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Grand Slam Ballparks
Kentucky and Ohio: Go for the Venues, Stay for the Games

By Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25, 2003

Cincinnati, Louisville and Lexington -- three of the latest entries in America's new golden era of baseball parks -- are ideally clustered for a three-bagger weekend. Our family did just that last month, driving to Cincinnati for a Saturday-afternoon Reds game, then heading 90 minutes southwest to Louisville the next morning to see the Louisville Bats, and finally going an hour east to Lexington, Ky., for a Monday-night game of the Lexington Legends. The eight-hour drive back to D.C. sped by as we thanked the baseball gods for grouping such fine ballparks into a triple play.

Cincinnati: Great American Ball Park

THE PARK: It's the premiere year for the Great American Ball Park, in the city that hosted baseball's first professional team, the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. The stadium name sounds as if it was created by patriotic ad men, but it's really the $75 million naming opportunity of Great American Insurance, which graciously dropped "Insurance" from the title. The remains of its predecessor, Riverfront Stadium (later Cinergy Field), a 1970 concrete doughnut with plastic grass, are in bulldozed tatters next door. The Big Red Machine won four National League pennants and a world championship there, but by the 1990s, the stadium was damned by fans for lacking the intimacy, genuineness and just plain quirkiness of traditional ballparks, like Cincinnati's beloved Crosley Field.

Any ballpark in Cincinnati has to deal with the big shadow of Crosley, a 1912 park (then called Redland Field) that was squeezed into the angled streets of the city's industrial West End. It hosted the major league's first night game in 1935, two All-Star games and four World Series.

Fans are hoping the new $330 million ballpark will build on that storied history. By August, the Reds' Hall of Fame and a team merchandise shop will be under construction. The Reds have even promised their fans a Rose Garden on the spot where Pete Rose's 4,192nd hit landed on Sept. 11, 1985.

The best feature of the new ballpark is Crosley Terrace, a nostalgic tribute at the main entrance with statues of such Crosley stars as 1950s slugger Ted Kluszewski. Handsome red banners recall Crosley's most historic moments. "Spirit of Baseball," a 50-foot-tall art deco limestone relief of a young fan and three ballplayers, greets fans as they enter the venue. Inside, marble mosaics portray the original nine Cincinnati Red Stockings and the 1975 World Champion Big Red Machine.

Beyond the right centerfield wall, 64-foot-high riverboat-inspired power stacks light up the sky to celebrate home runs, great plays and victories by the Reds. And red is the color throughout, with bright red seats contrasted against the white structural steel.

Great American Ball Park doesn't compete with Camden Yards or San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park, but it's a step forward, with its fine art and real grass.

THE FOOD: The ballpark food is pretty good. Our favorites were the spiced chicken poppins ($5.50), barbecue chicken and fries ($7), pork chop sandwich ($7) and kosher hot dogs ($4.50) at the Fowl Pole (okay, so it's a lame joke). You can get Skyline Chili at the park, but only on the customary tiny hotdogs.

WHERE TO STAY: Downtown hotel rooms are reasonably priced, and you can walk to the ballpark. We stayed at the Westin on Fountain Square (21 E. Fifth St., 888-625-5144, www.westin.com), which has a Reds team store on the first floor and bargain weekend self-parking for $1 per day. Very comfortable doubles, with luxury bed linens and amenities, start at $109. There's also baseball art in the lobby and in the square.

Also on the square is the Netherland Hilton (35 W. Fifth St., 800-HILTONS , www.hilton.com; doubles from $107), an art deco beauty that's on the National Register of Historic Places. Try the breakfast specialty -- pecan French toast with blueberries -- in the Palm Court Restaurant.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: Don't miss beautiful Eden Park, which houses the small, elegant Cincinnati Art Museum (953 Eden Park Dr., 513-721-ARTS, www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org; free). "Out at Home!," an exhibit on the Negro Baseball League, runs till Sept. 21. The park also features a band shell, Playhouse in the Park and the Krohn Conservatory.

Carew Tower (441 Vine St.; $2), the city's original skyscraper, has an observation tower (not handicapped accessible) on the 49th floor. The building is now a downtown shopping mall.

