Louisville, Kentucky: A truly old school baseball town

Louisville Slugger Field on a hot Sunday evening

Nestled comfortably on the shores of the Ohio River, Louisville, Kentucky is an enigma of sorts. It’s one part southern, and one part midwestern, but the mixed identity has done nothing to strip the soul out of this treasure of a town. Most associate Louisville with the Kentucky Derby and the horse racing industry; personally, I associate it with a significant part of my childhood. Another part of Louisville that most seldom consider is its importance in the history of baseball. Louisville is one of the oldest professional baseball towns in the United States, and it’s name alone is synonymous with a crucial part of the game (if it takes you more than 3.625 seconds to figure this out, perhaps baseball isn’t your thing.) With that in mind, the final leg of this brief part of the RFTHT tour discovered what Louisville has to offer for baseball fans. From the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory and Louisville Slugger Field home of the Louisville Bats (get it?) it’s a solid baseball town that doesn’t ignore it’s lengthy history in the game and I wanted to see firsthand just what the River City had to offer.

As I mentioned, only old school baseball fans are aware that Louisville used to be a big Major League town during the late 1800s. It’s how the Louisville Slugger was born, but sadly, the city just isn’t large enough to support the MLB-type teams it did when professional baseball was in its infancy. Since the early 1980s however, Louisville has been a permanent home to AAA baseball (the Louisville Colonels, another AAA team, played ball there from 1901 until 1972). The Redbirds called Louisville home until 1999 when they flew south to Memphis and the Riverbats replaced them as Louisville’s home team. After a name change (just the Bats), affiliation change (Cardinals to Brewers to Reds), and a beautiful new home at Louisville Slugger Field, the city once again has a top notch franchise to keep its history strong.

Does Louisville live up to its baseball history or is it all a bunch of hype? Let’s see how Louisville fares as a baseball town in America! 

The Stadium/Surrounding Area

Louisville Slugger Field opened in 2000 to replace the decrepit Cardinal Stadium that was home to the Redbirds and University of Louisville football team. It was a drab stadium that featured old school astroturf and a rather disconnected feel. For quite a while, the old Cardinal Stadium was my sole access to professional baseball, and boy did the city of Louisville ensure that the memories of that field remained memories. Louisville Slugger Field, appropriately named for the baseball bats made just down the street, is a gorgeous facility that comfortably seats 14,000 and has held the International League attendance title every year that it’s been open. The facade is a very old school looking brick, with beautiful arches leading you into the park. The main concourse, which provides access to an overwhelming majority of the seats, features plenty of wonderful concessions (including some really fantastic homemade lemonade), a team store, and even an indoor kids area that doubles as an event space during the offseason and during away games. (Note: I went to junior prom at Slugger Field and it’s a fantastic place to hold an event.)

Slugger Field is a big park and I mentioned earlier, it holds a whopping 14,000 fans. If there’s one drawback to this, it’s the fact that games can look sparsely attended because the park is so big. Entire sections remained empty for a Sunday evening game on Memorial Day weekend. Heck, they even had a decent fireworks show after the game. When I bought my ticket, I asked to sit where there was some empty space because I had friends meeting up with me during the later innings. I figured I’d have a few seats to myself, not the 4-5 empty rows around me. However, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve been to MLB and other MiLB games where the percentage of seats filled was still far less than the fans at Slugger Field on Sunday.

Overall, the park is great and if you’re in town and the Bats happen to be playing, stop by and catch a game. There isn’t a bad seat in the house (generally true with MiLB parks) and there’s a good bet you’ll see some decent baseball at the AAA level.

