Baseball season just started so that means your summer ballpark road trip is that much closer! In a bid to help you with your upcoming journeys, Big League Stew has solicited the help of the locals. Over the next month or so, we'll be hitting up our usual guest blogger crew to feature 10 tips for enjoying each of the 30 ballparks like the locals do. Have a suggestion in addition to the ones listed here? Make sure to list it in the comments below.
Welcome to Great American Ball Park, home of our Cincinnati Reds. For years, the word "Great" in the name of the yard was merely a bought and paid for one, given that the Great American Insurance Company paid for the naming rights when the stadium was built in 2003. For years, we'd call the place things "Pretty Good American Ball Park," "It's At Least Nicer Than Riverfront American Ball Park" or "What The Leftover Money From The Bengals Overpriced And Underwhelming Montrosity Could Pay For Since We Were Conned Into Voted For Two Stadiums American Ballpark." But since the Reds' ownership change seven years ago, there has been a concentrated effort not only on improving the on-field product (two NL Central titles the past three years, a team with legit World Series title dreams this season, all built primarily on homegrown talent), but on making the fan experience better and turning the home of the Reds into something befitting of its name.
Winning seasons and improved amenities have combined with the rebirth of downtown Cincinnati and the overdue-but-still-exciting development of the area near GABP has helped transform an outing to a Reds game from merely good to, well, great.
Yes, it's a great place to watch a game. And even greater if you follow the advice of an experienced Great American Ballpark veteran like me.
1. Get to know baseball's first professional franchise. We take our Reds history and tradition seriously around here — when MLB moved its season opener to Sunday night in 1994, thus ending a tradition of the season's first pitch being thrown in Cincinnati, we nearly rioted. And even fans who weren't alive in the 1970s can recite for you the starting eight of the Big Red Machine, and take it personal when people wrongly mention Carlton Fisk's iconic homer in the 1975 World Series as the blow that won the whole thing for the Red Sox.
The team that started it all back in 1869, and nearly every one of its successors, is commemorated at the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum. The Hall has new exhibits every year, along with regular exhibits that celebrate the storied history of this great franchise. (And no, Pete Rose hasn't been inducted into this one either, though they have had exhibits touting his on-field accomplishments. Thankfully, this was done before that awful reality show of his aired. Also, nothing was more amusing this past winter than listening to otherwise reasonable Cincinnati media members talk about how much they loved that piece of crap simply out of fear of backlash from Pete diehards)
Find out what you didn't know about the Reds, their five championships, their different homes, their role during the sport's integration, and how important this franchise was in developing night baseball and groundbreaking radio and TV broadcasts. And learn about how some of baseball's icons made an impact in Cincinnati.
This year's exhibits include one of the most ambitious projects of its kind. The Reds Hall of Fame has obtained an autograph from every player who wore a Cincinnati uniform since 1920, and has put them on display. There's also a new Joe Morgan exhibit (and statue to be unvelied outside the stadium later this summer), and the Hall is celebrating both the 75th anniversary of Johnny Vander Meer's back-to-back no-hitters and the 50th anniversary of Pete Rose's Major League debut, which came right before he cashed in his first Major League paycheck at an off-track betting window. There's probably not an exhibit celebrating that.
The bottom line is that when you come here, you're not going to a Rays game. There's history here, and it's important to us. You'll fit in if you know a little more about it.
2. Park like you've been here before. There's ample parking near Great American Ballpark, but as you can imagine, it's pricey. The good news is that the neighboring bars and restaurants (the most "Cincinnati" of which is the Holy Grail, which almost literally pours into the entrance of the stadium) are either right above, or very close to most of the garages near the ballpark.
Obviously, the further you get from the park, the cheaper, if you stay on the Ohio side of the river, the more of downtown you get to see. If you don't mind walking a few blocks to and from, the garages uptown are cheaper (for the geographically challenged, the banks of Ohio River, which GABP sits off of, is the southernmost part of our city, and everything else is north, or uptown). I like parking in the Fountain Square garage and making the 10-minute walk to the ballpark. Fountain Square is where we celebrate our championships. Yes, I know: Mentioning that is kind of like me talking about which restaurants I take my dates to.
