Welcome to a special Monday edition of Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks, a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.
BALLPARK: Great American Ball Park
HOME TEAM: Cincinnati Reds
VISITED: July 5, 2003
CHRONOLOGY: 26th of 34
RANKING: 21st of 34
For all the early-2000s caterwauling over small-market clubs who couldn’t compete with the big boys, I wondered how one in particular, the Cincinnati Reds, managed to erect a brand new ballpark with far less fuss than their New York counterparts. When I got to the Queen City to inspect, I thought I figured it out.
They did it on the cheap.
Great American Ball Park looked cheap to me. Not tawdry cheap, but very low on frills, bells, whistles, whatever makes a ballpark sing. That can be or sound appealing — frills, bells and whistles can all be overbearing — but in the case of GABP, it was merely disappointing. We came all the way to Cincinnati and this is it? Did you just unpack the bleachers from a kit and start selling tickets?
We visited the new home of the Reds when it was new, and though I didn’t realize it at the time, it may have marked a turning point in ballpark construction. Great American was the ninth ballpark I’d been that could loosely be described as “retro”. It was surely more in the Camden Yards mold than it was a relation to its predecessor Riverfront Stadium. I suppose it was meant to evoke, on some level, Crosley Field, where the Reds played for six decades prior to Cincinnati being devoured by the prevailing trend toward roundness and Astroturf.
But it wasn’t Camden Yards or Pac Bell or PNC. It was missing something. It was missing a unifying element or a sense of awesomeness. Maybe, despite the faux steamship that dominated the centerfield landscape, it had simply missed the boat. Retro was getting harder to pull off by 2003. Baseball had gone back in time time and again since Camden Yards. You could only go to that well so often. For a while, I was impressed at how the post-Camden group of parks — like Pac Bell and PNC — found ways to improve on an instant classic. I realize now that Great American was leading us toward a post-Camden age, when what would have been impressive not that much earlier now seemed mundane.
And a little cheap.
Great American’s spareness made me wonder, or perhaps conclude, something else. My familiarity with the Cincinnati mindset was based on absolutely nothing but a vague sense (informed by a bit of reading and observation from afar) that it was a pretty conservative town. These folks weren’t necessarily unhappy with their cookie cutter, were they? What was wrong with Riverfront Stadium besides its numbing sameness? In the 1970s, it was the same thing every year: the Reds were outstanding. They hadn’t been Reds hot for a while by 2003, but it wasn’t a sure thing that a new ballpark was going to change that. The Indians’ renaissance definitely coincided with the building of Jacobs Field, and maybe there was a tangible link between the winning and the Jake, but that was Cleveland. This was Cincinnati, where the Red Machine was never Bigger than in its enormous, if enormously boring (on television at least) Riverfront.
Were Reds fans clamoring for a new ballpark? Do fans ever clamor? It’s usually ownership, isn’t it? And does ownership, any ownership, spend more than absolutely necessary in a “small market”? These are rhetorical questions. They may have actual answers. But I couldn’t escape the sensation that Great American was built for as little as possible and, thus, gave its patrons exactly that.
Then again, maybe Cincinnati didn’t need that much, because when Stephanie and I attended our one game there (and I became such an expert), it seemed people were having a very nice time despite the limited possibilities inherent in the structure.
This feeling extended beyond the walls of Great American Ball Park. Some towns you wear your Mets cap around and you get no response. Someimes that town is New York. Not Cincinnati, though. The Mets were in town with us, and the locals seemed keenly aware of the schedule. The Reds weren’t going anywhere in 2003, just as the Mets weren’t, yet their fans were on top of their game. All weekend, as the Mets were (unusually) rolling, we received very good-natured razzing. Actually, it was less razzing and more acknowledging, like, “Hey, you guys are beating us!” On our way home, airport security pretended to hassle us based solely on my Mets cap. But they couldn’t have been nicer.
(Decide for yourself what that says about TSA in its infancy.)
I was wary of Cincinnati, and not just for my vague conception of its conservative nature and its onetime embrace of Marge Schott. The Mets weren’t greeted as friendly relations over the years at Riverfront. Surely they were pissed at us for ’73…and that fight between Ray Knight and Eric Davis in ’86…and that game where Dave Pallone threw out Pete Rose (in a game against the Mets, so somehow I figured we’d be implicated)…and snatching the Wild Card from them in ’99 after they nearly snatched it from us…and, because Bart Giamatti’s office was in New York, for Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
I waited until I was 40 years old to visit Cincinnati. Apprarently I had spent too much time thinking about them in advance.
