Saturday, August 9, 2014

Soul of the Game Part III: On to Where It All Began

My week-long baseball journey ended how it started, with a called strike. It is only appropriate that it also ended where it all began, in Cincinnati. One hundred forty-five years before Alex, Ben, Kevin, and I attended a day game in late July, professional baseball was in its absolute infancy. Now, the professional game is a multi-billion dollar industry with teams across the globe. Still, no matter how large the game of baseball grows or how astronomical the salaries climb, there is still a special ambiance to a game in the city along the Ohio River.

I suppose the best place to start is the night before. I had been in Indianapolis for two days, staying with Alex. Ben made the relatively arduous five hour trip from Paducah for the weekend and arrived mid-afternoon. Kevin, driving straight from work in northwest Indiana, made it to Indy around ten o'clock. The four of us knocked back a few beers and caught up on life events since we had last seen each other. To my knowledge, the last time we were all together was last season when we traveled to Miller Park. At some point, I managed to grab the prime sleeping position of Alex's couch, and I promptly dozed off. Though there was a pleasant familiarity in the air. Like a kid on Christmas Eve, only dulled by cheap malt liquor. In the morning, we would keep the now two-year tradition of McDonald's breakfast before making our way East. Inevitably, we'd find ourselves at a new ballpark at some point early Saturday afternoon.

Cincinnati is a baseball town with a history that is essentially the marrow to the bone of baseball. Not just the original professional club, but a novel of controversy and triumph. The mere mention of the name Pete Rose sparks a generation of arguments for and against his ban from baseball. There was the six year stretch, early in the Cold War, when the team changed its nickname to the Redlegs to avoid any communist connotation of just being called the Reds. Johnny Vander Meer's back to back no-hitters. The "Big Red Machine" of the early 1970's. Then, of course, the 1975 World Series, which many believe to be the best Series ever played. For me growing up, the Reds were Barry Larkin and the sad part of Ken Griffey Jr.'s career, and not much else. It wasn't until I really dove into their place in baseball history that I grew an interest in the team.

Game day. Saturday morning. We downed our greasy breakfast, filled Kevin's gas tank, and headed onto the highway toward Ohio. Kevin had pre-determined we would listen to R. Kelly's saga/masterpiece Trapped in the Closet on our way there. Little did the rest of us realize, he had the first twenty-two chapters locked and loaded. Jubilant karaoke trailed off to intense attention to plot details as the love-decagon rolled long past an hour. There was even a point we paused the music to discuss what was happening in the story. Just four guys, driving through the Indiana countryside, listening to complex R&B. We were so close to Cincy when Trapped in the Closet ended that we agreed to finish out the trip with a medley of R. Kelly's greatest hits. The plains of Indiana turned quickly to rolling hills and miniature mountains in Ohio. A gorgeous staggered treeline drew back as far as we could see. Clearly, we were far from the familiar flat fields of Northern Indiana. The closer we were to the city, the higher the temperature floated, leading me to make the claim that Cincinnati is always hot and is in fact the hottest city in America. That's likely not true, but it has yet to be proven otherwise to me.

The "First Nine," as they were called, traveled across the country, beating every amateur club they came across. In 1869, there were no advanced scouting techniques. The nation was still cooling from the brutal Civil War. Baseball, old enough to have a past, had never seen a team like the Cincinnati Base Ball Club. In the past few years, I've seen the modern Reds in person five times, but Saturday was the first time as the home team. They're a far cry from their undefeated roots, but still floating around postseason contention. The Reds are a team well steeped in their own tradition, and for good reason. Relics and tributes adorn nearly every inch of the Great American Ballpark complex. The main entrance is built to resemble the famous terrace of Crosley Field, the Reds' home for a large portion of the 20th century. Great American Ballpark is a magnificent shrine to the Queen City's cherished team. The massive, eleven year old stadium is built right along the Ohio River, giving a stunning view from home plate to the hills of Kentucky. The opposite view, from the location of our seats, framed the infield structure with the towers of downtown Cincinnati. There is not a poor seat in the house, and not an inch of the ballpark seems to leave a dull impression. The mock smokestacks in center field, mimicking a riverboat's engine, give GABP a unique local imagery.

Once inside the ballpark, we donned our promotional pillbox caps with attached mustache, resembling Mr. Redlegs, the team mascot. The half lap around the concourse to our seats was full of grand hallways and imagery praising Cincy's rich baseball history. Once we found our seats, the reaction was largely mutual. Sitting in the bleachers on a hot day, a stone's throw away from a river, was not ideal. I was hot, Kevin and Alex agreed. Ben adamantly claimed he was fine, but I have a feeling he too was melting on his metal bench spot. We decided to stay there for the first inning, then walk around to explore the park, though I could barely stand the heat.

