The Empty And Silent Great American Ball Park Is About To Come Back To Life

Mar 31, 2021

Seven years ago, just before Reds' Opening Day, my old friend Michael E. Keating and I put together this ode to Great American Ball Park, a dead place during the long, harsh winter, but one that comes to back to life on Opening Day, a Cincinnati holiday.

Last year was a baseball season like no other in the history of Major League baseball.

The pandemic led to a shortened season of 60 games, played in July, August and September, instead of the usual 162 -game marathon that is Major League Baseball.

And only half of those games were played by the Reds at home, in Great American Ball Park. And not a single fan was allowed to pass through the turnstiles. The players played before several thousand cardboard cutouts of real fans, who donated to a good cause, the Reds Community Fund, to "be in the ballpark."

But cutouts don't cheer the home team; cutouts don't boo the umpires; cutouts don't stuff themselves with brats and hot dogs and wash them down with "barley pop" or the drink of their choice.

They were silent witnesses to a strange, truncated season.

I've listened very closely to the players on the Reds and other teams this spring and they are excited by the fact that, beginning Thursday, real live fans will be allowed back in the ballpark – even though at only 30% capacity at first.

They say they feed off the enthusiasm; the fans are what bring a dead ballpark back to life.

Just as Michael and I said in this piece from March 25, 2014. 

In thinking about Great American Ball Park through the winter, photographer Michael E. Keating chose to make photographs in black and white, a classic look that conveys a mood.

The ball park is literally a "see" of color, mostly red, but it's extremely important to remember that black and white can be just as subtle as color. It allowed Keating to establish a visual narrative to accompany the essay.

To convey the same mood of WVXU's Howard Wilkinson's essay, the use of black and white as a palette and a selective focus lens with little or no depth of field enhanced the graphic composition of the photographs.  

Michael E. Keating is a veteran visual journalist who volunteered for this project. He's the author of Cincinnati Shadow & Light, available at local bookstores and online at Amazon. All proceeds from the book go to the Clyde N. Day Foundation in Newport, KY.  

Howard Wilkinson's video narration:

For someone who loves the game of baseball, there is no sight quite as sad as a ballpark in winter.

Once the last pitch of the last game of last season is thrown, Great American Ball Park sits in utter isolation, through the fall and into the harsh, brutal months of winter, waiting for the resurrection that will surely come each spring.

Outside the ballpark, on the now-thawing but often snow-covered grass of Crosley Terrace, are the bronze statues of four Crosley Field immortals – Ted Kluszewski, Ernie Lombardi, Frank Robinson and Joe Nuxhall – standing silently at their positions.

In front of Crosley Terrace, the Joe Morgan statue is frozen mid-stride in a stolen base attempt. Around the corner, in front of the Hall of Fame and Museum, Johnny Bench's statue comes out of a crouch to throw yet another runner out at second base.

Soon, the crowds of fans dressed in Cincinnati Red will return again.

The children will climb on the statues to pose for photos – photos that they will treasure some day when they are old and gray.

But for now, one can only peer inside for a dim and distant glimpse at the field of play.

Once the gates swing open again, the crowds will fill the 42,271 seats that ring the diamond, from the high-priced seats behind home plate to the upper reaches of the outfield corners and the left-field bleachers.

From the white shroud covering the field to protect the grass underneath to the empty seats lined up like tombstones, it is a dead place without the cheering fans, the team, the barking vendors. 

All are empty now, looking out on a diamond where nothing is happening. No home run balls sailing into the right field seats; no dazzling double plays; no runners racing to stretch a single into a double.

But, soon, it will come back to life.

This is Cincinnati. The birthplace of professional baseball. Where the game and the team are ingrained deep in the soul of the city.  

It is a time of hope, of high expectations, of love for a game and a team.

It is a holiday. A celebration, in a living, breathing ballpark.