Baseball’s first professional team, our very own Cincinnati Reds, are gearing up to celebrate their 150th season this summer. That alone is a reason to rally, for sure. But beyond that commemoration, there is a lot more that has local baseball fans buzzing.
First and foremost, the team has made a serious effort to attract a number of promising players, positioning the Reds as a worthy contender in a notoriously competitive division — the National League Central — which has archrivals like the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
Is a championship likely this go-round? Some major position acquisitions have made waves during the offseason, and they’ve ignited a renewed enthusiasm in Reds fans.
But it might be best to take a deep breath before making plans to host a World Series party in late October. Not everyone is convinced that the Reds are championship-worthy — at least, not yet.
Sports site Bleacher Report predicts that the team will earn an 81-81 record. That’s still a marked increase over last year, when they finished last in the division with just 67 wins and a hefty 95 losses; it was their fourth season in a row to finish as the division’s last-place team. MLB.com columnist Will Leitch went on record acknowledging “the Reds are interesting this year … at last.” But, Leitch adds, “interesting might only be good enough for fourth place in the NL Central. And maybe even not that.” USA Today concludes “the division is just too strong for the Reds to overcome a weak pitching staff.”
But Cincinnati has surprised critics before. And there’s a lot to fight for this year. The big moves by management have made an impression for the devoted hopeful — even singer/songwriter Darius Rucker, best known for leading the popular ’90s band Hootie & the Blowfish and a known Reds booster, tweeted what he called a “crazy sports prediction” in late January. Rucker said the Reds are headed to the World Series, which would be the team’s first since 1990, when — despite the vast majority of critics giving them zero chance — they swept the Oakland As to win the championship.
The organization offered a brief but confident reply to Rucker’s optimistic tweet: “Wouldn’t be *that* crazy.”
It’s been five years since the Reds made the playoffs. That was in 2013, when the Pittsburgh Pirates bested the hometown squad in a National League Wild Card Game. Perhaps apt for a gang that’s out to reclaim its past glory, the Reds take on the Pirates in its March 28 season opener at Great American Ball Park. Former Reds power player and Hall of Famer Eric Davis is slated to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, with none other than “Big Red Machine” catcher Johnny Bench receiving.
And, with that, baseball begins anew in Cincinnati.
Upping the Ante
The Cincinnati Reds’ front office personnel — folks like President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams and General Manager Nick Krall — has been busy assembling a lineup of players that’s hard to ignore. The effort to bolster the roster surprised a number of sports pundits, and management has dropped more money to draw fresh talent. Team payroll this year is estimated by payroll-tracker Spotrac to be around $116 million, up from around $100 million last year and believed to be the highest ever for the Reds (though still about $10 million under the MLB average).
“What Dick Williams and his people did… has energized what we like to refer to as ‘Reds Country,’ ” Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman said of the upcoming season during a recent press conference. “They’ve made major inroads to start down the path to get the club back to the way it once was.”
Most notably, it was a considerable trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers that raised eyebrows. That’s the one that brought the Reds a couple names you’ll hear a lot about this year — pitcher Alex Wood and outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig. To make that happen, the Reds gave up veteran pitcher Homer Bailey (who was coming off of a considerable dry spell), plus young players Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray.
That one move — trading Bailey — would have been enough to pique the curiosity of even casual fans.
Then the Reds called up the New York Yankees to acquire powerhouse pitcher Sonny Gray and minor league pitcher Reiver Sanmartin. Here in the Queen City, Gray will be reunited with his old pitching coach, Derek Johnson; that duo builds on a strong connection they already have from Gray’s formative years at Vanderbilt, where Johnson advised his direction.
The Reds will also have a fresh — but familiar — face managing the team’s 2019 campaign. In October last year, David Bell was hired as the 63rd manager in the club’s storied history. The 46-year-old Cincinnati native played high school ball at Moeller, then had a 12-year career in the majors before beginning his coaching career as manager of the Reds’ Double-A affiliate. Bell is the grandson of Reds all-star outfielder Gus Bell and the son of another one-time Red (and current vice president and senior advisor to the general manager for the team), Buddy Bell.
Looking to the new season, like most fans, game day DJ and fill-in PA announcer Aaron Sharpe is optimistic. “This year, in particular, the team is full of so much promise. Ownership went all in during the off-season,” he says. “Some have put them right behind the Phillies and the Yankees in terms of the most improved projections in the off-season. We have a great shot at the playoffs this year.”
Overshadowing the season for some Cincinnati fans was the passing of Reds legend Frank Robinson and the announcement that longtime radio announcer Marty Brennaman was retiring.
