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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.