If any ballpark looks prefab in this day and age, it’s Great American. It’s more than a set of bleachers, of course, but damn if it doesn’t feel like exactly that. But the people in those bleachers (perfectly fine red seats, actually) were mostly sweethearts and fine hosts to the noticeable minority in the crowd who were there to root against the home team. I’d estimate about one of every twenty fans at the sold-out stadium that Saturday night — they were giving out miniature GAPBs — was a Mets fan. It wasn’t a Camden Yards overrun, but a healthy curiosity: new park, our team, let’s have a look.
(I also overheard one unaffiliated party talk about his lifetime quest to visit every big league park — same quest I suppose I was on, Mets presence notwithstanding. It made me wonder how many such people at any one moment make up a game’s paid attendance, particularly on a holiday weekend in a ballpark’s first year.)
Were we treated less than hospitably? Not at all, unless you count the genius who kept reminding Timo Perez that his first name rhymed with TiVo. In fact, throughout the game, there was an easy back & forth banter in our section. We were all admiring Steve Trachsel’s location and Barry Larkin’s acrobatics. We were all disappointed Ken Griffey was a late scratch. We were all in this together, give or take a logo preference. We all liked the same sport. We were of no danger to each other (or anybody else) in the standings. And we were all, given the newness of the venue, just getting to know Great American Ball Park.
The people of Cincinnati, whether or not they were thrilled with their new park, made the best of their guests. One guy who had to get up to let us into our seats joked about this being the only time he wasn’t going to let us in, “Mr. Met fan.” Yeah, I said, we’re having such a great year, you should worry about us. As the evening unfolded, I was in sporadic conversation with the guy sitting in front of us, flattering each other about our respective starting pitchers and so forth. I learned that he and his companion didn’t know the Mets had never had a no-hitter. They reminded me that Tom Seaver pitched one for them. (I refrained from answering, “No kidding, pal.”)
The nicest moment of the night, one of the nicest moments I’ve ever had in any non-Mets ballpark in terms of interaction with non-Mets fans, came when the scoreboard issued its nightly quiz: Who are the five sluggers whose last name begin with a “P” to have hit 40 homers in a season?
This instantly became a group project. Tony Perez was a gimme for this crowd. As was, per the guy visiting from New York, Mike Piazza. We instantly ruled out Albert Pujols (though he would join this select club by September). I added Rico Petrocelli, guaranteeing him as correct. When I was seven, Topps included little biographical comic books of various stars of 1970, and it included a panel on how in 1969 Rico of the Red Sox became the first shortstop to blast 40 home runs. It stayed with me.
We were two short. We thought and thought. Then a Reds fan remembered: Rafael Palmeiro! Of course! The guy nobody ever remembers for anything but wagging his finger (which had gone unwagged to that point) hit 40 home runs multiple times. So that was four. The fifth?
We were stumped. I kept wanting to say Pujols, but it wasn’t Pujos. I kept wanting to say Petrocelli, but I already had. I didn’t have any more tricks up my Cyclone shirt sleeve. So we waited for the scoreboard to give us the answers:
• Tony Perez
• Mike Piazza
• Rico Petrocelli
• Rafael Palmeiro
• Wally Post
Wally Post! How did these people not get Wally Post? Wally was a Red in the 1950s. He hit exactly 40 home runs in 1955 when the Reds were officially the Redlegs in deference to the Great American red scare and the Redlegs were a year from shedding their own sleeves. Those are the Red(leg) uniforms people identify with the ’50s, the kind that showed off the bulging biceps of Ted Kluszewski, a statue of whom stood outside the ballpark.
Given a multiple choice test, I would have gotten Wally Post from a childhood of reading Topps miniature comics and Baseball Digest very closely. These guys, the Reds fans? They were like, “Who’s Wally Post?” — and they were old enough to know better. Hey, I wanted to say, I’m not supposed to know your team better than you do. But I didn’t, because it was all in good fun, this trying to answer a trivia question as a group. I’m not supposed to be that competitive on vacation, right?
But I am. I’m a Mets fan whose intensity doesn’t let up easily. I’m determined to know more than you guys about your team even if you’re all going to wallop me in the congeniality portion of the evening’s competition.