Now 76 years old, 2019 will be Brennaman’s final season in the booth — his 46th with the Reds. Widely known as “the voice of the Reds,” Brennaman joined the Reds organization in 1974. In the first inning of his very first Reds game, the beloved broadcaster called a historic moment: Hank Aaron’s 714th career home run, which tied Aaron for the all-time record with Babe Ruth.
Any local who has twisted a radio dial to catch up on Reds action likely finds it hard to imagine the team’s play-by-play without Brennaman’s enthusiastic commentary. Listening to games on WLW this year will be especially bittersweet for a devoted following that’s beyond saddened. Baseball fan or not, Brennaman has had perhaps the most recognizable voice in Cincinnati for nearly half a century.
Brennaman made the announcement of his retirement at a press conference on Jan. 16.
“It’s something I’ve thought about a long time; it’s something I’ve anguished over,” Brennaman said. “Nobody loves to do their job more than I do. I love to broadcast baseball, I’ve worked for wonderful people that have been awfully good to me.”
In his time with the Reds, Brennaman has covered three World Series championships and Pete Rose’s journey to becoming MLB’s all-time leader in hits. He was there telling us about Tom Browning’s perfect game as it happened in 1988. He provided commentary for Tom Seaver’s no-hitter in 1978. He called Rose’s record-breaking hit on Sept. 11, 1985. And he was there to broadcast Ken Griffey Jr.’s 500th and 600th career home runs in 2004 and 2008. Brennaman received the Ford C. Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.
“Now is the right time,” Brennaman continued. “We’re in a business where, if we’re healthy and we don’t make the people we work for mad, and they continue to like your work, and the fans like your work, you can work as long as you want to. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a curse.”
The local icon said he isn’t completely riding off into the sunset, though.
“This is the right time for me to walk away from the broadcasting end of this business,” Brennaman said. “I’m gonna be around, I’m gonna be affiliated with this great organization for years to come. I wouldn’t have it any other way and thank God they feel the same way.”
This season — and in many ways, our love of the Reds, and maybe even Cincinnati baseball itself — belongs to Marty.
On Feb. 7, Cincinnati Reds legend and civil rights pioneer Frank Robinson died at the age of 83. The Hall of Famer played for the Reds from 1956-65, the first 10 years of his historic MLB career. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1956 and led the Reds to a pennant in 1961. He had the most home runs of any Red except Johnny Bench and is still the team’s reigning champ in hitting percentage.
"Frank Robinson's résumé in our game is without parallel, a trailblazer in every sense, whose impact spanned generations," Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a notice posted to MLB.com. “He was one of the greatest players in the history of our game, but that was just the beginning of a multifaceted baseball career.”
In 1975, Robinson became the first black manager in MLB history. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982, and his uniform number 20 was retired by the Reds in 1998.
Upon the legend’s passing, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron tweeted, “Frank Robinson and I were more than baseball buddies. We were friends. Frank was a hard-nosed baseball player who did things on the field that people said could never be done. I’m so glad I had the chance to know him all of those years. Baseball will miss a tremendous human being.”
No Skimping on the Extras
Lots of tireless folks behind the scenes at Great American Ball Park have been busy setting the stage for a great 2019 as well. If your memory is short (or you’re not yet out of high school), the park officially opened for the Reds’ 2003 season and this will be its 17th season welcoming fans. If you’re one of those fans, you’ll want to check out the expanded displays at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, which some consider to be the best team museum in all of baseball.
Nearly 6,000 rare and unique team artifacts will be presented in about a hundred displays this year, with a coordinating 1869 Red Stockings Pavilion replacing the south-side Rose Garden. The Pavilion is set for a May 4 dedication ceremony.
Audio/visual upgrades are on deck, too, including a much-heralded 360-degree video screen offering customized information on the legends who built the team. An archive with 2,000 baseball cards will even offer a digitized component, allowing visitors to create their own card on-site.
"Creating a museum experience worthy of 150 years of Reds history is a formidable challenge," the museum’s executive director Rick Walls said in an announcement about the upgrade. "Combining some of the latest technology with over 6,000 artifacts, gripping video highlights, captivating photographs and an extensive audio collection, we'll immerse visitors into this rich history like never before.”
In addition to the museum, the organization as a whole has some exciting things lined up for the 150th-anniversary celebrations. Throughout the season, the Reds will be wearing 15 different vintage “throwback” uniforms spanning from 1902 to 1999 during select home games. The first, from 1902, will make an appearance on the field in a May game against the San Francisco Giants and is the uniform the team wore in their Greco-Roman “Palace of the Fans” ballpark. In August, the team will don the uniforms from 1976’s Big Red Machine days in a game against the Saint Louis Cardinals.