Wanna park like a pro though? Cross state lines and park in Kentucky. The garage at Newport on the Levee is a bargain: just $2 for weekday games, slightly higher on the weekends. Walk the bridge and take in one of America's underrated skylines or take the shuttle from either Newport or Covington Kentucky to the ballpark for just a buck.
My favorite way to Great American Ballpark however, is the water taxi from Newport, which is just $5. Have a cold beer onboard, think about those weird people that work on riverboat barges, and get dropped off right at the foot of the ballpark.
3. Know where to meet: Meeting a group before heading into the ballpark at the old place used to be simple ... and boring. Fans essentially had three choices:
• You could meet your crew in front one of the gates, creatively titles "A, B, C, D, etc," and this was easy for everyone except visiting Cubs fans because the stadium was circular and all you had to do was learn the first six letter of the alphabet. Keep walking and you'd hit your gate, sometimes interrupted by a guy in a Ryne Sandberg jersey who had to ask what came after the letter B.
• You could meet near the bank of payphones next to the old ticket building that was never used.
• You could meet up near the homeless guy who used to sleep at the exact spot where the suspension bridge that connected Kentucky to Ohio dropped people off at the stadium.
Now though, there's more happening around the ballpark, meaning there's more landmarks for you to meet your buddies. A quick rundown of the important ones:
• Crosley Terrace: This is essentially the main entrance to the ballpark. It's on the corner of Second Street and Main Street. On Crosley Terrace though, are four statues that not only celebrate four Crosley Field-era stars — Ted Kluszewski, Ernie Lombardi, Joe Nuxhall and Frank Robinson, but that also serve as good meeting points.
My dad and I always would meet at Joe Nuxhall's statue. For the most part, you can just agree to meet at the statue, or you could stand and watch people awkardly talk on their phones trying to direct the people they're about to meet.
• The Banks: The Banks are a collection of bars and restaurants in between Great American Ballpark and Paul Brown Stadium, which if you don't read Shutdown Corner, is the home of the Bengals. Each of these places has sprouted up in the last two years, and all are very close to the ballpark. A quick rundown of the better places...
• The Holy Grail. I mentioned this place before, and it is just 100 feet from home plate. I like this place because it's simple — beer, bar food, a ton of TVs, great staff, and beacause Eric Davis enjoyed a cocktail before a game there last season and let me bother him with questions like "What was it like to hit an iconic home run in the World Series?"
(If you don't know what home run I'm referring to, you really need to go back and do number one)
• The Lager House. This place celebrates Cincinnati's great beer history, has an underrated menu, and has a marker where home plate Riverfront Stadium used to be inside the place.
• The Yard House: It's a chain that has 160 beers on tap. If you can't find a beer you like among 160 of them, you're a little too hipster to be visiting here.
There's other places, but either I haven't been to them or they're not worth your time. There's a place called Tin Roof, where the average age of the clientele is 21.5, and there's a place called Toby Keith's, which is too loud. Also, country music is as listenable as Tony La Russa's whining.
• Scalper's Corner. If you're in need of tickets for a sold out game, hit up scalper's corner on Third Street and Vine. Here's guys with placards that read "I Need Tickets" stand side-by-side with guys with placards that read "I Have Tickets." These people apparently communicate as well as my ex-wife and I. Anyway, this is actually a popular meeting place, especially for people in need of seats who are okay with being ripped off.
The plaza between the arena and the ballpark. That's what it's called, at least I think. Just to the east of GABP is US Bank Arena. The area in between the arena and the stadium, even on days where the Reds crowd exceeds 40K, seems almost desolate. The good news is that there's an entrance to the stadium there which few people ever use. It might be the easiest way into the ballpark, even if you have to wake up the person in charge of scanning tickets before entering.
