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 far 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, 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 worshipers continue to convert or denounce the religion entirely.
Still, there's something special about baseball in Louisville, something that anyone who has 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 many, young and old, in the area 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. 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. Currently, there are 12 Louisville-born players in the major leagues.
Of course the reason all this talk is relevant is that June has rolled around and Dan McDonnell's Louisville Cardinals have once again forced the city to take notice.
Excitement over the hard-hitting, smooth-fielding breed of Cardinals seemingly popped up out of thin air three years ago, and has reappeared each summer since. A program that rarely produced more than a blurb on page six of The Courier-Journal's sports section is now a national seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and sold out all chairback seats for its regional tournament before it was even officially named a host.
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 before 2007. 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 (fictitious) Antonio Salieri: "I am your champion."
The archives tell the story.
Aside from the two Kentucky games, I didn't pay any significant attention to this team until the final two series' of the regular season. You can also count the number of games I attended in person on one hand the next time you're giving someone a fist bump.
But like a number of you, I would assume, this group's accomplishments, both before and after this blog started covering them in any depth, have demanded my attention.
There's a pretty large fact floating around right now that's impossible to gloss over casually: this Louisville baseball team is good enough to win a national championship. Love the sport or loathe it, the preceding statement should be enough to at least catch your eye, if not your head and heart, for this weekend and (hopefully) beyond.
As Walt Whitman simply put it: "The game of ball is glorious." Well, this is the time for the glorious game and a glorious team to take center stage in our glorious city.
You might want to start paying attention now so you can truthfully say you did later.