierre. The confrontation with reliever Jonathan Broxton crackled with tension. The crowd’s voice rose as one on the two-strike count. The swing. The miss! Yes! Free pizza!

Which Paul and I wouldn’t be in Cincinnati long enough to redeem. Uh, yay?

The next big cheer came in the middle of the eighth, as the jumbo screen in left announced that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured, alive. Paul joined in a brief “USA! USA!” I just tried to keep my fingers warm. I had on an undershirt, shirt, “Idontknow” jersey, and jacket, and I was still freezing. Had I brought gloves, I would have been freezing with even worse handwriting.

The next big cheer had to wait until the ninth, as Cincinnati still couldn’t get its offense restarted. But it was a very big cheer, for the arrival of Aroldis Chapman. Time to bask in some heat.

Then came a moment perfectly emblematic of the 2013 Miami Marlins. With the score tied in the ninth inning, they sent in a pinch-hitter for Joe Mahoney—their clean-up batter. Even more telling than the substitution was Mahoney’s original inclusion in the four-hole. This was Mahoney’s fourth career game, and second career start. His lifetime OPS as he exited the game was 0. Nothing after the decimal, except for infinite zeroes. And this was the clean-up man, the guy backing up Giancarlo Stanton in the lineup.

Words are inadequate. Face-palms are inadequate. It’s like the Marlins are the “Springtime for Hitler” of baseball.

Of course, “Springtime for Hitler” ended up a hit.

With one out, Chapman went 3-1 on Justin Ruggiano. His fabled fastball had started out at 97, and faded from there in the cold. As one fan implored him not to give in, he pitched. The ball would land in the left-center stands, a couple rows deep, just left of the bullpen. 2-1, Miami.

Chapman did get the next two Marlins, including a strikeout of Nick Green to ruin his perfect night. I commiserated with Nick, though he was probably still feeling pretty good.

It wasn’t over yet. Zack Cozart grounded deep into the 5.5 hole, and easily beat out Polanco’s throw. Up came Joey Votto, but he looked bad trying to recapture his elusive home run swing, and struck out. Brandon Phillips‘ fly to center drew huge cheers, but it wasn’t close to going out. Jay Bruce was the last hope, and he jumped on Steve Cishek’s first pitch, lining it to right.

And right at Stanton, for the final out. Springtime for Marlins and Loriaaaaaa …

Reds lost? Who cares? High explosives for everybody!

This wasn’t quite the end of our night. Fridays are Fireworks Nights at Great American, so Paul and I got to stand out in the cold wind for another quarter hour waiting for the festivities to commence. Stadium staff filled some of the time by shooting T-shirts into the stands. One of these caromed off someone’s hands twice, and went right to Paul.

Then it was another 10 minutes watching the fireworks go off, but we weren’t exactly counting those minutes. Ever been to a really good fireworks display, eyes dazzled, ears drubbed, viscera shivered by the shock waves pulsing through you?

So have we. And if it felt like my feet were blocks of frozen cement as we walked back to the car, I could live with that.

Epilogue: We did find a good home for our free pizzas. The desk clerk on duty when we checked into our hotel, who was extremely engaging to talk to, was working again when we checked out the next morning. She received the opportunity to assist in the bankrupting of LaRosa’s Pizzeria. Our pleasure, Leslie.

Future installments of this series will/can be found here, here, and here.

Print This Post
A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Paul G.
Paul G.
My notes on this leg: The drive from Asheville to Nashville was surprisingly challenging.  The interstate goes right through the mountains.  It’s beautiful country but westbound is lots and lots of turns while sharing the highway with lots and lots of trucks which may or may not be able to stop promptly while going downhill.  Nothing like the possibility of plummeting to your doom to help with the driving concentration.  (Oddly, we ended up going through the same patch of the interstate on the way back and it was a lot easier, partially because the traffic was sparse and partially… Read more »