Once in the ballpark, there's some important landmarks, just in case you need them. The two power stacks in center field are a common meeting place. You can't miss them, they're next to the gaudy-looking riverboat that hovers over the outfield. Mr. Redleg's Smokehouse, in right (more on this place later) is a good one. So is the HH Gregg Highlight Zone, which is a wall of TVs down the third base line. Say hi to the people who bought a ticket to watch a game on TV.
4. Sit In The Moon Deck. There really isn't a bad seat in Great American Ball Park. That sounds cliche, but it's true. The park has good sightlines and the seats are close to the field. I'm partial, however, to the Moon Deck.
I like the mix of people. No one sits in the Moon Deck because their company gave them free tickets, or because the pretty people are out there. I like the view, which when right handed hitters are up, lets you look right into the catcher's glove. I love concessions, including the brand new Budweiser Bowtie Bar. I love the breeze that hits you right off the Ohio River, just behind the right field gate. I love how seats are prime targets for lefty hitters, how Jay Bruce tosses baseballs up our way, and how they proximity to the opposing right fielder caters to creative hecklers.
(Safety tip: The Moon Deck is the one area in the stadium where there are no shadows, so on clear days, you're in the sun all day. Bring sunscreen or end up looking Cincinnati red.)
There's other sections I like sitting in. The field box seats down the baselines offer great views, the All You Can Eat seats, if you're up to the challenge, are a great bargain, and the seats in the upper deck are almost right on top of the field, but if you and I are going and I'm choosing, we're sitting in the Moon Deck.
5. When it comes to food, stick with the meats and indulge in some sweets. From when it opened 10 years ago to today, Great American Ballpark's biggest improvement has been its culinary selection. We have our local favorites worth trying, like Frisch's Big Boy (sections 119 and 130) and LaRosa's Pizza (113, 133, and 413 but if you've never come to Cincinnati before, try some Skyline Chili (sections 103, 116, 130, 518, and 533).
This year, GABP is offering a prime rib sandwich that I've yet to try. Two seasons ago, they introduced a new, fresh, hand-slapped burger that's hit or miss, but when it hits, is solid fare. (Go ahead, make your hand-slapped meat joke.) Find it down the third base line. And there's the helmet nachos, which kind of grosses me out because I can't help but think that someone wore that helmet before they dumped nachos into them. Still, it's become a popular item, and it's sold near first base in section 127.
There are three things though that you must try when you come here...
• The turkey leg at Mr. Red's Smokehouse is a meal in itself, filling enough to get you through the game and very tasty.
• Funnel Fries. Simple concept: fries made out of funnel cake. If you don't like funnel cake, you're way to Communisty to attend baseball games anyway. These are fantastic.
• The GABP hot dog. You can't go to a ballpark and not try their hot dog. The Great American Ballpark hot dog, and there are all-beef and as gross as it might seem, veggie hot dogs, but a trip to a Reds game that doesn't include a regular old fashioned hot dog is more incomplete than a trip to a Pirates game that doesn't include people wishing they were watching the Steelers.
There are other high-end dining options, like the Riverfront Club, the Machine Room, and the Champions Club. The Riverfront Club actually has a solid, reasonably-priced buffet. The other two occupy time and money you could be spending on better options.
6. It's A Baseball Game, So You're Supposed To Have A Beer. Beer and baseball go together like Votto and Phillips, Brennaman and Nuxhall, or Yankee fans and arrogance.
There is no simpler pleasure in life than a cold one on a warm night at the ballpark.
GABP has your standard beers, and plenty of places to buy them. Team execs have been quoted as saying "if there's a problem in the ballpark, put a bar on it," which in my book are good words to live by. This means there's some solid mixed drink options too, but unless you're the ghost of Marge Schott planning to haunt the team you once owned, you're not drinking hard stuff at the ballpark.