The game began the same way the other two had, with a called first strike. From that point on, Johnny Queto of the Reds and Washington starter Gio Gonzalez were nearly unhittable. We had wandered off after the first inning to explore, but the roar behind all nine of Cueto's strikeouts was always reciprocated with the groans that followed Gonzalez's eight. It was a true pitchers' duel. We missed a decent portion of the game in looking around Great American Ballpark. In all honesty, with it being my first time at the park, the game was second in line to taking in the full Reds experience.

We wandered outside of the park, a concept foreign to someone used to going to Chicago baseball games. The food and beer was cheaper on the outside, so we took advantage of that while we could. My mission was to, at some point, acquire a nacho helmet like I had at U.S. Cellular Field, Wrigley Field, and Miller Park. While an adult sized helmet full of nachos sounded great at first, the heat, combined with my unwillingness to spend a large amount of money, shifted my choice to a petite helmet of ice cream. Hey, as long as I got some kind of cliche souvenir, I was fine. As I was standing in line, the crowd broke out in the loudest cheer to that point, which perked my eyes to the adjacent tv screen. Replay is a godsend. All I could see past the glare was that the Reds had scored, so I consulted my phone for a more accurate account. Brayan Pena had punched a single between third base and the shortstop, scoring Chris Heisey from third. Little did we know, that would be the only run of the day. Cueto was in lock-down form, as he has been all season. That's not to say Gonzalez was a pushover. Each pitcher went seven innings, only giving up four hits apiece.

The four of us decided to sit in the upper deck behind home plate for the remainder of the game. It had already been a long day, and it showed particularly on Alex, who was caught dozing off in the eighth inning. It was easy to understand until Aroldis Chapman was sent in with two outs. Chapman, part beloved personality/part freakshow, was greeted with overwhelming applause from the sea of red and white in the stands. As much as I loathe the Reds, I get excited any time I get to see Chapman pitch. Watching the pitch speed monitor is a must, as I've seen him hit 103 miles per hour in person. Every fastball is met with a series of "wow" and "unreal" along with laughter that anyone would endanger themselves by swinging at such things. On to the ninth, Cincinnati up one run, Chapman of course stayed in to finish off the Nationals.

Chapman walked Ian Desmond on six pitches, but was quickly justified when Desmond was caught stealing second base. Bryce Harper, who had been struggling of late, was Chapman's next victim. After Desmond's out, Harper only saw three more pitches. All fastballs. 101, 101, 103. Harper managed to make contact with the first and fouled it away, but took the last two to fall to a called strike three. Wilson Ramos was the last hope for Washington. He, too, would only see four-seam fastballs. First pitch- 103 miles per hour. Swinging strike. Second pitch- an easier 102. Foul tip. Bless his heart. Third pitch- 102 again. He just watched it go by, or at least tried. Called strike three. Game over. The man they call the Cuban Missile did not disappoint. In that moment, I was a Reds fan. I could feel that swelling of pride in the close victory. That feeling would wear off like a child trying to wash cooties from their hands, but that moment was special. The Reds have played nearly twenty thousand games, but this had to be one of the better ones.

Filing out of the park, the main topic of conversation from the point we left our seats to returning to the parking garage was Chapman. Baseball is often repetitive, sometimes redundant, but occasionally breathtaking. Chapman is one such iconic freak with the talent to bring most moments in sports to their knees. Though I've seen him pitch in person before, it never grows old. I feel like he is a player that the next generation will ask us someday old-timers about with wide eyes. I love a great pitchers' duel, and on that day, I got just that from beginning to end. So I suppose the soul of the Major League game is in fact two fold. I experienced both. One one hand, the Major League game is about a day away from the casual life. While each team plays 162 games, there's something truly special about each one that you specifically attend with friends, family, what have you. Its a shared experience, which folds into the second side.

On any given night, the opportunity for history is there. Not just in the sense of a no-hitter or a four home run game, but in the timelessness of seeing a legend at their craft. This is a beautiful game played at its highest level. Baseball is a game with such a vast, sprawling history, that you can connect yourself to the past through experience. Seeing players like Aroldis Chapman or any player dominant in this age, we are witnessing the future history. The greats today will be talked about long after we and they are gone. Professional baseball is always moving forward alongside those of us in the stands, living to tell the tales of those we witnessed. While it will always look forward to the next legend or hyped prospect, professional baseball will always look kindly upon the past, beyond yesterday, beyond last season, but all the way back to when it all began in the summer of 1869 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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