More Than The Game

It is already the first of June and just this past weekend was the first visit to Applebee's Park. Actually, that is not entirely true. Attendance was required at the park to watch the Paul Laurence Dunbar Bulldogs beat the Lafayette Generals earlier in the year, but this was the first visit for a Lexington Legends game.

It is odd having only attended the past two season openers and being a big baseball fan. Other sports, however, have pushed back my ability to make it to the ballpark. The Cincinnati Reds opened a new stadium, the Lexington Horsemen have burst onto the scene, a new coaching staff for University of Kentucky football had their spring game, and, of course, the continuing adventures of the UK basketball team. The Legends are no longer the "new" game in town. The novelty that always accompanies a new sport or stadium has worn off as they head into their third season. This year is a big year for the Legends for a number of different reasons.

The past two years, the fans in Lexington have had front row seats to some exciting, winning baseball. The Legends were South Atlantic League champions their first year and in the hunt down to the wire their second year, but this year is a little different. Names we know, such as Ramon German, Jon Topolski, John Buck, and even manager Jimmy Cannon are not here. The reality of Single A baseball is that guys that are good are not around for long. Felix Escalona and Kirk Saarloos, Legends veterans from the first season, are now Major League players. The manager was let go and now Russ Nixon, former Reds manager, is the biggest name on the roster. As of June 1st, the Legends had an overall record of 24-32, were in 7th place in an 8th place division, and 14.5 games out of first place. They are the Vanderbilt football team to the SAL league's Southeastern Conference. So, you might expect the honeymoon to be over, for people to stop driving to the North side to spend their money, and instead find other interests. Well, in what can only be a tribute to Alan Stein and the people that run the Legends, that is not happening.

The Legends have been able to do with Applebee's Park what the Chicago Cubs have done with Wrigley Field. No, they have not turned it into the most beautiful baseball park in the world, a park so beautiful there is nothing to even compare. Imagine if Britney Spears had a cousin who was twice as good looking; that is the only thing comparable to Wrigley. But, what they have managed to do is to turn Applebee's Park into a destination, an event unto itself, the place to be in Lexington during the summer.

How have they done this? Easy, they have something for everyone, and are always coming up with new ideas. On Saturday night, 6,051 fans braved the weather and witnessed the Legends defeat the Greensboro Bats 2-1, a rare occasion of timely hitting and solid pitching from Lexington. The crowd was entertained by the Skydogs, an acrobatic group of mutts-their word not mine-saved from various shelters and taught the tricks of the trade. That night, the highlight of the evening could have been one dog's sprint out to right center to snare a discus. Simply unbelievable. The dogs were available for autographs after the game, and the hordes of kids lined up were a testament to their popularity.

The good times do not stop with the Skydogs. If you go to a Legends game this season, you are guaranteed to be witness to some sort of "Theme Night." It could be Meijer Monday, Twizzler Tuesday, or even Thirsty Thursday. Did I leave out Fly Away Friday? You could see the Zooperstars, personal favorite being Harry Canary, Birdzerk, or even Myron Noodleman, the uber-geek who is just asking for a swift kick in the crotch. There will be Jimmy Buffet Night, Great Balls of Fire, and even return visits by the Skydogs. This year Lexington also hosts the SAL All-Star game, a two-day celebration starting Monday June 23rd in downtown Lexington and continuing on until Tuesday's game.

On a personal note, the best addition to the park this year has to be the Skyline Chili stand. For those unfamiliar, Skyline Chili is the best thing to come to Lexington from Cincinnati since Erik Daniels. They have opened a store in Georgetown, to which directions were provided from the very kind person working the concession stand, and are operating in Applebee's Park on the first base side. The Legends have more food options than your average Morrisson's Cafeteria.

