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Text & Photos by Douglas John Imbrogno
By happenstance, I recently booked a two-night stay in downtown Cincinnati and one of those nights turned out to be opening day for the 2022 season of the Cincinnati Reds. This gave me a ringside seat as morning blossomed above the Queen City that Tuesday, and the city saw red.
Literally. Everywhere you turned, adults, teens and kids came out of the woodwork dressed in clothes the color of a candy apple sitting on Little Red Riding Hood’s cape on a firetruck. It was as if the city gods were slowly torquing the saturation levels of red as morning inched toward the witching hour of noon. That was when a massive parade uncorked, full of marching bands and cops, old Reds stars like former shortstop Barry Larkin, and a full-on Scottish bagpipe troupe whose martial piping echoed down the city canyons.
Even before that, some Opening Day celebrants hovered over food and drink. Lots of food, much drink. One place to be — one place Cincinnatians have seen and been seen on Opening Day for more than a century — was Arnold’s Bar and Grill. The tavern opened at the start of the Civil War in 1861, and is the oldest continuously operating bar in Cincinnati, and, in fact, one of America’s oldest bars. (Speaking of tried-and-true history, the locale apparently began life as a brothel in 1838.)
It’s an Arnold’s Thing (click to enlarge)
The Cincinnati Reds are akin to a civic religion in the city. (Were you to fling a crow in the four directions of the compass, the devotion would also reach farther than that crow might fly before resting.) Variously named the Redlegs, Red Stockings, and finally just the Reds, the team was originally part of the American Association from 1882 to 1889. They’ve called the National League home ever since, one of only five 19th-century teams still playing in its original city.
It helps that the Reds, unlike more routinely hapless franchises, have had some serious “Glory Days.” One era, of course, is Big Red Machine days, a dazzling epoch. That was when the Reds’ team — in this succinct thumbnail description — “dominated the National League from 1970 to 1979 and is widely recognized as being among the best in baseball history.”
The View from a Vine Street Bar (click to enlarge)
The star players’ names from that era are iconic, even to someone with only a passing acquaintance with the game: Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez. But to those of of us who grew up in Cincinnati at the time, they were like Marvel superheroes come to life in our neighborhood.
These baseball gods were doing the things they did — for at least half the season, and more if they made the playoffs — not that far down Interstate 75 from my house in the suburbs. Hence, there is a reason my first career goal as a boy was not to become the ink-stained (and later pixel-drunk) wretch I became.
It stood to reason. Someday Joe Morgan had to retire as second baseman for the Big Red Machine. I played second base for The Mustangs in the Forest Park Little League. Me and younger brother Rick at shortstop turned a double play that won us a championship at, like, age 11 or 12, at Fresno Field in Forest Park. This was not 30 miles from (initially) Crosley Field, and later Riverfront Stadium.
Ergo, who better to keep the Big Red Machine oiled and clicking as the team rolled onward, out of one era and into another, powered by my admittedly skinny arm, whipping the ball to Lee May at first base.
I would have to lift weights and work on those No. 2 Ticonderoga pencil-thin biceps. I hoped, too, my last name would not be too long to fit neatly onto the back of my Reds jersey …
This was, after all, a Team for the Ages.
Let’s roll tape. During the heyday of The Big Red Machine, the Reds won six National League West Division titles, four National League pennants, two World Series titles. Between 1970 and 1979, the team averaged more than 95 wins a season with a total record of 953 wins and 657 losses.
So, there was a reason so many people in the bars and lining the parade route wore not only jerseys naming current Reds’ stars, but also ones who haven’t been seen at home base in a dusted-up uniform in more than 40 years.
Johnny Bench, for instance. Bench, who played his whole career with the Reds from 1967 through 1983, is, certainly one of the top five greatest catchers in major league baseball history. In googling up research for this story, I learn a fact I did not know or recall — that he also briefly played first and third early on, before finding his sweet spot behind the plate.
If you want to really feel ancient, you old-timers, note this. Bench made his major league debut on Aug. 28, 1967, the very same month Yippie provocateur Abbie Hoffman disrupted trading at the New York Stock Exchange by throwing dollar bills from the viewing gallery, causing trading to cease as brokers scrambled to grab them.
Yeah, we’re that old, some of us Reds veterans.
Parade Routing (click to enlarge)
I admit that as an adult I have fallen away from the game, from the Reds, and from big-time sports, in general. It is partly because of how big the various big leagues have become, with franchises negotiating billion-dollar TV deals and every fifth player seeming to be a mega-multi-millionaire.
Maybe, too, it’s that being an ink-and-pixel-drenched wretch has not been so wretched, after all. Marquee sports no longer fill the need they filled when I was a boy, in dire need of male role-model heroes. I was hungry for icons and head-over-heels in love with a team that seemed as if it had dropped in from Asgard to entertain and inspire us kids.
