July 11, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder: Baseball in Louisville (a success story)

Every time I go to a Louisville Bats game in our jewelbox of a riverfront stadium, I’m reminded of what a wonderful success story this has been for our community. We can fight forever about bridges and arenas — and probably will — but baseball is something we’ve done right.

It seems impossible that 25 years have passed since the day Dan Ulmer called me to talk about the possibility of the St. Louis Cardinals’ top farm team moving from Springfield, Ill., to Louisville. I was then sports editor of The C-J, Dan the president of the old Citizens bank.

At the time, difficult as it may be to believe now, Louisville had been without minor-league baseball for a decade, mainly because of Lee Corso. Yes, the same Lee Corso who has used ESPN to become college football’s equivalent of Dick Vitale.

As the University of Louisville’s brash young coach, the silver-tongued Corso used his gift of gab to convince the State Fair Board to install artificial turf at Cardinal Stadium. That didn’t sit well with Bill Gardner, who owned the Louisville Colonels, then the top farm team of the Boston Red Sox.

So Gardner moved his franchise to Pawtucket, R.I., where it still lives. As it turned out, he barely beat Corso out of town. After the 1972 season, Corso bolted U of L for the, ah, greener pastures of Bloomington, Ind., leaving Cardinal football to flounder until Howard Schnellenberger came along to save it in 1984.

As I pointed out repeatedly in The C-J, summers without baseball were pretty dreary. Our local TV sports anchors, bless their little cheerleading hearts, tried to fill the void by referring to Cincinnati’s big-league team, which you may recall was pretty decent in the 1970s, as “our Reds.”

But it didn’t work. We needed our own team. Every time I drove past Cardinal Stadium (and Corso’s turf) in the summer, I got depressed. You see, when I was a kid in the 1950s, I belonged to the “Knot Hole Gang,” an organization of kids that regularly went to Colonels’ games at Parkway Field.

I loved Parkway Field. It was almost as cool as Crosley Field in Cincinnati. (Sometime, remind me to tell you about the time my hero, Harry Agganis, gave me a cracked Louisville Slugger just before he was called up to the Red Sox.)
So when Dan Ulmer called, I was ready and willing to do whatever I could to help persuade A. Ray Smith, who owned the Springfield Redbirds, to move his franchise to Louisville.

Smith was one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever known. He was equal parts P.T. Barnum, Col. Tom Parker and Branch Rickey. He was full of himself, not to mention a lot of hot air, and I loved him for it.

Even at the time, I felt a little guilty about what was happening to the baseball fans of Springfield. They felt betrayed by A. Ray, and justifiably so. After all, they had given him a home when his ill-fated move to New Orleans blew up in his face.

I knew it, but I just didn’t care. I wanted Triple-A baseball back in my town, even if it meant screwing the fans in Springfield, so I used my column to crusade for what I thought was in Louisville’s best interests.

It turned out to be one of my most enjoyable experiences in journalism. A. Ray came, A. Ray saw and A. Ray conquered. The long-starved baseball fans of the city went nuts over him and his team. The first year the Redbirds set a minor-league attendance record of 848,648. The next year they became the first minor-league team to go past the million mark.

Now, 25 years later, the Redbirds are the Bats. They belong to the Reds, not the Cardinals. But they’re still providing first-class, affordable, family entertainment. And they’re doing it in a stadium that has done as much to revitalize downtown as it has to create new fans for baseball.

I’ve bought a couple of season tickets for years. For my money, it’s the biggest sports bargain in town. There’s not a bad seat in the house. The hot dogs and fried-baloney sandwiches are exquisite. The ushers are friendly and the restrooms clean.

And the baseball is good. Mark my words, Ray Olmedo will be playing in the big leagues soon. He’s the best fielding shortstop we’ve had in 25 years. I also like some of the young pitchers.

But don’t take my word for it. See you at the park.

Contact the writer at
billyr@leoweekly.com