Cover Story: Dream Factory

Being a baseball fan in Cincinnati can be frustrating. The giant two-headed hydra of steroids and a possible player's strike is just the latest monster to leap from the ocean and ravage the dow

Mike Breen

Mike takes in a Triple A game later at Slugger Field

Being a baseball fan in Cincinnati can be frustrating.

The giant two-headed hydra of steroids and a possible player's strike is just the latest monster to leap from the ocean and ravage the downtown of our national pastime. Add to that a pennant-teasing Reds team no one seems to believe in, a team owner whose purse-strings are tighter than Joan Rivers' face and an uncountable amount of PR disasters, from bobble-head mobs to the great hot dog famine of Ye Olde Turn Back the Clock night.

Louisville is just 100 miles away, but if you want some perspective on baseball, the home of the Louisville Slugger and the Reds' Triple A affiliate ranks up there with Cooperstown. OK, at least it's more enlightening than Erie, Pa. (Go SeaWolves!).

Louisville looks like one of those sleepy river cities that rolls at a slower pace than most — like a smaller Cincinnati. My traveling companion Amy and I first stop at the Louisville Slugger Museum and factory, in the heart of downtown. On a Wednesday mid-afternoon, there was plenty of street parking and traffic near the museum was light. The museum itself is hard to miss because of the giant baseball bat — the biggest in the world, we're told — protruding from the ground in front of the entrance.

The museum/factory headquarters jumped the Ohio River from Jefferson-ville, Ind. six years ago and opened at 800 W. Main St., but the empty entranceway and cluttered construction out front suggests it's still somewhat of a work in progress. Factory tours run frequently, so we were quickly whisked into a small theater to watch a movie about the bat's role in baseball via dramatic montages and interviews with pro players.

We were told to linger in the museum area, a relatively small couple of memorabilia-loaded rooms, mostly bats. One of the coolest features is the 90-mph fast-pitch alley, which enables you to pick a major league pitcher and stand behind a mock catcher as a machine imitates his pitches with real baseballs. You'll have a new appreciation for those players who get beaned with fastballs.

Other "interactive" features add life to a museum that could be just a collection of old wood. The factory is located in the same building, and we were pleased with the minimal 25-minute trek ($6; includes museum admission). A scruffy young tour guide led our group of about 15, stopping at various stations to see the bats being machine-sculpted, burned and imprinted, among other things. The workers seemed to almost entirely tune out the tour, despite the guide's blaring microphone and the repetitive videos shown at each station stop. Imagine a handful of people walking through your work place and staring at you every 20 minutes. They've got to feel like zoo animals.

We saw some bats ready to be shipped to different players, including Jose Vidro (Montreal Expos), Scott Rolen (then a Philadelphia Phillie) and Reds vet Barry Larkin, which made it seem a little more real. These bats would actually be handled by guys who know what to do with them (except the Juan Castro bats we saw). We received miniature bats at tour's end, although they came from their New York factory. What a buzz kill. (For the record, my companion asked if anyone had ever gone nuts, grabbed a bat on the tour and started bashing things. "Not since I've been here," our guide said.)

We fittingly finished off the day by catching a Louisville Bats game (highest ticket price: $8). If you've ever felt burned by a less-than-enjoyable experience at Cinergy Field, a trip to Slugger Field for a Triple A game is highly recommended. Though the half-capacity crowd didn't really seem to give a crap about the game, the people running the stadium put an awful lot of care into seeing that those fans' every need is taken care of — clear sight lines in the stands; cheap, accessible and diverse concessions; and, most importantly, lots of kid-friendly features such as rides and carnival-like games.

Even the video jumbotron blew away Cinergy's tired old racing-of-the-baseballs game, with playful graphics and games throughout, including a clever "Fat Lady Sings" cartoon at the end of the game.

To cap the night off, the Bats — featuring promising talents and brief call-ups like Corky Miller, Gookie Dawkins and Joey Hamilton — rallied in the bottom of the ninth, something this first place team apparently does a lot. Down 1-0 to the Norfolk Tides (a New York Mets affiliate) with the bases loaded, the impressively statisticized Kevin Witt jammed the ball over a drawn in outfield, winning the game in heroic fashion.

It was a perfect ending to a trip that didn't cost much but could do a lot to restore some faith to a fanatic curmudgeon who's had just about enough with MLB's shenanigans.

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