09/19/2002 4:39 pm ET
Cinergy was perfect fit for Reds
By Chris Haft / MLB.com
The list of outstanding players who represented the Cincinnati Reds during their 33-year tenure in Cinergy Field rolls as smoothly as an extra-base hit up the alley: Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Dave Parker, Eric Davis, Jose Rijo, Barry Larkin.
From this group, the best choice for the franchise's MVP in this span -- Most Valuable Presence -- is Cinergy Field itself.
Known as Riverfront Stadium until corporate sponsorship effected a name change in 1996, Cinergy Field hastened the franchise's revitalization. Those truly great "Big Red Machine" teams of the 1970s would have made Cincinnati a success on the field and at the gate no matter where they played. But after 58 years at cozy yet antiquated Crosley Field, the Reds found a home that catered not only to their fans but also to their ballclub.
"If you apply its historical importance of what it means to the franchise, I think it would probably stand front and center," said Marty Brennaman, the team's play-by-play announcer since 1974.
Cinergy/Riverfront, which the Reds will close with a three-game series this weekend against the Philadelphia Phillies, is among the last surviving multipurpose stadiums built in the late 1960s and early '70s to accommodate football and baseball teams. Thus, it lacks the beauty and charm of older parks such as Boston's Fenway Park or Chicago's Wrigley Field, and it's almost wholly devoid of the creature comforts found at Baltimore's Camden Yards and its offspring of the past 10 years.
Deemed inadequate by contemporary standards -- without the intimacy fans want or the complement of luxury boxes needed to enhance profits -- Cinergy had to go. The Reds will begin next season in Great American Ball Park, which looms beyond Cinergy's left-field area and should dwarf its potential to generate revenue.
Yet Cinergy -- "I know it as Riverfront," Ken Griffey Sr. said firmly -- will endure in one major respect.
Its legacy is the Big Red Machine -- particularly the 1975-76 world championship teams, generally considered to be among the greatest of all-time.
"The Big Red Machine -- they built it," said an admiring Lenny Harris, the Milwaukee Brewers utilityman who began his professional career with the Reds.
Manager Sparky Anderson's Reds capitalized on the stadium's traits that purists would come to regard as sterile. The artificial turf encouraged speed and gap-to-gap, line-drive hitting that would produce doubles, triples and high-bouncing infield hits. It was a place where the likes of Morgan, Rose and Griffey Sr. could thrive. Defensively, range and instant acceleration were demanded from infielders and outfielders alike.
"It was just a quicker game," said Griffey, now a Reds senior advisor. "Seven or eight teams had AstroTurf, so you had to play a different game altogether."
Riverfront's comfortable hitting background and the tendency for balls to carry farther there, particularly in warm weather, also encouraged the Reds' sluggers. Hitters such as Morgan and George Foster embodied the combination of quickness and power that helped Cincinnati dominate the National League in the mid-1970s.
Cincinnati pitching coach Don Gullett, a top left-hander in the Big Red Machine era, recalled the universally shared concerns of pitchers working at Riverfront.
"You were always worried about giving up the long ball and especially the ball driven in the gap, so automatically you were going to try to keep the ball down," Gullett said.
The blend of legs and lumber enabled Cincinnati to lead the league in runs scored (840) and stolen bases (168) in 1975. One year later, the Reds were even better. They topped the NL in average (.280), runs (857), doubles (271), triples (63), home runs (141) and steals (210).
Cinergy also cemented Cincinnati's reputation as a baseball town.
Remarkably, professional baseball's oldest franchise exceeded the one-million attendance mark only four times before 1970. Then, presented with a stadium that was state-of-the-art for its time, they drew 1.8 million in 1970, despite playing only 45 games at Riverfront. Attendance in 1971, the Reds' first full year at Riverfront, was 1.5 million, a healthy number for that era.
The Reds helped accelerate baseball's renaissance in the 1970s and early '80s by drawing more than two million fans per season from 1973-80 -- astronomical numbers, given the relatively small population base of about two million in Cincinnati's metropolitan area. Here's where Riverfront's artificial turf provided an assist. Because moisture could drain or be removed from the playing surface so easily, the Reds went six entire seasons, 1972-77, without a postponement due to bad weather. With the assurance that scheduled games would be played, fans flocked to Riverfront from throughout a wide radius encompassing Indiana, West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as Ohio.
Entering Cinergy/Riverfront's final weekend, average per-game attendance for the 2,481 games played there is a respectable 26,010.
Dean Cox, who has worked more games than any other usher at Cinergy/Riverfront, probably knows the typical Reds fan better than anyone.
"They come often enough to see good games and bad games," said Cox, who began ushering at Crosley Field in May, 1952. "And they're always optimistic and loyal."
Cincinnati's tradition of throwing a city-wide party on Opening Day, distinguished primarily by the Findlay Market Parade through downtown, deepened with the club's move to Cinergy, particularly after Marge Schott became the team's principal owner in 1985.
"There's nothing like it," said Harris, a Red from 1988-89 and 1994-98. "You've got elephants walking around; you've got clowns on stilts. You never experience anything like that at a ballpark. But Marge, she laid it all down. When she threw a party, she really threw one. And Opening Day was one of her biggest parties."
Riverfront/Cinergy also served as the stage for some of baseball's biggest moments and most dynamic performers, excluding the Big Red Machine: Henry Aaron's record-tying 714th home run in 1974, Pete Rose's record-breaking 4,192nd hit in 1985, Tom Browning's perfect game in 1988, the all-around excellence of Davis and Larkin, the world championship 1990 team that led the NL West wire-to-wire after entering the season as a decided underdog, and the ongoing saga of Ken Griffey Jr., the All-Century Team outfielder who joined the Reds in a celebrated trade on Feb. 10, 2000.
This is the same Griffey who, as a youth, would romp through the Reds' clubhouse while his dad was starring on the field.
"You start off with running into Sparky's office, because he had the only red pop," said Griffey Jr., recalling his usual Riverfront routine. "Once the game starts, you watch the first three or four innings, then go downstairs (to the clubhouse). That's when kids were allowed to run in there and grab what they wanted -- gloves, gum, whatever. We'd grab pop and run back out (in the tunnel) and play catch."
Griffey paused before adding, "Everything looked so darned big when you were little. Now you walk in and you say, 'Darn, this place is small.' "
Perhaps. But Cinergy Field, Riverfront Stadium, or whatever people prefer to call it was large enough to handle the ever-expanding accumulation of great moments and memorable individuals through the decades.
"The association with some of the great people I've had in this game are in this ballpark," said former Reds outfielder Dave Collins, now a Milwaukee Brewers coach. "Even though it will no longer be there, the memories will always be there. And you can't take those away."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.