Before the game, walk or drive over the bridge to Newport, Ky., and its well-designed Newport Aquarium (Newport on the Levee, 859-261-7444, www.newportaqua rium.com; $16). The aquarium features a new turtle exhibit, with 23 different species; an open-air shark tank; and a bayou with swarming gators. The new facility has sparked an attractive development of movie theatres and restaurants, and a hopping nightlife.

Louisville: Slugger Field

THE PARK: In the mid-1990s, everything about Louisville baseball was wacky. The minor league team played in a fairgrounds football stadium with an unrealizable seating capacity of 33,500. Worse, in the Bluegrass State, they played on a green plastic surface. You had to drive to Indiana to see the legendary Louisville Slugger bats being made.

Happily, now everything's right. The batmakers moved back to Louisville in 1996. And the Louisville Bats, the Triple A International League affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, are playing their fourth season in a more intimate setting downtown, on the banks of the Ohio River. Best of all, they are playing on some of the most spectacular grass in the game.

Louisville Slugger Field opened in 2000 at a cost of $39 million with a seating capacity of 13,131. An action statue of Pee Wee Reese, the admirable Louisville native and Hall of Famer who courageously supported Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball, stands in front of a red brick 19th-century freight depot handsomely renovated to house ticket sales, historic displays and a pub. Elegant displays tell the history of professional baseball here from the 1876 meetings that launched the National League.

The dark green seats and roof of the ballpark's second level set off the red brick of the historic rail building and several stand-alone concession buildings. Slugger Field has many seating choices for a minor league park. The majority are traditional box seats close to the action at an affordable price. There are also picnic areas just beyond the fence in right field and right centerfield with a view of the downtown. There is a grass berm seating area just beyond the left centerfield fence and bleacher seats above the right field picnic area. Our favorite seats are in the second deck, virtually hanging over the field in a modern-day reincarnation of Detroit's much-loved Tiger Stadium. Fans have a nice perch to snag a foul ball, and there's a great view of the interlocking bridges and highways across and along the Ohio River. Most of these seats are taken by season ticket holders, but the end sections are for sale on a game-by-game basis (ask for upper deck reserved seats).

Minor league baseball is noted for its kid-friendly environment, and Slugger Field is one of the best. There's a playground and a $1 carousel ride. Buddy Bat flaps his wings as the team's energetic mascot and cheerleader. We loved the racing pickle contest, where fans donned elaborate dill, sweet and spear costumes. Older kids might want to test their arms at the speed pitch. And, even in Kentucky, smoking is prohibited in the seating areas.

THE FOOD: There's good food, but not at every stand. We found most of our favorites at the stand just below the large video board beyond the left field fence: roasted corn ($2.50), barbecue sandwich ($4.25), pork chop sandwich ($5.50) and baked potato ($3.75).

A baker peddles very good cookies for $1. There's also a fresh fruit cup ($3.50) and $1.25 slices of watermelon. This is only the second ballpark we've found with fried bologna. (Buffalo's Dunn Tire Park is the other.) For fans of white-bread cuisine, it's $2.50, with onions and cheese.

WHERE TO STAY: We liked the venerable Seelbach Hilton (500 Fourth Ave., 800-333-3399, www .seelbachhilton.com, weekend Web rates $87 double), which has a lobby library and antiques in the rooms.

WHAT ELSE TO DO: A downtown trolley (call 502-585-1234 for routes and schedules) will take you to the ballpark and the Louisville Slugger Museum (800 W. Main St., 502-585-5226, www.slugger.com/museum; $6). The museum is a 10-block walk from the ballpark but is definitely worth the trip. The exhibits are well-done, and you can tour the factory and see the orders and templates for famous players' bats. It's hard to resist not buying a personalized bat.

Downtown can be quiet on weekends, but you'll want to walk historic Fourth Street and see the restored theater palaces. The Palace, Ohio and Kentucky theaters are within a half-block of each other; tours are available at the Palace (625 Fourth Ave., 502-583-4555, www.louisvillepalace.com). Another must-see is the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs (704 Central Ave., 502-637-7097, www .derbymuseum.org; $8), where visitors can pet a former champion, watch exhilarating films of past races and tour Churchill Downs stable and infield.

