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McDonnell puts baseball back on center stage in Louisville

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 baseball and the city of Louisville 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 have 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 heightened levels of attention and involvement that few modern Americans are willing to surrender. 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 worshipers continue to convert or denounce the religion entirely.

Still, there's something special about the glorious game of ball and it's relationship with 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 into the batter's box at beautiful 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 out on the Left Coast, the brand of ball being played in the city is generally very high. 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 newfound excitement over the hard-hitting, smooth-fielding breed of Cardinals has seemingly popped up out of thin air. Three years ago Louisville baseball was nothing more than a glance at two lines in the briefs portion of the Courier's sports section. But demand for high-quality baseball in this city was on full display once again last weekend when a record crowd of  4,605 fans packed in and around Jim Patterson Stadium to take in U of L's regional-opening victory over Indiana.

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 summer is about. Father-and-son duos who thought snagging a pair of tickets at the gate wouldn't be an issue were treated to a solemn walk back to the parking lot.

With a second regional title in three years now under its belt, McDonnell's bunch faces arguably the toughest task of this out-of-thin-air run: traveling to Southern California and somehow finding a way to take two of three from perennial powerhouse and second-seeded Cal-State Fullerton.

If it happens, the city will be watching.