If you're a beer snob the kind of drinker who likes stuff that no one's heard that helps you feel more intellectual and worldly craft beers, you're covered. There's Christian Moerlein products, which are local, sold at GABP (try the Over The Rhine) and a number of other options as well. Find them either behind section 112 at the clumsily-named Grand Slam Stand, or at Scout's Alley, close to behind home plate in the Scout's seats.
My favorites are the Goose Island Summertime, which is on tap, the Mt. Carmel Amber, which you'll find in bottles, and the beer you're buying me regardless of what it is. A good rundown of all the craft beers on sale at Great American Ballpark can be found here.
7. Solve the Scoreboard Stumper. Great American Ballpark has the usual between-innings goofiness. There's the Kiss-Cams, Smile-Cams, animated mascot races, and audience crowd interaction games you'll find everywhere. And I've been to enough parks in other cities to know that nearly every team has some sort of trivia question, some more difficult than others, for fans to take a stab at.
None are as good as the GABP Scoreboard Stumper.
The Stumper is an institution. Since its inception, literally millions of beers have been one or lost on the answers, and friendships forged by strangers collaborating on the answer.
It's not multiple choice, it's not a question with a simple answer, rather it's usually a challenging question that asks fans to come up with a list of players who've accomplished some statistical feat. The stumper is usually something like this.
"Since 1960, six players whose last name began with the letter T stole 25 or more bases in a season. Name them."
You have an inning to come up with the names, and when you do, or when you're section does, it feels triumphant.
And there are rules. You're not allowed to look up the answers. Using your smartphone to come up with Stumper answers might not be grounds for ejection (though should be), but you're likely to see your phone picked up by a ball boy if you do. You also have an obligation to help other fans near you who are audibly trying to come up with answers. At the same time, it's bad etiquette if you just blurt out the answers, ruining it for everyone.
And wagering is absolutely encouraged.
8. Follow along. I know I'm running the risk of encouraging you to be one of those insufferable automatons that spends his/her entire time at the ballpark staring into or banging away on their phone, but the Reds are one of the most Twitter savvy teams in sports, and there's a bunch of other accounts worth following that can only enhance.
Brandon Phillips (@DatDudeBP), even if he is a little hashtag happy, is one of the most interactive athletes you can follow. Jay Bruce (@JayABruce) sends the occasional funny Tweet. Sam LeCure's (@MrLecure) Tweets give you a glimpse into baseball's most down to earth pitcher. And Todd Frazier's early Tweets (@FlavaFraz21) show some promise.
OK, so the players can't Tweet during games, though I think they should be allowed to, but there's plenty accounts worth following while the Reds play....
There's the team's official account, which is interactive, and a good source of news, both on and off the field (@Reds).
There's one that gives followers an irreverent look into the behind the scenes stuff in the front office (@JamieBlog), there's the sometimes crazy ramblings of a player's wife (@DallasLatos), there's the pre and post game host on the TV broadcast (@JimDayTV), there's every stat you could ever care about from the TV crew's stat guy (@JLuckhaupt), there's the team's Director Of Digital Marketing (@LisaBraun), who goes above and beyond in engaging the team's fans and helping players win contests, there's PR (@MAnderson_PR), and there's the latest on the aforementioned team hall of fame (@RedsMuseum).
Chances are, if you're following them during the game, you'll know a little bit more about what's happening around the ballpark, a little more about what's happening with the team, and you'll find plenty of reasons to ignore the bore you brought to the ballpark.
(I also Tweet about the Reds sometimess, so you should follow me.)
9. Know what you're watching: Know how annoying it is when you're watching an episode of your favorite TV show and you have spend half of it getting someone who doesn't regularly watch caught up with the plotlines, the backstories, and the characters? Same thing if you're watching a game and you're being bombarded by questions from someone who didn't do their homework.
We're willing to answer a few simple questions, and no one expects you to have every starter's OPS memorized, but we expect you to be up to speed on the team you're watching.
