Posted: 9:26 a.m. Wednesday, June 5, 2013
By Mike Rutherford
Near the beginning of his brilliant documentary Baseball, Ken Burns speaks about the mythic contradictions present in the sport of his focus. Perhaps it is these same inherent ironies that have always made baseball and the city of Louisville so compatible.
A city with both Southern and Northern roots that is technically considered Midwestern, and a highly engaging democratic sport that tolerates cheating. A slightly blue city in an overwhelmingly red state, and a profoundly conservative game that has often proven to be years ahead of its time.
Though now synonymous with basketball and horse racing, there was a time - of which we aren't all that (relatively) removed - when America's pastime was king in these parts.
One of the first Major League Baseball cities in America, Louisville's Colonels played in the American Association from 1882-1891. The club won the pennant in 1890 and went on to play in an early version of the World Series where they tied the Brooklyn Bridegrooms three games apiece.
Though irrelevant in the broad scheme of things, and absurd because it ended in a tie, the series is historically important because legend has it that during one of these games Colonels star Pete Browning used a bat made by young Bud Hillerich at his father's woodworking shop. This first bat would eventually evolve into the Louisville Slugger brand that would dominate the game at every level.
The greatest Louisvillian of all, Muhammad Ali, exuded courage throughout his career, but one of the most noble acts in the history of sport occurred in the summer of 1947 when universally respected Dodger captain - and Louisville native - Pee Wee Reese walked outside of his dugout and draped his arm around a rookie named Jackie Robinson who was being given a particularly hard time by the home crowd in Cincinnati.
Though he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, it was this act - as well as his refusal to sign a petition started by Dodger players during Spring Training in '47 that said they would boycott the season if Robinson was brought up - more than anything he did on the field that made him one of the most revered men in the history of baseball.
Of course times have changed and modern Louisville has become less receptive to the sport than it once was.
Being a baseball fan requires commitment, and watching a game on television demands heightened levels of attention and involvement that few modern Americans are willing to surrender. In an age where one-line quips are far preferred to lengthy statements that actually address issues, it's no wonder that high-action, low-involvement sports like football and basketball are thriving while baseball worshipers continue to convert or denounce the religion entirely.
Still, there's something special about the glorious game of ball and its relationship with Louisville, something that anyone who's dedicated a solid chunk of their life to the sport could tell you about.
I've experienced few joys in my life that can compare with taking the mound under the lights in front of a packed crowd at Derby City Field, or stepping into the batter's box at beautiful Louisville Slugger Field (where someone, I'm not gonna say who, still owns the highest all-time batting average). Even taking the field at some of the best high school parks in the state - PRP, Ballard, Eastern, Male - was a pleasure that plenty of folks who grew up around this area can relate to.
And even though Louisvillians are unable to play year-round like the boys down South or out on the Left Coast, the brand of ball being played in the city is typically very high. Just look at the notable players the area has sent on to the professional ranks, or the guys from local high schools who have played major roles in U of L's recent ascent to national prominence.
And of course that's the reason all this talk is relevant; Dan McDonnell's Louisville Cardinals have once again put baseball on this city's center stage after claiming an NCAA Tournament regional title last weekend.
The excitement over the hard-hitting, smooth-fielding breed of Cardinals is still in its early stages, but its also perpetually blossoming. Many people wondered aloud whether Louisville baseball was just a flash in the proverbial plan after the Cards' incredible run to the College World Series in 2007, but the team has continued to win big, and the fan support and fan interest has grown alongside it accordingly.
U of L athletic office workers basking in what was supposed to be a stress-free summer were bombarded with calls last week from folks who had put away their lucky red and white garb for the year, but were now trying to make sure that they would be able to see with their own eyes what all this fuss in early summer is about. Father-and-son duos who thought snagging a pair of tickets at the gate wouldn't be an issue were treated to a solemn walk back to the parking lot.
Despite starting the season with the highest ranking in program history and spending the bulk of the year justifying that status, the Cards now face perhaps the toughest task of the McDonnell era: traveling to Nashville to try and take two of three from second-seeded Vanderbilt inside a stadium where Louisville has never won.
In an academic year where U of L has had more athletic success in a handful of months than most programs have had in their history, this is the final act. Louisville's boys of summer have the city's attention, as well as a chance to make their own history.