Game 1: Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati

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Cincinnati was the perfect place to kick off Opening Day. They do it right here in the Queen City, and they’ve been doing it right for a long long time.

I wanted to begin my ballpark tour in Cincinnati because historically it is where the baseball season has always started. In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional baseball team. Ten salaried players managed to go 57-0 against its competition that season.*

* – Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been surrounded by Cincy natives who hate Kentucky basketball, but it’s hard to shake the obvious comparison of college athletes getting handouts under the table causing a similar imbalance in the NCAA. 

Being first in professional baseball may not have been the sole reason the Reds managed to host the season opener every year, but it definitely aided Cincinnati’s case. Until recently, it was the place to be for Opening Day. The president would even be regularly called upon to throw out the first pitch. But in an era of TV ratings, coastal elitism and dreams of international fan bases (Australia?! Seriously?), it doesn’t get the national audience has in the past.

But that doesn’t mean it lacks the enthusiasm on a local level. Cincinnatians still have Opening Day fever. The city buzzes with life the whole weekend leading up. People skip out on work, businesses take the day off, and Skyline Chili offers free cheese coneys. The 95th annual Findlay’s Market Opening Day Parade travels the streets of downtown, and fans line the streets for miles to wave back at the nearly two hour fanfare.

I even saw one woman who dyed her poodle completely red to celebrate the day. Opening Day is that big of a deal in Cincinnati.

We hit the Hall of Fame first – the Reds’ is one of the best HOF experiences in the MLB – and then walked the parade route for a bit. Hall of Famer Dave Concepcion, Reds shortstop during the 1970s “The Big Red Machine” era, was grand marshall this year, and joined by George Foster and injured Reds pitchers Mat Latos and Aroldis Chapman. Poor Chapman. Really rooting for a quick recovery for him after getting hit in the head with a Salvy Perez line drive a couple weeks ago.

Concepcion also threw out the first pitch alongside another HOF Reds Ss: Barry Larkin. Straight off the ESPN set, he donned a Reds uniform over his blue collared shirt, and the two threw out simultaneous first pitches (although Concepcion jumped the gun a bit and definitely threw first).

Something I learned about Reds baseball: it has a long history of local talent. In fact, in the Hall, there is a whole section dedicated to all the Reds players out of Cincinnati and nearby Indiana and Kentucky. The list is astonishing, really. Here’s a quick sampling…

  • Barry Larkin
  • Pete Rose
  • Ken Griffey, Jr.
  • Joe Nuxhall
  • Dave Parker

…that’s just off the top of my head. The plaque has over 100 names on it.

This connection with the players – the local boys – creates a bond between the fans and the players. They call them by their first names (or at least the friendly lady I was sitting next to did), and they feel a connection with the team in a way high profile, big city teams don’t.

The Reds are their boys, and they represent their city.

This hometown bond makes Reds fans extremely loyal, and their players – especially the local boys – embrace and return this loyalty – Pete Rose flew in from Las Vegas to support his hometown and former team even! There’s a great tradition of guys like Rose who play hard for their home city and it’s fans.

Speaking of Rose, it was awesome to see him on hand at Opening Day. But it had to kill him to watch his former teammates Concepcion, Foster, and Joe Morgan (who was a part of the pre-game fanfare too) be honored for their time in a Reds uniform on field while Rose watched as a paying customer. The Reds and their fans certainly want to honor Pete the same way they honored Dave, George and Joe. And as a Cincy native, he deserves accolades more than any other.

If you don’t know by now, I’ve positioned myself fully in the “Let Pete into the HOF” club. He never bet on his own team (that would be completely against his competitive nature), and if Barry Bonds can be honored on field in Pittsburgh yesterday, then Pete Rose should in Cincinnati.

If all baseball sins are equal, then there should be no difference between the treatment. If all baseball sins aren’t equal, it baffles me that gambling would be less egregious than steroid use.

Pete has been demonized by Major League Baseball and turned into a poster boy for what happens when you bet on baseball. That may have been a necessary message in the 80’s, but now the message has run it’s course.

It’s time to let Pete in. Maybe a new commissioner will make it happen. I sure hope so.

All that to say, Cincinnati loves the Reds. Especially on Opening Day. And not just the organization, but the individual ballplayers themselves. It’s a truly hometown team.

Game Notes:

The game itself was a pitchers duel. Adam Wainwright pitching for the Cardinals and Johnny Cueto for the Reds. Cueto was terrific, but Wainwright was even better:

Cueto: 7 IP, 1 ER, 3 H, 1 BB, 8 K
Waino: 7 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 4 BB, 9 K

Cueto was one mistake away from being the better pitcher actually. He served up a solo HR to Yadier Molina. His other two hits were to Matt Adams who beat the insane shift to the right side with opposite field hits to left. No shift, and Cueto may have tossed a 1 hitter and still taken the loss.

I wonder how much teams will continue to use the dramatic shift on Adams throughout the season. It worked twice, but it burned the Reds twice too. He got a double on a little dribbler just inside the bag. Would’ve been an east play for Todd Frazier at third with Adams running. Instead it was a double. Maybe John Mabry, Cardinals hitting coach, taught Adams to take it to opposite field during the off season.

Waino had the Reds off balance all night. First pitch curves. Freezing batters with 2-strike fastballs. The Reds never knew what was coming next. They looked lost most of to night.

The most lost: Billy Hamilton.

I was really excited to see Hamilton play. I wanted a lead off bunt, two stolen bases and a run on a Brandon Phillips groundout. Never even got close to happening. Wainwright is terrible matchup for Hamilton – tons of off-speed stuff with lots of twelve-six movement making it really tough to bunt on.

If Hamilton is going to be the success the Reds hope he is, he’s going to have to learn to make contact with breaking balls. He needs to work the count. His balance at the plate needs to improve. You absolutely cannot go 0-4 with 4 Ks as lead off hitter. Unacceptable.

The Reds still had plenty of opportunities. Three errors and five walks ought to bite you back at some point, but somehow the Cardinals continued to weasel their way out of jams.

It was a great first game of the season, and I can’t say that I was entirely disappointed with the outcome. It would’ve been fun to celebrate with the home team fans, but the Cardinals fan in me has to smile.

One game down. Twenty-nine to go.

Up next: Atlanta.

-apc.

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