Fortunately, I'm willing to give you a brief primer.
We're expecting this year's Reds to be pretty good, maybe not as good as they were in the regular season last year when they won 97 games, but better than they were in the postseason when they blew an 0-2 lead against the Giants and lost three straight at home in the NLDS.
We've got a good team here, with MVP favorite Joey Votto fully recovered from a knee injury, the game's best defensive second baseman in Brandon Phillips, and a contender for the NL's home run crowd in Jay Bruce playing right. The Reds return one of baseball's deepest rotations, with Johnny Cueto a potential Cy Young candidate, and the bullpen might be the strongest in baseball, anchored by Aroldis Chapman.
There's question marks — opening day yielded a significant injury with Ryan Ludwick tearing up his shoulder, and this might not be the deepest team you'll see this season, but we like this club and we're expecting big things from them.
The debates you're likely to hear in the stands...
• Whether Aroldis Chapman should be a starter. He started in Cuba a long time ago, but hasn't in the Major Leagues. Since signing with the Reds, the team has continually tried to make him a starter only to move him back to the bullpen, where he excelled last season. He seemed headed for the rotation until the last two weeks of spring training when they made him a closer again. This debate has no real wrong answer — it's not like plan B was deportation — but it will rage all season long.
• Will Shin-Soo Choo be a disaster in center? The Reds had the worst amount of production from leadoff men last season, so they acquired Choo from Cleveland to fill that role. They've also moved him from right field to center, where he replaces Drew Stubbs. Stubbs hit less often than a boxer with no arms, but he covered plenty of ground in center. Choo will likely be adequate, but every time a ball eludes him, you'll hear someone claim that Stubbs would have had it. That same person, by the way, couldn't wait to get rid of Stubbs last year.
• Who will the sixth starter be? Reds fans are obsessed with this topic, because last season the starting five made 161 with only the nightcap of a doubleheader requiring a sixth. No one thinks that last year's good fortune will repeat itself, so we've become enthralled in this lame discussion about who will start when a pitcher gets injured, completely ignoring the fact that no team has any really idea who will pitch such an instance.
>• Should Dusty Baker be fired? If you happen to attend a game played in bad weather, those conditions will probably be blamed on the Reds manager. Does Dusty do things that make me shake my head? Yes. He's also been the most successful manager this city has had in nearly a quarter of a century. He's underappreciated here.
10. See The Reds And save some green. If you're on a budget, you can still take in a game. For 64 of the 81 home games, you can buy a $5 view level ticket. For weekday day games, they have a $15 ticket which includes a $10 concession credit. This year, the Reds are joining the ranks of teams using dynamic ticket pricing, so depending on when you're planning to visit, you may want to play the market a little. If you're coming to see them play the Cardinals on a weekend, you might want to buy now. If you're coming to see a team like the Rockies on a weeknight, you may want to wait until the day of the game.
They have concession stands which feature $1 menu items, both on the lower level down the third base line, and on the 400 level on the third base line.
And if you're so inclined, the Reds allow you to bring in small, soft-sided coolers containing both unopened non-alcoholic drinks and your own food.
Joey Votto signed a contract a year ago that will ultimately pay him more than a quarter of a billion dollars, and undeniably much of that cost is being passed along to us, but they're still making a trip to Great American Ballpark as affordable as possible.
If you come though, at least splurge on those funnel fries I mentioned.
Mo Egger is the afternoon host on ESPN1530 in Cincinnati. He also blogs at ESPN1530.com. He's been a Reds season ticket-holder since 1998, and spends his summer in his beloved Moon Deck. Tweet him when you're at Great American Ballpark this summer and he'll let you buy him a beer.
Previous parks: Citi Field, Marlins Park, Great American Ball Park, Petco Park,Comerica Park, Progressive Park, AT&T Park, Rogers Centre, Wrigley Field, O.Co Coliseum, Yankee Stadium, Coors Field, Minute Maid Park, Fenway Park