By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer
For 135 springs, the return of baseball has been a cause for celebration in Cincinnati. But Monday, it was the ballpark that turned the day into a memory that will last forever.
From the moment the gates swung open and the first of 42,343 fans filed into the Great American Ball Park, it didn't matter if you were a gray-haired, grizzled veteran whose love of the Reds was ignited in old Crosley Field, or a pint-sized kid in a Ken Griffey Jr. jersey seeing the green grass of a ballfield for the first time.
It was a special sight.
"It's gorgeous,'' said Ken Ledford of Springboro. He led his 10-year-old son Martin up to the railing behind home plate and gazed down at the freshly manicured grass, as the Reds players sprayed batting practice hits around the field. "This is the way baseball is supposed to be.''
It was impressive, too, to a veteran ballplayer who has seen 16 Opening Days come and go, all of them while wearing the uniform of his hometown team.
"This ballpark is beautiful,'' said Reds captain Barry Larkin, an hour before the first official game of the Great American Ball Park era. "There's definitely some character here.''
For the capacity crowd that jammed into the $280 million successor to Riverfront Stadium, the outcome was something of a disappointment - the Reds lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates by a score of 10-1 in a game that saw shaky pitching and impotent offense on the part of the home team.
But the crowd didn't seem to care much. They were intoxicated by the sights, the sounds, the smells of the clean-as-a-whistle ballyard.
In the lower deck, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, sat in Section 118, row BB, seat 1, just to the third base side of home plate. DeWine, a passionate Reds fan from Greene County, has had a share of a Reds season ticket pool since 1973 and has waited for the opening of the new ballpark for a long time.
"This is a fans' ballpark,'' DeWine said. "It has the intimacy of the old-fashioned ballparks with all the conveniences of the new parks, all the stuff that people want these days.''
Standing in line at the Home Run Dogs concession stand, one of 28 spread out around the park, 32-year-old Rick Sebolt of Bridgetown said the new home of the Reds is "way better" than the old circular stadium that used to be next door.
"The food's better, for one thing,'' Sebolt said. "And it's brand new and it already has character."
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For Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, the playing field itself was the attraction.
"It's a total hitters' ballpark,'' Bench told reporters before the game. "There's no foul territory at all. The fans can sit so close to home plate that they'll get perspiration flung on them.
"I'd love to hit in this ballpark,'' the 55-year-old Big Red Machine slugger said. "I wish I was 42 or 43 again.''
5 memorable Opening Day moments:|
Old friends: Tom Browning stopped the Findlay Market Parade shortly after it started to embrace his old boss, former Reds CEO Marge Schott.
Smile for the camera: Former President Bush had his photo taken individually with most of the Reds in the clubhouse before the game, with Reds first baseman Sean Casey serving as unofficial photographer.
A little light: The sun broke through the clouds just in time for the first pitch of the game at 4:11 p.m., a called strike from Reds right-hander Jimmy Haynes to Pittsburgh center fielder Kenny Lofton.
Hometown history: Ken Griffey Jr. recorded the first hit in the new ballpark, a double down the right-field line in the bottom of the first inning.
We'll get 'em next time: Frank Goodwin, part of the ballpark construction team, surveying his handiwork: "I just wish it were a little warmer and the Reds were winning."
Monday's game was not really the first played in the new ballpark; the Cleveland Indians initiated it over the weekend with two exhibition games, both Reds losses.
But that didn't count; Monday did. There is no mistaking Opening Day in Cincinnati.
This year, it had touches of pageantry that went well beyond the usual Opening Day hoopla - not only because it was the first official game in Great American Ball Park, but because it was an Opening Day game played while the nation is at war.
Every fan at the ballpark Monday found a small American flag in his or her seat cup.
As the sun burst through the clouds and the temperature inched up over 50 degrees, the fans had ample opportunity to wave those flags - for New York City's "Singing Policeman,'' Daniel Rodriguez, as he sang the National Anthem while Great American Ball Park construction workers unfurled a giant American flag that covered much of the outfield; for the two C-130 military transport planes from the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing of Mansfield, Ohio, as they rumbled low over the ballpark; and for former President Bush as he strode to the pitcher's mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
The 41st president walked out on to the field with Reds general partner Carl Lindner. It was the second time that the elder Bush had the honor. He tossed out the first pitch 15 years ago when Cincinnati hosted the 1988 All-Star Game.
The former president - a left-handed first baseman for his Yale University baseball team - positioned himself just short of the pitcher's mound and uncorked a floater that sailed over the head of his catcher, Barry Larkin.
Afterwards, he took the microphone and told the crowd that he was standing in for his son, George W. Bush, and said he was "the proudest daddy in the world.''
Magic of Opening Day
Monday was a day that started like Opening Day always does in Cincinnati - with a gathering crowd of red-clad fans lining streets in downtown and Over-the-Rhine for the Findlay Market Parade.
This year, more than 30,000 watched the 84th edition of the annual kick-off to Opening Day that featured a Pete Rose look-alike; several floats by Cincinnati Artworks made of Louisville Slugger baseball bats; and former Reds pitcher Tom Browning, the grand marshal for this year's parade.
Jim and Deborah Koester of Newport showed up on Fountain Square at 8:30 a.m. to stake out a first-rate location for the parade - atop the ledge on the south side of Fountain Square, directly across from the Westin Hotel.
It meant sitting bundled up against the morning chill for about four hours before they saw their first float, but they thought it was worth it. The Koesters didn't have tickets for the game, but they were glad to settle for the pageantry of the Findlay Market parade.
"Today's about the hoopla, the parade, the celebration,'' Koester said. "We'll get to the ballpark sooner or later.''
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