There will also be a 150th-anniversay Bobblehead series featuring six Reds legends: Ernie Lombardi, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Jr.
And there’s more: Inspired by those weird-but-popular mustache benches from the 2015 All-Star Game, the team has created a series of sculptural benches featuring a seated Mr. Redlegs wearing the 15 throwback Reds uniforms. The photo-op seats will be popping up at 20 different locations around the city.
“Think about it,” says DJ Sharpe. “No baseball team has ever celebrated a 150th anniversary. The Reds’ fan experience in 2019 will be like none other.”
For many around town, the Findlay Market Opening Day Parade is the undisputed (if unofficial) Cincinnati summer salutation. It’s without a doubt one of the region’s most “uniquely Cincinnati” parties. Beginning at noon on March 28, the kick-off to the local unsanctioned holiday celebrates its own anniversary this year — it was 100 years ago that Findlay Market began its association with the parade.
This year’s parade grand marshal is MLB Commissioner Manfred, who will reportedly be joined by eternal Reds hero Johnny Bench. Special guests in the long-standing celebratory parade will include contemporary Reds players, Governor Mike DeWine, iconic Queen City DJ Jim Scott and members of the Cincinnati Beard Barons, which is exactly what it sounds like — a group of local “facial hair enthusiasts” who raise money for various charities.
Others in the parade reflect our region’s cultural legacy and diversity. This year’s opening day parade will share a direct link to Cincinnati’s much-heralded and influential King Records, which pioneered cultural and racial breakthroughs in staffing and artists, producing earth-shaking works for R&B, Country and Funk audiences that helped shape contemporary music. Otis Williams (whose Otis Williams and the Charms has been cited by Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys for helping to coach his brethren in the ways of harmonizing), King session drummer Philip Paul (who kept time on such classic tracks as “Fever” and “The Twist”) and Funk icon Bootsy Collins (former James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic player, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member and Cincinnati’s premier lord of funkiness) will preside in the Opening Day Parade festivities together to honor the label’s huge contributions to American culture.
Other parade guests this year include former Bengal and NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz; Kentucky Country/Folk music phenom Tyler Childers (who is promoting Washington Park’s summertime Roots Revival music series); Dayton native and Country singer Ashley Martin; the Budweiser Clydesdales; and even Grave Digger, the monster truck.
From the game on the field to the nods to team history to the overall fan experience, 2019 is shaping up to be a highlight year for America’s first professional baseball team.
The Sharpe Angle
For some behind-the-scenes perspective, we spoke with the Cincinnati Reds’ game day DJ and fill-in PA announcer Aaron Sharpe. The man about town has worn many hats — many will recognize Sharpe from his days as general manager and drive-time host at longtime local radio station WNKU, which shut down two years back. Or maybe you know him from his most recent venture — as co-owner of the new Lucius Q barbecue spot in Pendleton.
This will be Sharpe’s 20th season with the team. When you hear that stirring walk-up music pumping through the park as a Reds player approaches the plate to bat, he’s the one making that happen.
“My job is to entertain the fans, pump up the players and keep the energy high in the park,” Sharpe says.
Sharpe’s seen a lot of changes in his time with the team, particularly related to the voiced content and dialed-in accompaniment he takes care of at the soundboard. And his arsenal of equipment has come a long way over the past two decades.
When Sharpe started, he used a mini-disc player and an old laptop “held together with duct tape.” He now has two top-of-the line desktop computers with massive hard drives running a state-of-the-art program.
“It’s more or less the gold-standard in stadiums, ballparks and arenas across the country,” he says of his current gear setup. “I also have a MacBook Pro running Spotify, iTunes and Adobe Audition, to acquire and edit audio on the fly. If that’s not enough, I also work off of two iPads for a variety of purposes, including sampling.”
Walk-up music has vastly evolved over the past 20 years, as well. Sharpe says that when he started, the concept of playing a player-selected track as he came up to bat was a new thing. Today, it’s commonplace.
“These days, most every player takes their walk-up music selections pretty seriously,” Sharpe says, “to the point of specifying cue points for their songs and often requesting a different song for each at-bat.”
It’s a lot to keep track of, but Sharpe is a seasoned pro.
“Music, in general, is much more a part of the game than when I first started,” he says. “From the time the gates open up until the final out, I’ll play well over a hundred different clips of music in the ballpark.”
But it’s all part of the fan experience. “I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of it,” he says.
For the 2019 Cincinnati Reds schedule, tickets and more, visit reds.com.