BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: I stopped near the construction site in August 2002, and saw a game in August 2004. (See photos below.)
When I first learned what the name of the Reds' new stadium was going to be, I was taken aback by what I thought was brazen boastfulness. Little did I know that "Great American" is the name of an insurance / financial services corporation. This is certainly a beautiful ballpark in a picturesque setting, but it goes a bit overboard in terms of design features. It would seem that the architects were trying to overcompensate for all the flaws of its rather dull predecessor, Riverfront Stadium (a.k.a. Cinergy Field), which used to stand right next to where GABP (as it known for short) is located. (Hence the two-phase demolition.) Like a theme park, it has a big riverboat paddle wheel and two smokestacks beyond center field. Great American Ballpark is wide open, providing good views of the Ohio River (at least for upper-deck fans), whereas the old stadium was fully enclosed. Most notably, there is a gap between the upper decks on the left side behind home. (NOTE: The profile in the diagram above applies to the main part of the grandstand, not the part on the third base side.) Also, the upper deck is much smaller on the third base side, with virtually no overhang over the mezzanine deck, quite unlike the first base side. Taken all together, these design elements come across as a bit gimmicky.
Just as Riverfront Stadium and Three Rivers Stadium shared many design features (and "birthyears"), GABP and Pittsburgh's PNC Park (two years older) bear many similarities. The most notable parallels are the outfield dimensions, the configuration of the seating areas, and the river beyond the right field seats. In back of the center field fence is a shrub-covered slope and the "Batter's Eye Pavilion," a lounge with dark windows. In addition, there is a distinct bend in the fence in dead center field, which was presaged by the similar "bent" fence in "Cinergy Field" during its last two years when the outfield grandstand was demolished to make room for construction on GABP. Foul territory is miniscule, though the curvature of the grandstand in that area is broader than at PNC Park. The correspondingly-positioned scoreboard in left field is the longest one in all of major league baseball, and the upper deck below it consists of true bench-style bleachers. Behind that scoreboard is a huge image of the bat and ball with which Pete "You Bet!" Rose hit his 4,192nd hit, breaking Ty Cobb's record.
There are a number of oddities that make this venue quite unique, and perhaps a little strange. Both the grandstand on the first base side and the right field quasi-bleachers are gently curved, unlike any other neoclassical stadium. Those bleachers are much steeper than normal, and the number of rows declines steadily as it extends toward center field. This curvature of the outside perimeter of the stadium was forced by the curved street alongside the Ohio River. Apparently no one has yet hit a home run into the Ohio River on the fly, though Adam Dunn recently hit one that bounced in. The upper deck on the first base side has a wide concourse that cuts into the profile of the deck, almost dividing it into two. At the far end of the mezzanine level near the right field foul pole is "Riverfront Club" upscale restaurant and a party deck. The extremely long "bevels" along the foul lines are much like Ameriquest Field.
Many aspects of GABP have obvious commercial origins, which is understandable given the limited public funding available in a smaller city. There are special party suites on both ends of the mezzanine level. In back of the grandstand behind home plate there is an office building complex that creates a triangular semi-closed plaza, somewhat like behind center field at Turner Field. As you enter that plaza, there is a huge bas relief mural titled "The Spirit of Baseball." Quite appropriate for the home city of the very first professional baseball team. The big drawback with GABP's location is that the freeway impedes pedestrian traffic and isolates the stadium from the rest of downtown.
In terms of its hoped-for effect on winning games, the inaugural year of Great American Ballpark was a disappointment. The early part of the 2004 season saw a remarkable upturn in the team's fortunes, however, as the Reds were briefly vying with the Cubs and the Astros for the lead in the NL Central Division. Then the Cardinals brushed everybody aside. Young sluggers Adam Dunn and Sean Casey have proven themselves worthy peers of the aging and injury-prone Ken Griffey Jr. One wonders how many of the folks attending games at GABP even remember the glory days of the Big Red Machine? Given the Bengals' dismal performance in recent years, Cincinnati sports fans are in desperate need of some wins...
SOURCES: Washington Post, cincinnati.reds.mlb.com
Good weather in mid-August accentuated the scenic features of this ambitiously-designed ballpark, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around to get a better feel for it. The main plaza behind home plate is full of trees and shrubs, making for a pleasant first impression. On the left is a bas relief mural entitled "The Spirit of Baseball." It features a catcher, a batter, and a pitcher at the top, and a youthful batter symbolizing the sport's intergenerational bonds at the bottom, with an evocative backdrop of a 1930s-era radio, city buildings, and bridges. There are quite a few banners and visual displays that recount the many triumphant highlights of Reds teams of yesteryear. Like Comerica Park, the lower concourse is open, so you can watch the game from almost anywhere around the stadium except behind the center field batter's eye and the right field quasi-bleachers. The interior of the office building on the west side (where Riverfront Stadium used to be) is still under construction. The many empty seats, especially up in the stratospheric "nosebleed" sections would seem to suggest that this stadium is a little too big for a city of Cincinnati's size. My seat was in the forward part of the upper deck behind the dugout on the first base side; the view was very good, especially for an $11 ticket. A few days before I was there, Adam Dunn knocked a colossal home run that bounced across the street and rolled into the river near that big red paddle wheel. It was the first time anyone had done that, apparently. I was rooting for the Reds against the Padres, who are presently contending with the Cubs and Giants in the NL wild card race. San Diego pitcher Adam Eaton was a virtual one-man show: He not only struck out eight Reds batters, he also hit two doubles, getting credit for two RBIs and scoring two runs. Final score: Padres 7, Reds 2. Official attendance: 31,447, probably overstated by 20 percent or so.