CINCINNATI–The Reds held their annual off-season fan party known as RedsFest recently and even though it was a two-day event conducted indoors you almost had to wear sunglasses because the reflected light off of all of the fans’ bright red shirts was blinding. Playing out at the Duke Energy Center downtown, a short hop from the Great American Ball Park, the Reds had 250,000 square feet to play in, almost as much as Great American itself.
These fan gatherings have become all the rage and they are terrific public relations for teams. I believe credit goes for initiating fan galas to the Chicago Cubs and they have spread from there. That would at least prove to cynical fans who frequent Wrigley Field that yes, the Cubs have had an original idea in the last century, and we don’t mean the College of Coaches.
Once fans entered the exalted hall for RedsFest they could buy just about anything Reds (in case their wardrobes was red-deprived), from souvenir clothing to tickets for 2013 games. The Reds Hall of Fame was partially transplanted into the building to offer a sampling of exhibits from the past. From the fans perspective, though, the best thing was being able to get up-close-and-cozy with ballplayers.
Just about every member of the current team attended, plus the coaching stuff, plus a dozen to two dozen former Reds luminaries and there were autograph lines galore spread out around the building. Since more than 22,000 fans attended, there were human traffic jams galore on different aisles, and they weren’t all at 5 p.m.
It was a chance to meet Jim O’Toole, Jim Maloney, Tommy Helms, Clay Carroll, Tom Browning, Jack Billingham, or maybe if you were really fortunate, Chuck Harmon, the first African-American to suit up for the Reds. Chatting up these guys seemed to be for the older set. Not surprisingly, kids were after autographs from present-day players, the ones they see on the field when they go, or on TV when they don’t.
The first day of RedsFest was the day Cincinnati announced the re-signing of outfielder Ryan Ludwick to a new contract, so he was kind of busy that day. It was also before the team traded Drew Stubbs to the Cleveland Indians. Stubbs was there–kind of awkward–since there were already rumors swirling. It ended up being an unofficial goodbye for the 28-year-old centerfielder.
Team CEO Bob Castellini said a few words to the assembled and it was no great risk on his part to stand up and face the fans. He is a popular owner who has poured enough money into the team to build wisely and seen two Central Division titles captured in the last three years on his watch after a 15-year period with no playoffs. He told the fans that they were the best in baseball. Since they had nothing to complain about with that statement, or with Castellini’s actions because he has demonstrated a straightforward commitment to winning, they applauded.
Manager Dusty Baker was in the house, which was a very reassuring sight, since in the closing weeks of the 2012 season he was sidetracked by health problems. He has lost about 30 pounds, looks thin and fit, and was shaking hands and smiling a lot. When asked (probably by everybody he saw) how he was doing he said he was fine and feeling great.
The only time since his irregular heartbeat/mini-stroke scare that Baker hadn’t felt fine was when his Reds lost a two games to zero lead in the National League Division Series to the San Francisco Giants and were eliminated from the post-season on the West Coast.
“That was a long ride home,” Baker said.
When it is baseball it is always a long ride home in a season that begins in April and ends in October with one group of smiling fans and many more teams wondering where it went wrong. Baker, 63, just signed a two-year extension, but anyone who will be completely candid in Cincinnati knows that 2013 is the year of focus. Castellini, Baker, Ludwick, all of them, are on the same page: Win it all now.