The area around the stadium is a bit interesting, and isn’t nearly as loaded with the commercial development you see with many other modern parks. Slugger Field was built a time when the city of Louisville was committed to redeveloping much of their downtown area around the Ohio River. The city built massive parks, better known as Waterfront Park which holds festivals, and most importantly to Louisvillians, Thunder Over Louisville. Slugger Field was part of this redevelopment, so the stadium is within walking distance of Waterfront Park and all of the fun it has to offer. It’s also within a few blocks of the brand new KFC Yum! Center, home of the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, and a large number of terrible concerts. (Nickelback was in town…) If you’re looking for an active restaurant and bar scene, there isn’t much in the immediate area and requires some walking or driving from the park. Unlike say, Chattanooga which has done a fabulous job developing the blocks immediately around AT&T Field, Louisville’s big nightlife scene is a bit of a hike from the park. It’s not to say that it’s a miniature Turner Field, trapped in a vast wasteland of concrete deserts and dilapidated buildings, but you’ll need to do some walking.

Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

Another key component of the area surrounding Slugger Field is its namesake, the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. Comfortably positioned about 9 blocks west from the park, the Hillerich & Bradsby Company has constructed a state-of-the-art museum and factory to delight baseball fans of all ages. Home to the world’s largest baseball bat, the museum and factory offers a fascinating look at one of baseball’s most noticeable and legendary companies. If you’re in town to see a Bats game, or just happen to have some free time, you owe it to yourself to check out the Museum. Not only to get you to tour the factory (sorry, no pictures were allowed) but you get to see some of the most historic bats used in the game. As soon as you enter the museum, a glass case proudly displays Babe Ruth’s bat from the 1929 season when he carved a little notch on the bat every time he hit a home run. It’ll give you goosebumps to be that close to baseball history. There are plenty of wonderful displays, stories about the company’s history (and baseball’s) that it’ll keep you occupied and entertained for quite a while. Combine that with the wonderful 30 minute tour of the actual factory and baseball fans are in hog heaven. You’re within inches of the actual bats that at some point will be used on field in an MLB game. (One of the machines was cranking out bats for Derek Jeter while I was there.)

Behold the Babe’s sacred bat from 1929

It’s a great experience and really completes the tour of a really neat baseball town.

The Game

To preface this section, let me say this, the Bats aren’t very good. In fact, they stink this year. They’re 18 games under .500 and already 13 games out of first place. My luck, they happened to be playing the first place Indianapolis Indians over Memorial Day weekend. That’s not to say that the Indians are the runaway best team in the International League, in fact they’re only 7 games over .500 and are the only team with a winning record in their division. Sunday’s game was a perfect example of why the Bats are mired in last place, struggling to rebuild themselves after big time players like Joey Votto broke out and became superstars for the Reds.

The first few innings were nothing short of great and featured strong starts from both starting pitchers. The only run that crossed home during the first six innings was a solo home run from the Bats’ Neftali Soto, giving them a lead that you knew couldn’t last. The Indians tied the game in 7th, but the Bats came roaring back scoring 3 more in the bottom of the 7th giving the home team a 4-1 lead. The home crowd was elated. They’re struggling team had given themselves a 3 run lead with only 2 innings left to play. Perhaps the Bats would win the game and split the series with the division leaders.

Oh, how the baseball gods can be so cruel!

The Indians chipped away at the lead in the 8th, scoring a run and making it a 4-2 lead. It was a nail biter, sure, but a 2 run lead is better than not having one headed into the 9th inning. That’s when all hell broke loose for the struggling Bats. After a leadoff walk to start the 9th, Bats pitcher Carlos Fisher gave up a towering 2 run home run to the Indians’ Jordy Mercer. The save was blown, and the Bats needed to figure out a way to get out of the inning with the game tied to give them a shot at winning the game.

The pain would not be over, and not be a long shot.

After giving up the home run, Fisher was replaced in a futile effort to keep the game tied. Pitcher Travis Webb apparently had other ideas. He loaded the bases with still nobody out and suddenly all were quiet at Slugger Field. Indianapolis right fielder Alex Presley hit a little dribbler, but the Bats bobbled the ball, allowing a runner to score. Suddenly, the Indians led the game, 5-4. Bases were still loaded and the Bats had yet to record an out in this disaster of an inning. With Webb unable to record an out, Josh Judy came on in relief to try and get the Bats out of jam. He accomplished one thing, and one thing only, clearing the bases.