America has become complicated, too. It has always been so, of course. Yet big-time sports, at least for me, no longer quite serves the happy-smiling-people civic function it once did.
And, too, I found myself pulling back, even inadvertently recoiling a bit, during the opening day parade when a cadre of Cincinnati cops strolled by, waving and smiling Norman Rockwell grins at the crowd, their guns, tasers, and assorted gear jangling about their waists. We live in a post-George Floyd/Breonna Taylor/(fill in the name of a cop-killed Black person) world. The old tried-and-true symbols for safety and security don’t have quite the same vibe.
Yet we must surely add that there are good cops, bad cops, and in-between cops, just as in any profession (if we are toting up goodness, badness, and in-betweenness). In fact, I had a joyful reunion while in town with my college newspaper editor, whose son works for Cincinnati’s police force and is one of the good guys. Bravo for the good guys! Keep them coming.
Cincinnati, too, has its own complex history that smiley parades gloss over. There is a reason the URL for a page titled “List of Cincinnati Riots’ lists a dozen entries, dating as far back as 1792. The compilation notes: ‘Some riots were fueled by racial tension, while others by issues such as employment conditions and political justice.’ The list includes the May 29, 2020, protests centered in the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, after George Floyd was summarily executed in Minneapolis four days previously, by the knee and the cold, dead heart of city police officer Derek Chauvin.
We must take and celebrate advances where we find them. Bravo, too, that these several years later there looks to be a vibrant renaissance in Over-the-Rhine (more on that in the next installment of this Picture/Show two-parter).
I am sure it is complicated. Still, it’s good to witness.
There came this moment for me as the parade began ramping up. It was right before it headed our way down Race Street, trooping toward the heart of the city at Fountain Square. Here comes this long, exuberant line of blaring bands, folks waving in cars and firetrucks, and a flood of Reds iconography, not to mention Barry Larkin himself.
This team’s roots burrow deep into the city’s life, encoded in the DNA of generations, current and historical, including all those deceased fans slotted away in graves across the city and suburbs.
Right now, on this day, many thousands of parade-watchers mingle the length and breadth of Race Street, an arterial throughway in Cincinnati’s body politic. White, Black, Asian, Latin and beyond. Really old people and young old people like me. Middle-agers and twenty-somethings, teenagers, kids, and babies.
It may be the journalist in me that felt this frisson of alertness in the midst of all the conviviality. What if someone set off a bomb, as happened at the Boston Marathon some years ago? What if someone popped off one of the guns that now routinely drench America in blood — the ubiquitous firearms that, according to a Cincinnati family member of mine, transform downtown, for all its revival, into a hazardous place if you make the wrong turn at the wrong time of night.
Yet that didn’t happen, thanks be to Odin and the various gods of Asgard. It was a fun, raucous, multifarious, crazy, ridiculous parade. The best kind. It was too long, which is why I ducked back into the Vine Street bar, my Parade Headquarters (wherein I was served a dangerously innocent-seeming $4 Irish whiskey lemonade). There, I withdrew to take more pictures of revelers, to witness the scene, to rest my feet.
My moment of epiphany happened while shoulder deep in the crowd. Babies, boys and men, girls and women packed all around. The city buzzed with pleasure and conversation. Lots and lots and lots of red on view, every which way you looked.
However you felt or feel about the Reds (they lost, by the way), everyone had been brought onto the streets to celebrate the same thing. Even if you weren’t exactly cheering on a major league ball team’s return to the pitch, you were enjoying the bone-deep, satisfying security, and ancient comfort of primates gathered together as a tribe.
It was a festival day.
So, why, I note, has my chest clutched up with a pleasing warmth? What is this film of water sheeting my eyes?
Can’t we just get along? Is this actually possible, all evidence to the contrary from the despair-a-thon underway as we speak on news feeds and social media, waiting 24-7 to remind us all is likely lost? Is all really lost?
For more than a few moments — hours even — if you squinted, if you relaxed, if you tuned into the good vibrations downtown on Opening Day 2022, everything, by God, was right with the world in the city.
Which is why the Reds could lose, and the parade that cheered their return to the stadium earlier in the day didn’t lose a whit of its joy, pleasure, and comfort in what was achieved and experienced. By all of us.
A short clip of scenes from the Cincinnati Reds Opening Day parade on April 12, 2022, along Vine Street in Cincinnati, Ohio.
DOUGLAS JOHN IMBROGNO is editor of the monthly multimedia magazine WestVirginiaVille.com and co-founder of the storytelling documentary and video production shop AmpMediaProject.com, based in Huntington WV. He spent the bulk of my career as a feature writer and editor for the Charleston Gazette and Gazette-Mail in the capital city of West Virginia. He may no longer be able to turn a double-play, but he can write a double-feature just fine these days. P.S. Thanks to Jeff Seager for his editing and feedback prowess on this piece.