Lexington: Applebee's Park

THE PARK: In 2001, the Lexington Legends, the Houston Astros' Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, arrived in the sports-crazy town of Lexington, Ky. The Legends play in Applebee's Park, a fine new $13.5 million ballpark that seats 6,033 and has additional room in the standing and grassy areas. The 44th annual South Atlantic League All-Star Game will be played here on June 24.

One of minor league baseball's charms is the architectural diversity that allows the ballparks to reflect local cultures. Applebee's Park has a horse theme that manifests itself in the attractive cupolas atop the grandstand roof and the 90-foot-tall scoreboard beyond center field. Just past the first base grandstand is a handsome horse stable with a cupola that holds corporate and group parties.

The scoreboard clock and large party deck beyond the 16-foot-tall right field fence invoke Cincinnati's Crosley Field. The brick wall foundation of the backstop goes from dugout to dugout, just like Chicago's beloved Wrigley Field.

Bring your lawn chairs and sit in the grassy areas just behind the bullpens down each foul line ($4). Or try to snag a home run ball in this hitters' park by buying a $4 ticket in the bleachers above the eight-foot-tall left field fence. The box seats near the field are a bargain at $7.

Games here are filled with between-innings contests, T-shirt throws and lively music. There's a carousel, batting cage, putting green and speed pitch in the play area beyond the left field foul pole. The Legends' mascot, Big L, is a friendly 19th-century ballplayer with a handlebar mustache. A huge inflatable known as Really Big L sits at the entrance.

THE FOOD: Most of the concession stands are tucked away under the grandstand on the concourse. We liked the choices -- smoked turkey legs ($4.50), brats ($3.50), BBQ pork ($5) and sausage ($3.50) -- at a stand near the ballpark entrance just to the third base side. Glazed nuts are offered by the Almond Guys on the first base side.

WHERE TO STAY: We stayed at the hotel where the visiting teams stay, Ramada Inn & Conference Center (2143 N. Broadway, 800-272-6232, www.ramada.com; $66double), which is not far from the park and has the virtue of thrift. It's more fun to stay at the Radisson Plaza Hotel downtown (369 W. Vine St., 800-333-3333, www.radisson.com), as it's connected to the Rupp Arena and three downtown malls via skywalks. There are nice views of the city, plus it's on the transit authority's weekday trolley stop. Rates from $89.

WHAT TO DO: The highlight of a visit to Lexington is the Kentucky Horse Park (4089 Iron Works Parkway, 800-678-8813, www.imh.org/khp; $9-$19.95), a sprawling equine mecca. Its International Museum of the Horse has a 30-minute film that's impressive, though dated. Man o' War's grave is here. You can walk the stables or pay extra for horse and cart rides. Get a taste of bluegrass country by exploring some of the 1,032 acres of this beautifully maintained horse farm. Admission is about $7 -- higher than usual this summer because of a special "All the Queen's Horses" exhibit on British royal horse traditions.

We also enjoyed a brisk tour of the University of Kentucky (859-257-9000, www.uky.edu), which has a fine new baseball field and walkway banners celebrating its graduates. The innovative Lexington Children's Museum (40 W. Short St., 859-258-3256, www.lexingtonchildrensmuseum.com; $4), in the second floor of the Victorian Square arcade downtown , has seven galleries with clever, well-maintained exhibits.

Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel last wrote for Travel about downtown ballparks.

Details: New Ball Parks

Great American Ball Park, 100 Main St., Cincinnati, 513-765-7400 or 877-647-REDS, www.cincinnatireds.com. Capacity: 42,263. Opened: 2003. Team: Cincinnati Reds. League: National. Tickets: $5-$30, or $50-$225 for premium seats (for ordering ticket info, see above).

Louisville Slugger Field, 401 E. Main St., Louisville, Ky., 502-212-2287, www.batsbaseball.com. Capacity: 13,131. Opened: 2000. Team: Louisville Bats. League: International (Triple A affiliate of Cincinnati Reds). Tickets: $5-$8; 502-361-3100, www.ticketmaster.com.

Applebee's Park, 207 Legends Lane, Lexington, 859-252-4487, www.lexingtonlegends.com. Capacity: 6,033. Opened: 2001. Team: Lexington Legends. League: South Atlantic (Class A affiliate of Houston Astros). Tickets: $1-$15; 859-422-7867, www.ticketreturn.com.

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