The Bats gave up 7 runs in the 9th, including a 2-run HR and a grand slam. Ouch.

It was long, it was deep, and it was high. The 8,100 plus at Slugger Field got on their feet and watched the ball fly. They knew what had happened and simply slunk down in their chairs. Sterling Marte crushed a grand slam over the left field wall and a 4-2 lead, that quickly became a 4-4 tie, then a 5-4 deficit was now a 9-4 disaster.  Seven runs crossed home plate in the top of the 9th as the home team watched their 2 run lead shrink to nothing in a matter of minutes. It explained why the Bats are stuck in last place, a whopping 18 games under .500 and how it’s going to take a miracle (and some smart draft choices by the Reds) for this team to pick itself back up again. The Bats looked futile in the bottom of the 9th, going 1-2-3 and ending the game.

The final score was 9-4, the Bats and their fans looked dejected and I had just witnessed yet another loss on this RFTHT tour. Click here for the box score.

At least there were fireworks…

Oh, also, it should be noted that one of the umpires blew a call. Big time. Willie Harris clearly hit a home run over the left field wall which bounced onto the grass and came back onto the field of play. The ump–who clearly wasn’t watching the ball–called it a ground rule double. Boisterous boos and arguments with coaches didn’t change his mind. He shrugged his shoulders and the game continued. Hey Blue, this is why you’re umping a AAA game and not up there with the big boys yet. Also, get your eyes examined.

Final Thoughts & Overall Experience

Despite the futility that is the Louisville Bats in this 2012 campaign, I had a great time. Louisville is a great baseball town, and having two of my oldest friends with me at the game only added to the fun. The fans are passionate, love their local team (with all of those consecutive attendance titles, they must), and continue to root for them regardless of their record. In my neck of the woods, the Gwinnett Braves would kill to have 8,177 fans show up to any game, and yet the Bats seem to do it with consistency. Combine the Bats with the Louisville Slugger Museum and you have a winning combination that baseball fans can love.

Do I recommend  making a trip to Louisville exclusively to see baseball? Perhaps not. If you happen to be in town and are a baseball fan, then by all means, get off your butt and head to Slugger Field and subsequently check out the Slugger Museum. It’s a great one-two punch for someone that happens to be there. The city could do a better job developing the buildings immediately surrounding the stadium, and perhaps keeping the restaurants and bars a few blocks away was intentional. It keeps you in the stadium, which even featured a merry-go-round for the kiddies and had plenty to do, but some folks do enjoy a pre-game or post-game meal or beverage at a local watering hole. Having them directly across the street from a park is always nice, and it’s one thing that Louisville’s seems to lack. However, the city is great and even if it requires a walk around the city to find some nightlife after a game, there’s still plenty to do and Louisville is a damn fine town. Heck, I drove from the suburbs of East Louisville all the way downtown on a scenic byway along the Ohio River and ended my trip directly in front of the park. Not many baseball teams can offer their fans a similar ride to the park.

Oh, brief side note. While in town, I became addicted to a local coffee shop called Vint. It kept me fueled for 5 days and they need to expand down to Georgia. Just sayin’…

I’ll leave you with a quote from the great Honus Wagner on baseball in Louisville.

“There was never a town like Louisville for being rough on the umpire. I remember when the bleachers didn’t like a decision, men would get out their guns and shoot them in the air.” 

Thanks for the memories Louisville Slugger Field!

Final Grade: B+ for the game A- if you factor in the Louisville Slugger Museum

What’s Next?

As of this moment, only Atlanta Braves games are scheduled, but we’ll be continuing our travels throughout the 2012 season. The Gwinnett Braves are on the list, and we’ll be heading there at some point in the coming weeks. I also expect us to check out the Augusta Green Jackets, Savannah Sand Gnats, and a return trip to Montgomery to actually see a Biscuits game, in the very near future.

Thanks for reading and again, if you want to keep up with all of our journeys, visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

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