Kevin J. Elliott
My Mike DeWine story is short.
My family and I traveled to Cooperstown in 2012 to induct Cincinnati Red Shortstop Barry Larkin into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For those of you looking for a quaint summer vacation, the tiny village of west New York is the Mecca of sport. In addition to the world-class and extensive Hall of Fame and museum, all of the shops, charming restaurants and accommodations cater to the dedicated fans of the American pastime. But that’s the problem with baseball. Once obsessed, there is no going back.
My dad loved the game. Though I wasn’t good, he and my uncle were heroes in their day. Regardless, I got into the nuance, subtleties, and meditative quality of playing in the middle of summer, as well as the stats and exercises that made you a good player. My dad got my brothers and me into the Hall of Fame on an East Coast road trip in the ’80s, and the later 2012 trip brought back huge waves of nostalgia. There are really few places in America as good as Cooperstown.
Anyway, back to DeWine. In the crowded streets on the Saturday before Larkin’s ceremony, where the former Hall of Famers sells autographs for big sums and those without a lot of money can still shake hands with the big ones (I met Pete Rose at 7 a.m. on an empty main street), DeWine The then Ohio Attorney General was traveling alone, wearing Red’s gear, and conforming to the other Redleg fans. My mother recognized him immediately. It was from where we came from. She is eager to talk to strangers, always has been and has recorded a conversation. He was all there alone. A big Larkin fan. We told him we were Ohioans from the Miami Valley and he beamed with pride. Despite my radically liberal tendencies, I felt connected in that moment.
Fast forward to where DeWine and I have only ONE thing in common: We can’t wait to go to a baseball game again. While the governor has caught hell on both sides of the Ganges year-round, his decision to safely allow stadiums to return has received widespread praise.
For me, the opening day at the Great American Ballpark (and in front of that Riverfront Stadium) in Cincinnati on the banks of the mighty Ohio River is the religious holiday that charges me every year. Before the pandemic, I had visited 13 in a row. I’ve always used it as my “personal tag”. Although the Reds had fans for this year’s stormy and tragic loss, they were only season ticket holders. Instead, I drove down to the stadium the next day. Even when empty, these baseball-dedicated colossi are a special kind of magic. And like Cooperstown, the Reds Hall of Fame and museum next to the park is a Smithsonian-worthy display of baseball history.
Along with Cooperstown, Cincinnati is the center of the baseball universe. The 1869 Red Stockings became the first professional team to win all of their games and this first championship. They hosted the first night game at old Crosley Field in 1935. They played in the first television game in 1939 and (reluctantly) played on artificial turf in 1970. The museum’s compact yet effective display of memorabilia is testament to this legacy. It all ends with the celebration of the team’s four major championship trophies – including the controversial 1919 victory over the “fraudulent” Chicago White Sox. More than 100 years later, and while it’s been 30 years since the Reds pitched a World Series winner, it’s hard to diminish the importance of Cincinnati baseball. If you can’t drive to Cooperstown, a quick ride on I-71 is an equally enlightening experience.
But we live in Columbus, where roughly half, if not more, the population is dedicated to the Cleveland team. Unfortunately, the Cleveland franchise has nothing like Cincinnati. However, I discovered that in 2006 a small group was preserving the former location of League Park (where the spiders started and the Negro League Cleveland Buckeyes won a World Series in 1945) on the middle eastern side of town and established the baseball local history museum. Now the corner is a revitalized field for youth leagues and exhibition games. When I visited the museum last weekend, I found that, despite its overwhelming size, the curators have packed it full of the same bits and pieces and interesting anecdotes that make museums so fascinating.
In addition to celebrating the history of Cleveland’s pro team, the museum focuses on the region’s connections with these Negro League teams, as well as the Latin teams, women’s leagues, Indian teams, and even the Sandlot Conglomerates. These are stories that have long been ignored despite major league baseball taking progressive initiatives to bring them to light and fully recognize these forever marginalized talent. Right next to the Babe Ruth homerun ball salvaged from the streets outside League Park is a huge tribute to the dazzling satchel Paige – arguably the greatest pitcher who ever played the game – who was made famous in 1941 in front of 10,000 spectators has been.
While Chris Sabo’s 1990 prescription goggles or a weathered seat at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium could now mean a day of fun for laypeople, for those who want more action on their travels, there is little that can match a day at the stadium. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, distance in your pods, and soon you will be enjoying the outdoors, under the light or the summer sun, with an overpriced beer, hot dog and scorecard in hand.
The Clippers will have real fans in the stands tomorrow (Friday, April 16). And to our advantage, Huntington Park is one of the best small league baseball venues in the country. But here, too, as Ohioans, we are blessed with a state that treats baseball as a cultural touchstone.
Planning a trip to a baseball game is certainly an obligation, but it can also serve as a gateway to discovering the local color of many of our great cities. All Ohio minor league teams will have active fixtures and great parks to enjoy these games as of May. For the service of this column, I recommend buying some cheap seats to see the Dayton Dragons, Toledo Mudhens, Akron Rubber Ducks, Mahoning Valley Scrappers (who welcome manager Coco Crisp this season) and make your day happen this game. Explore the sights, museums, and food that make this city thrive. It’s out there.
Hell, I could even give you tips on how to visit Chillicothe to see the Prospect League’s famous college team, the Paints (they can still use aluminum bats) and I can guarantee you are having a good time will have.