The Legends have exactly one guy batting over .300, take a bow Justin Humphries, and the next leading batter is Ryan Kochen at .250. Not exactly the Murderer's Row of the 1927 Yankees. The pitching staff is also nothing to write home about, or to write anyone about unless you are simply trying to depress them. They were mathematically eliminated from winning their division sometime after game three of the season. OK, actually they were mathematically eliminated this past weekend. A small survey of the fans sitting around me found that hardly any of them realized how bad the Legends record actually was. They did not care. They were just happy to be at the ballpark. So far this season, the Legends are averaging 5,194 fans, second in the league to Lakewood New Jersey with an average of 5,789. This is down a little from last year, but the arrival of the summer and the end of schools means the attendance will jump. They are projected by the league to average 6,215 for the season and if the weather ever cooperates, it should not be a problem. The Legends are cementing themselves in this town as a tradition. When the weather turns warm, the baseball park is the natural place to go. The city can only hope that the season's second half shows a rebound for the home team. Of course, for a lot of people at the game, the only thing that matters is that the beer is cold, the Coney dogs are hot, and that those Skydogs catch those Frisbees. nemorial Day is the first benchmark of the Major League Baseball season. Although only about 50 games of the 162 game season have been played, at this point you start to have an idea of what teams are going to do. The early season surprises, such as the Kansas City Royals start coming back down to earth, and questions about rosters and pitching staffs start to settle into place. The Cincinnati Reds end this Memorial Day with a record of 25-26 and three games behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. The Reds started out the season terribly, but had a hot month of May to reach the .500 mark, and for a few brief days, to climb over it and move within 1 game of the top spot. However, the same old problems that have existed for this team the past couple of seasons continue to hold them back.
The Reds have one major strength. They can hit home runs. They, actually, hit a lot of home runs, leading the National League with 78. Adam Dunn leads the league with 18, Lexington native Austin Kearns has 13, Aaron Boone has 13, and surprise addition from Louisville, Jose Guillen has 10. Of course, the fact they play in one of the smaller ballparks in America, the newly opened Great American Ballpark, helps. The other major positive in the Reds this season is that theywelltheynope that's it. They can hit home runs. That's it, that's your list. What they do not do well, that's a lot longer of a list.
You can start in the dugout, where manager Bob Boone has never been a favorite. Boone has the reputation of a micro-manager; someone who feels he knows so much about baseball that he likes to make moves simply to make moves. This is in contrast to former Reds manager Jack McKeon, who was basically a hands-off guy, but who won. Coincidently, McKeon is now the interim coach of the Florida Marlins, who completed a three game sweep of the Reds over the weekend with a 6-2 victory. This game featured the kind of managerial moves that leave many fans scratching their heads. Ken Griffey Jr., coming off a big injury, and probably at least another 4-6 weeks before his next one, had his best game of the season on Saturday going 4-for-4 with two home runs. So, obviously, Boone sat him on Sunday. He also took out first baseman Sean Casey, he of the .307 batting average, because the Marlins were pitching a tough left-handed pitcher. But he played the human wind machine Dunn, aka Dave Kingman 2003, who hung up an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, and prospect emeritus Wily Mo Pena, whose 0-for-4 Sunday made him 2-for-24 for the year.
If it was not know that Boone was the manager for the Reds, you could make a pretty good argument that former Kentucky football coach Hal Mumme was heading the club. Their defense is not just bad, it is "Mike Major/Hal Mumme" bad. Most people will tell you that winning in the majors requires good pitching and defense. This is what the Atlanta Braves have been doing for the past decade, but someone forgot to give the Reds the memo. Cincinnati has the lowest fielding percentage in the Major Leagues and a league high 54 errors. The next-worst team, the Cubs, have 40 errors. You can combine their shoddy defense with their inability to pitch. If not for the San Diego Padres, the Reds would be the worst pitching staff in the National League. They have the second-worst earned run average at 5.70 and opponents are batting .284 against the Reds. This team for so long has placed a premium on acquiring hitters such as Dunn and Kearns, and others such as Ruben Mateo and Wily Mo Pena that never panned out, over quality young pitching. When so much of your pitching hopes and dreams are tied up in oft-injured Pete Harnisch, who is not healthy and struggling in the minors, you are going to be in trouble.
The strikeouts round out the problems with the Reds. They are the leaders in this category at 437, with Mr. K himself Dunn leading the way at 62 in 158 at bats. In contrast, their pitching staff only has 278 strikeouts. You are not going to win a lot of games when you do not put the ball in play. The home runs are nice, but you have too many games such as Sunday's 6-2 loss where the Marlins starter had a career-high nine strikeouts and not enough of Monday's 7-6 victory over the Atlanta Braves, which featured a grand slam from Dunn and a home run from Guillen.
For the past several years in Cincinnati, the fans have had to listen to General Manager Jim Bowden preach over and over that 2003 was the year they were shooting to be competitive. That was the year with a new stadium and the Reds would put a team on the field that would compete for a division title. Apparently, the idea was to turn the team into the Colorado Rockies; home runs or nothing at all with little to no pitching. The Reds may get hot again and creep towards the top of the division, but they will never be a real threat until they are willing to address their deficiencies on the mound and in their defense. Perhaps it is time to trade Griffey, who has never lived up to the hype that preceded him into the Queen City and who has exhibited a paper thin skin when it comes to any criticism, no matter how small. Trading Griffey, for pitching mind you, not another bat, could bring the young pitching talent the Red so desperately need. Casey is another possibility, since Dunn is somewhat capable of playing first base and does not make as much money, yet, as Casey. The Reds can be exciting. Walk off home runs have come pretty frequently for them this season and sending a ball into the upper decks always draws a crowd. But, until they put an emphasis on winning, and not being entertaining, they will never be consistently competitive. They are a .500 team now, chances are, when the July 4th checkpoint rolls around, they will still be there.