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Baseball Taking Center Stage in Louisville is Long Overdue

Near the beginning of his brilliant documentary Baseball, Ken Burns speaks about the mythic contradictions present in the sport of his focus. Perhaps it is these same inherent ironies that have always made me feel like baseball and the city of Louisville are so compatible.

A city with both Southern and Northern roots that is technically considered Midwestern, and a highly engaging democratic sport that tolerates cheating. A slightly blue city in an overwhelmingly red state, and a profoundly conservative game that has often proved to be years ahead of its time.

Though now synonymous with basketball and horse racing, there was a time - of which we aren't all that relatively removed - when America's pastime was king in these parts.

One of the first Major League Baseball cities in America, Louisville's Colonels played in the American Association from 1882-1891. The club won the pennant in 1890 and went on to play in an early version of the World Series where they tied the Brooklyn Bridegrooms three games apiece.

Though irrelevant in the broad scheme of things, and absurd because it ended in a tie, the series is historically important because legend has it that during one of these games Colonels star Pete Browning used a bat made by young Bud Hillerich at his father's woodworking shop. This first bat would eventually evolve into the Louisville Slugger brand that would dominate the game at every level.

The greatest Louisvillian of all, Muhammad Ali, exuded courage throughout his career, but one of the most noble acts in the history of sport occurred in the summer of 1947 when universally respected Dodger captain - and Louisville native - Pee Wee Reese walked outside of his dugout and draped his arm around a rookie named Jackie Robinson who was being given a particularly hard time by the home crowd in Cincinnati.

Though he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, it was this act - as well as his refusal to sign a petition started by Dodger players during Spring Training in '47 that said they would boycott the season if Robinson was brought up - more than anything he did on the field that made him one of the most revered men in the history of baseball.

Of course times of changed and modern Louisville has become less receptive to the sport than it once was.

Being a baseball fan requires commitment, and watching a game on television demands constant attention and involvement, all things the average working American is often unwilling to give. In an age where one-line quips are far preferred to lengthy statements that actually address issues, it's no wonder that high-action, low-involvement sports like football and basketball are thriving, while baseball worshippers continue to convert or denounce the religion entirely.

Still, there's something special about baseball in Louisville, something that anyone who dedicated a solid chunk of their life to the sport could tell you.

I've experienced few joys in my life that can compare with taking the mound under the lights in front of a packed crowd at Derby City Field, or stepping in the batter's box at Louisville Slugger Field (where someone, I won't say who, still owns the highest all-time batting average). Even taking the field at some of the best high school parks in the state - PRP, Ballard, Eastern, Male - was a joy that anyone who's ever done the same can relate to.

And even though Louisvillians are unable to play year-round like the boys down South or on the West Coast, there's almost always a pretty good brand of ball being played in this city. In 2001, three local pitchers - Ballard's Jeremy Sowers, Butler's Travis Foley and Desales' C.J. Gittings - were all selected in baseball's Amateur Draft, and a year later 11 and 12-year-olds from Valley Sports (who ruined many a summer for this blogger) captured both the American and World championships at the Little League World Series.

Of course the reason all this talk is relevant is that Dan McDonnell's Louisville Cardinals have once again put baseball on this city's center stage.

The excitement over the hard-hitting, smooth-fielding breed of Cardinals has seemingly popped up out of thin air. Two weeks ago Louisville baseball was nothing more than a glance at two lines in the briefs portion of the Courier's sports section. But when the announcement was made early yesterday that Jim Patterson Stadium would be the site of this weekend's Super Regional, the instant demand for tickets was so high that Tom Jurich was quickly forced to announce that 1,500 extra seats would be installed before Friday's game. U of L Athletic Office workers basking in what was supposed to be a stress-free summer were bombarded with calls from folks who had put away their red and white jerseys for the year, but were now trying to make sure that they would be able to see with their own eyes what all this fuss in early June is about.

It's not that folks around here haven't wanted to embrace the Cardinal Nine, it's just that they hadn't had a real chance to up until now. There's a reason a 21,000 seat expansion wasn't proposed during the Ron Cooper era.

Now it occurs to me that I may be coming off a bit preachy, so before going any further you should know that I am one of you, hell, in the words of Antonio Salieri: "I am your champion." You can count the grand total of Cardinal baseball games I've attended this season on your hand when you're flicking off the asshole in the SUV who cut you off on your way to work this morning, and before the first game of the Big East Tournament the only other games I paid any real attention to were the two contests against UK.

But like a number of you, last weekend demanded that I become a fan, it captivated me in a way that I wasn't sure Louisville baseball ever could. And now the increasingly real prospects of the Cards being a participant in the College World Series - an event I've taken in religiously each summer for as long as I can remember - is almost too much for me to process. The fact that Jurich seems to be equally, if not more, thrilled is extremely comforting.

"To me, this ranks right there with winning the Orange Bowl or going to the Final Four," he told Rick Bozich Monday. "Think about it. This is a team from Louisville, Kentucky, one step from going to the College Baseball World Series. We're not supposed to be able to do something like that. Nobody thought we could."

And even if someone could have imagined the Cards doing this, I'm not sure they could have ever forecasted that the reaction would be so overwhelming.

As Walt Whitman so eloquently put it: "The game of ball is glorious." Well, it's about time the glorious game got back in this city's spotlight for a few weeks.