You can plop the New Yorker down in Cincinnati for the weekend, but you can’t ever take the New Yorker out of him. Still, you can show him a few things. You can show him, for example, that he’s as close to another state as he can be while sitting in a major league ballpark. I don’t mean the state of bliss derived from a smooth Trachsel start or anything ethereal. I mean we were in Cincinnati, watching the Mets play the Reds, and one good Piazza poke away (had Mike not been out injured) was Kentucky, right over the Ohio River.
Can you imagine that? Another state, right over the outfield fence, give or take some water. That amazed me more than Trachsel outpitching Danny Graves or a Reds fan not knowing from Wally Post. Logically I knew it was there. The day before, Stephanie and I made a point of walking across the nearby Taylor-Southgate Bridge, from Cincy into Newport, just so we could say we crossed a state line on foot (on hot foot — sweltering to the point of wilting, Stephanie insisted we explore Newport, Ky.’s finest air-conditioned multiplex, which is why I can tell you Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle may well have been the last decade’s worst waste of film, but boy was it nice and cool in that theater). But to see it as backdrop for baseball? Kentucky as somebody’s version of downtown Flushing?
It was definitely value-added. When not groping for sluggers whose last names began with “P,” I spent a lot of time staring across the river at that other state. Newport presented unto us its small buildings and homes, its bluffs and hills. When it got dark (not ’til after 9:00 PM), you had stray Fifth of July fireworks displays lighting up the sky. It was a good game, but the part I enjoyed watching most, I think, was Kentucky just being Kentucky.
It provided a more aesthetically pleasing tableau than Great American itself. GABP lacked cohesion. The fake riverboat, the chintzy bleachers, the three-speed bike Reds fans received while other fans in other cities were being presented with ten-speeds…the overall effect was surprisingly flat without the northern shorefront of the Bluegrass State.
If the Reds fans are less concerned with all this than some dilettante from New York, that’s fine. It’s their park. Let’s give the main entrance plaza props for being spacious and the Reds foresight for having bag inspectors out in front of the actual turnstiles to regulate traffic into the park. Let’s also give GABP credit, like Riverfront, for being easily accessible on foot from downtown where we stayed. It’s not surrounded by parking lots, but there seemed to be plenty of garages nearby. Being able to walk to the park from one’s hotel, however, beats all.
Once inside, we were greeted by a rather large shall we say squaretunda. Lots of people spilled in. It was spacious but it felt more like a large train station than a ballpark. There were a couple of attractive, evocative mosaics of the 1869 Red Stockings and 1976 Reds starting lineups. Funny how some teams figured how to blend their ancestry and their own history at their new stadium entrance right off the bat.
Going in was a highlight. Getting out ASAP was a necessity. The night before our game, there were some brutal thunderstorms in the area. There were fatalities. Thus, unlike Shea, where the only thing Mets management did when dangerous weather threatened was sell you ponchos, the Reds posted live Doppler Radar on their DiamondVision between innings. When — after barely dodging the storms the night before — we saw the serious dark green splotches rolling in from Kentucky, Stephanie insisted we leave. It the middle of the ninth, we led by five…yeah, I had to give priority to threatening weather over David Weathers (who could threaten any five-run lead we held circa 2003). We beat the crowd out of the building and were inside our hotel before the thunder, the lightning or any real damage was done to the Mets. The weather held out and Weathers held on.
Great American wasn’t a great park, but it was a good time. There was even something to the corporate name on the door. There was a touch of Twain to that view of the mighty Ohio and the country that lay beyond it. If you can evoke Tom Sawyer and Tom Seaver in the same evening, that’s gotta be pretty Great.
I’ve told you about our visit to Great American Ball Park, but it wouldn’t be a complete recounting of that trip to Cincinnati without mentioning my Great American Stalking.
All my years of scanning the Mets media guide revealed a listing of team hotels. You could lodge just like the pros, apparently. For example, as of 2003, when the Mets visited Cincinnati, they stayed at the beautiful downtown Westin.
So why shouldn’t we?
I felt like a stalker making these reservations. It was an odd confluence of priorities. I kind of hated the 2003 Mets, even more than I’d go on to hate the 2009 Mets (in that love/hate way we have with our baseball teams, obviously). I hated Art Howe managing instead of Bobby Valentine. I hated T#m Gl@v!ne in a Mets uniform instead of Edgardo Alfonzo. I hated Roberto Alomar and Rey Sanchez, period. Steve Phillips had been gone several weeks, but his residue was all over this team. I couldn’t stand them as a collective.
