GABP in Cincinnatti:Generic as it Gets, Museum Top-Notch (Ballpark Reviews Pt 1)

Paul DeBrulerContributor IJune 23, 2009

I went to Cincinnati this weekend. 

That sentence doesn’t really sound right, does it?  I mean, it’s summer, it’s vacation time, it’s…time to go to Cincinnati?  Hmmm.

My lovely wife went there for work this week, and since I’m a glutton for punishment, so I went along for the first weekend—not to revel in the glory that is the Queen City, but to go to a ballpark I’d never been to before.

Always a good reason to go somewhere.  I went to two games at Great American Ball Park, and came away with two decidedly different impressions of the place.

Saturday night was the first regular-season Civil Rights Game. I had no idea, when I planned this trip, that the Civil Rights Game was going to be a Big Damn Deal—I thought it’d be something where there’d be a couple speeches, a ceremonial first pitch, and then baseball.

But no. The pregame ceremonies featured Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Cosby, all of whom were accepting awards from MLB for their service in advancing the cause of civil rights in the US. 

Sugar Ray Leonard presented Ali his medal, and Frank Robinson threw out the first pitch. Oh and Bud Selig was there. Interestingly, his name wasn’t mentioned by the PA announcer, even though he was prominently featured on the "Jumbotron" a few times while "speechifying" and handing out medals and whatnot.

Now, I’ve been to more baseball games than a normal person would consider healthy.  I’ve seen all sorts of ceremonial things, first pitches, and whatnot—but they were all sort of contrived things. Like old players coming back on the anniversary of a feat long lost to all but the most hardcore fan, or some dude that won a contest. Or maybe if Pearl Jam’s in town Eddie Vedder or Stone Gossard or something. But this? 

This was, as I mentioned, a Big Damn Deal. I have never seen Hank Aaron in person, and watching everybody come up to Ali and pay their respects was quite something indeed.

I had goosebumps through most of the ceremony, and I’m really glad I got to see it.

I said above that I had two decidedly different impressions of Great American Ball Park. Saturday night, our seats were directly behind home plate, 10 rows from the top in the third deck.

In almost every ballpark, those are great seats—you get the whole vista of field, scoreboard, and ballpark surroundings, and you get a good view of the game. GABP was no different—it’s very panoramic, even if they lost an opportunity by not siting the ballpark even 100 feet closer to the river to give balls a chance to go into the water a la McCovey Cove in San Francisco

The seats were good, the event was impressive, and the company was fun—in short, it was all you could really ask for in a game.

I had a "Big Red Smoky dog", and it was pretty good, as was the pretzel later on. All in all, it was the "Typical Baseball Experience."  There were…many beers consumed, as well, but that really only colored my impression of the rest of the evening, not the ballpark. So far, so good, park-wise.

On Sunday, I wandered down to the park and decided to treat myself, so I found a local "independent businessman", shall we say, and got a ticket 10 rows from the field, right above the first base camera well, for less than face value, no less.

Since I was at this game by myself, I had a better chance to acquaint myself with the park and its amenities, and…hmmm.  It’s not by any means a bad ballpark, it’s just got nothing special that marks it as Cincinnati’s, or that makes it unique.

In the third inning, I was getting fidgety from the heat (88 degrees, 94% humidity at game time! Whee!) so I took a walk around the main concourse. And it reminded me, at best, of an overgrown PGE Park—no real character, just-average concessions, and a very industrial feel all in all.  And not industrial like Camden Yards industrial, either—more like "Renovated Hospital" industrial. 

The concourse wraps around the whole park, but once you get to the outfield, you lose the view of the field because the concourse dips down behind and below field level, and in between you and the field is some big private club thing—the big black box in this photo. I understand the need for those things, but there’s gotta be a way to design it so you don’t lose the view of the field from the concourse, right? 

From center field you really become disconnected from the game and the ballpark, which is a shame. And the whole damn park was painted white, as well.

My other gripe about GABP is the food. There was nothing remarkable about it at all. I’m not one of those people that expects or demands gourmet food at a baseball game, but it’s always nice when you do go to a park and see either local specialties or food that’s a cut above If nothing else, it shows that they’ve put some thought into their concessions rather than just taking the standard Aramark package and slapping local names on it. 

I suppose Cincinnati is handicapped here by the fact that their local specialty—Skyline Chili—was in fact featured at GABP; Skyline Chili is horrid (one of my wife’s coworkers out there, a Cincy native, said about Skyline, “Oh, you get used to it!”, which is about as big of an indictment as I can think of) and the sight of it at the ballpark was not really what I wanted. I do understand that there are some mighty good ribs (from the Montgomery Inn) at the park, but I’m not usually much for ribs so I skipped that.

I was pretty impressed with the giant video board in left field—if Wikipedia is to be believed, it’s the third-largest in MLB (behind Colorado’s and Detroit’s), and it’s HD.

I don’t go to baseball games to watch TV, but that was one damn impressive scoreboard—it displays the complete lineup of the batting team on one side, video in the center, and the alignment of the defense (and the next three batters due up in the next half inning) on the other side. Below that is a ribbon board that displays detailed stats for the hitter and pitcher—nothing super-advanced, but they did show OPS, which is a small step in the right direction.

I got my hot dog, another "Big Red Smoky"—it was in fact quite a good dog—and wandered off to the condiment stand, where I found…they were out of ketchup, both kinds of mustard (bonus points for having brown mustard!), and onions. IN THE FIFTH INNING. OF A GAME THAT WASN’T EVEN CLOSE TO BEING SOLD OUT. WHAT THE HELL.  How is it possible that a ballpark runs out of condiments? 

Sorry, Cincinnati, so much for the bonus points—I gotta take points off for that one.

So, pick your grading scale—on a 1-to-10, I’d give GABP about a five, on a A-to-F scale I’d give it a C+, and on a scale used by my grade school I’d give it a “it could really do well if it would only apply itself every once in a while”. 

It’s a baseball stadium, which is inherently a good thing, but it’s so unremarkable that it’s hard to believe it’s part of the new wave of neo-classical baseball parks. Kind of a missed opportunity.

I didn’t go this time, but when i was there in December, I went to the Reds Hall Of Fame and Museum, next to the park, and that is probably one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in baseball.

Being a Mariners fan, I’m used to following a team with very little history; it was jawdropping to see a team with a ton of history (the Reds were the first professional baseball team, in 1890), not to mention the fact that the Reds have a ton of GOOD history—and to see bits of that history on display. It’s a very impressive museum, and redeems the ballpark experience quite a bit. If you go to Cincinnati, definitely make time to go to the museum—it’s even open in the offseason.

In case you wonder what my favorite ballpark is, or if I have a ranking of my favorites, well, I don’t really have a ranking. 

But PNC in Pittsburgh is probably my favorite, if I had to name one—it’s a stellar little ballpark in a fantastic setting. Random Phone Company Park in San Francisco’s right up there, too, as is Jacobs Field. Safeco’s definitely up there, as well, and the existence of GABP bumps Safeco up in my mind. 

I have come to think of Safeco as nice but somewhat generic, but now I’ve seen what “generic” really looks like, I have to reevaluate my opinion and bump Safeco up a few notches. It’s hard to be objective about Safeco, though, since I’ve spent so much time there. 

It’s safe to say, though, that Great American won’t crack my top-10; it’s a shame, because I really wanted it to blow me away and it just didn’t.


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