Yet I wanted to fly to Cincinnati so I could watch these guys somewhere else — and stay in the same hotel as them.
Not really. I swear, I’m not and wasn’t. But, I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be something if I could run into one of them in the lobby or somewhere? It was bound to happen, right? There are 25 ballplayers plus coaches and broadcasters, somebody with a Mets pedigree whom I would recognize. Come to think of it, Tom Seaver would be doing the games and he must stay in the team hotel. I’d never met Tom Seaver. I was afraid of finding out he was not so Terrific in real life, but to actually have a chance…but wait, he played in Cincinnati, so maybe he has somewhere else to stay. Mike Piazza was on the DL and wouldn’t be there. But somebody was bound to stroll by. And then I could…I could…
I wasn’t sure what I could do. Or would do. I was 40, a little old to trot up to a real, live baseball player and ask for an autograph. I have precious few of those, and while they’re kind of fun to have, I don’t actually want to ask for, say, Raul Gonzalez’s autograph.
That’s who I think I saw the Friday night Stephanie and I were there. There were two vaguely familiar Latino figures sitting on a couch near the registration desk. The Mets had played in the afternoon, July 4. They looked too fit and well-dressed to not be ballplayers. I’m pretty sure that was utility outfielder Raul Gonzalez and spare reliever Pedro Feliciano we saw. Nowadays I’d have no problem recognizing Pedro Feliciano. I see Pedro Feliciano more often than I see my own sister. Back then, however, he wasn’t yet so perpetual to be instantly recognizable. Nor was Raul Gonzalez.
I didn’t ask either young man for his autograph. They beat the Reds that day. Let them enjoy their night on the town. (And if they weren’t Pedro Feliciano and Raul Gonzalez, it would have been more awkward than being the Reds fan who didn’t know Wally Post hit 40 home runs in 1955.)
Come Saturday morning, we had a whole day in front of us before our game. What were we going to do in Cincinnati? I wanted to visit the William Howard Taft National Historic Site (you just know it had to be huge). But I was voted down by Stephanie — a 1-1 tie, but I was already getting a ballgame, so I could be magnanimous — who wanted to see the Cincinnati Art Museum. The museum it would be. But first, breakfast. I had noticed a Bruegger’s Bagels on the corner and volunteered to bring a couple back to the room.
Bagels in Cincinnati? What a country!
I’d never heard of Bruegger’s Bagels, a franchise operation meant to bring the hole-y gospel to the deprived non-New York masses. I had heard of Starbucks. I wasn’t going there, but you know Starbucks — they’re unavoidable. There was one on the corner opposite Bruegger’s. If we were coffee drinkers, I might have gone there. Instead I merely glanced over at it en route to Bruegger’s.
And you know who caught my eye, sipping coffee at an outdoor table when not moving his mouth a whole lot?
AL LEITER! RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET!
There’s Al Leiter and some guy talking! Al Leiter is right across the street, drinking coffee with some guy! I think it’s a reporter. Kind of looks like Bob Klapisch, but it’s not Klapisch. Whoever it is, he’s with Al Leiter.
Short of Piazza and Seaver, you couldn’t do any better for your neo-stalking needs than Al Leiter. He was the most famous Met available. Certainly the most recognizable of this increasingly anonymous bunch. Alomar had just been traded, Mo Vaughn was gone (save for his onerous contract) with a knee injury. Everybody else was either a nobody or T#m Gl@v!ne, and screw T#m Gl@v!ne. I saw Al Leiter.
What good fortune. Al, too, was on the DL, but was traveling with the team. Al was a veteran. He was cosmopolitan. All the Jason Phillips, Ty Wigginton, Jae Seo rookies were probably hiding in their rooms waiting for the team bus. Not Al. Al’s been around. Al goes to Starbucks. Al talks to the writers, or at least one of them. Al is sitting there right now, looking agitated, telling the guy how Art Howe doesn’t know what he’s doing or we’ve gotta get rid of Cedeño — he’s killing us in the outfield. Or Al is being the Al I believe him to be, promoting the cause of Al Leiter. Maybe he’s talking up a trade to the Red Sox.
But you know who was having this conversation? Al Leiter! At the Starbucks, right across the street from where I was standing by the Bruegger’s.
Damn, bagels. I’m getting bagels. Gotta look like a normal person. Gotta go get my bagels, get my wife her bagels. I want to go over there but I don’t want to go over there. Al is having an intense conversation about his trade or the team or his contract or his weird political views. God, I don’t want to be a fan. “Uh, Al, uh, hi, uh, I don’t want to bother you…” God no!
I had one friend in particular who adored Al Leiter. Maybe, I thought, I could use her as an Al-ibi. Uh, Al, I have this friend and she really likes you…ah, that’s lame. The point is I don’t want to bother him. He’s really talking up a storm over there.
Screw it, I’ll get the bagels, or whatever passes for bagels in Cincinnati. And when I do…he’s still out there! He’s the Energizer Bunny—still going! He’s right across the street being Al Leiter!
Calm down. Don’t be a stalker. You’re not a stalker. You’re cool. You don’t even like Leiter that much. You think he’s a bit of an opportunist, a bit of a front-runner. You once read that although he makes a big deal about growing up a Mets fan, he strayed to the Phillies while he grew up in New Jersey because the Phillies were good and the Mets weren’t. You’ve never forgiven him for coming to the bigs as a Yankee. You’re pretty sure, based on what’s been in the papers, that he stabbed Bobby V in the back. All that got us was Art Howe.
I took a walk around the block. Most of the block’s stores were closed as this was a holiday weekend in summer in Cincinnati, but it gave me time to get over Al. I went into Walgreens to buy us some beverages and such. Before heading back into the Westin, I took one more stroll by Bruegger’s, across from the Starbucks.
Look who’s still talking: Al Leiter. Damn good-looking man, I have to say. He’s been a really good pitcher, you know, Game Six against Atlanta notwithstanding. Made the All-Stars in 2000, would’ve done it in ’98 if not for being disabled. Pitched his heart out in the World Series against the Yankees with nothing to show for it. Won the one-game playoff against these very Reds in this very town to win us the Wild Card in ’99. Al had Leiter’s Landing, a charity thing for kids. Bought them lots of seats at Shea. Yeah, he’s not so bad…
The motormouth continues. The bagels and the beverages are getting heavy. Stephanie must be out of the shower by now. I guess mission is accomplished. I saw my Met.
Upstairs, I recounted it all to Stephanie, including my carefully considered decision to not bother Al. She thought I should have. No, no, I said, that would be the wrong thing to do. I don’t need to talk to Al Leiter. Seeing him will suffice.
We ate our subpar bagels, grabbed our stuff, including my Mets cap, and took off to find the Cincinnati Art Museum (that’s its name — they didn’t really break a sweat on it, did they?). When we got off the elevator, there was a bunch of people getting off with us, and a bunch of people getting on after us.
One of those people was Al Leiter. He’s right there, right in front of me, not six inches away. He’s in my face. He’s still chatting with the writer.
Quick! Think! “How’s the knee, Al?” “Way to go, Al!” “You’re the man, Al!” No, no, no! None of those sounds right.
There’s no time to think. The door will close. I’m out. He’s in. I turn around.
He looks up from his conversation. We make eye contact.
I pull upon all my articulateness, everything I know about him and about the Mets and about baseball…and I give him the thumbs-up.
The door closes.
AL LEITER SAID HI TO ME! “YEAH. HI!” While exiting the Westin, finding one of Cincinnati’s two cabs and visiting the museum, that was what I told Stephanie for the next several hours. “Yeah. Hi.” became the most analyzed two words in the English language since that first curious caveman singed his hand and pronounced, “Fire. Hot.”
“Yeah. Hi.” What did he mean by that? It seemed to be a grudging acknowledgement of my existence, and it thrilled me to no end. Al Leiter could have said nothing. He probably preferred to say nothing. He probably gets bothered by fans all the time, and with my Mets cap and my pithy thumbs-up, there was no doubt that I was a fan. But shoot, Al Leiter was a Mets fan once. He probably dreamed of following Seaver or Koosman around (probably Koosman, since he was a lefty). It didn’t cost him anything. Al Leiter said “hi” to me. He also said “yeah,” though not in that order.
For a visiting Mets fan from New York that Saturday, the Cincinnati Art Museum held no greater treasures.