This is an excerpt from the latest edition of the Ben's Biz Beat Newsletter, bringing Minor League Baseball business and culture news to your inbox each and every Thursday. Check out the full newsletter HERE. Subscribe HERE.
Whoa, it’s the offseason. Going forward, I will ration my remaining in-season material in the style of a pragmatic captain overseeing his ship’s food supply during a harrowing Arctic expedition. Best to have something to fall back on in times of need, lest we be reduced to eating our shoes … or worse.
Today’s focus is the antepenultimate stop of my 2023 Minor League ballpark travels: Louisville Slugger Field, home of the Louisville Bats (Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds). I was in attendance on Friday, Sept. 8, a sublime evening for International League baseball.
Downtown Louisville packs a remarkable baseball punch, as Louisville Slugger Field is several blocks east of the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. (There are multiple distilleries in between the two, this being the Bourbon District and all.)
The ballpark’s stately main entrance, fronted by a statue of Louisville’s own Pee Wee Reese, opens into a massive foyer. The building was originally used as a warehouse and train shed; rather than tear it down, these historic edifices were incorporated into the design of Louisville Slugger Field. (In this regard it is similar to Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium, which also has a converted train shed architectural motif).
Walking out of the erstwhile train shed and onto the concourse, one finds the most bridge-laden backdrop in Minor League Baseball. The Second Street Bridge is on the left-field side, spanning the Ohio River. On the right, there’s the JFK Memorial Bridge as well as the Big Four Bridge, which provides pedestrian access between Louisville and Jeffersonville, Ind. These also span the Ohio River. Everything spans the Ohio River.
Louisville Slugger Field opened in 2000 and underwent an extensive renovation in 2020. Improvements include two outfield bar areas, a right-field berm, additional videoboards, an expanded kids area and the removal of the bleachers. This reduced the seating capacity somewhat, from a satisfyingly palindromic 13,131 to something closer to 11,000.
This is all a long way from the Bats’ former home of Cardinal Stadium, where they played from their 1982 inception (as the Redbirds) through 1999. The ballpark’s largest-ever crowd packed the joint for a 50-cent hot dog promotion.
I took the above picture (of a picture) during a ballpark walk-and-talk with Bats president Greg Galiette. He’s been with the team since 1984 and had some great stories about the Cardinal Stadium days, ranging from aromatic Grateful Dead shows to terrifying thunderstorms to the diverse array of wildlife that resided within.
The team was, fittingly, a Cardinals affiliate during the bulk of their Cardinal Stadium days. The Reds affiliation began in 2000, the same year that Louisville Slugger Field opened. Deion Sanders scored the first run in the ballpark’s history, but he’s not at the top of the list of Bats icons. That would be indefatigable backstop Corky Miller, who played parts of 10 seasons in Louisville. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (548), doubles (99) and mustache recognition.
It is worth noting that both of Kentucky’s Minor League teams have whiskey-based alternate identities. When I visited the Bowling Green Hot Rods, they played as the Bootleggers. The Bats, meanwhile, sometimes suit up as the Mashers. (That barrel isn’t grimacing. It’s a rye smile.)
When the game began, I headed up to the ballpark’s second level, which is a sneaky good spot from which to watch the action. Elevated yet intimate, like camping on a mountain. It was from this vantage point that I saw rehabbing Joey Votto walk up to the plate to the strains of “Jolene” and then hit a double (almost certainly the antepenultimate hit of his Minor League career).
The second level is the domain of my pal Stevo, part of my informal nationwide network of Minor League friends (join us). I wrote an article about Stevo’s scorekeeping prowess in 2014 and, nine years later, he’s still at it. He’s already got a system down for marking pitches that were reviewed as part of the ABS challenge system. Do you?
Louisville’s high rollers -- horseracing barons and whiskey distributors and the like -- are perhaps more likely to be found in the On Deck Club. The seats are closer to the batter than the pitcher is, assuming the pitcher is on the mound.
While in the On Deck Club, I got an up-close-and-personal look at Louisville’s own Zooperstars!. They’ve been stalwarts of the ballpark touring circuit for decades, performing madcap between-inning skits featuring the likes of Ken Giraffey Jr. (left) and Harry Canary.
The Zooperstars! were founded by Dom Latkovski, who got his start performing as Louisville Redbirds mascot Billy Bird during the Cardinal Stadium days. I briefly caught up with Dom near the On Deck Club’s food and beverage area. He was dressed as a member of the opposing St. Paul Saints for an upcoming skit. Dom is not to be confused with Oliver Ortega (number 62), an actual St. Paul Saint.
Also, this On Deck Club contraption is not to be confused with a Keurig. It’s like a Keurig, but instead of coffee it makes cocktails. The newest way to make an old fashioned. I was enthralled.
But enough about drinks. Let’s talk about food. Designated Eater Greg Hotopp was a repeat performer, having previously performed the task at an Indianapolis Indians game in 2014. Here’s an archival photo of Greg and I, from that long-ago evening at Victory Field.
In 2014 Greg was a resident of Indianapolis. These days he’s closer to his Cincinnati roots, residing in the small town of LaGrange. (“The only town in America with a train running down its main street,” he reports). Greg was at the game with his wife, Traci, and their two kids. Our first stop was a small kiosk located on the concourse behind home plate, which sells what Greg Galiette calls “The filet mignon of Louisville Slugger Field.”
A fried bologna sandwich, in other words.
Designated Eater Greg reported that the fried bologna “tastes like you think it would,” which is probably a compliment. “It’s an elevated take on a Southern classic,” he concluded. That was definitely a compliment.
We then proceeded to the Overlook Grill, on the outfield concourse. This location sells a variety of barbecue items, courtesy of local Four Pegs Smokehouse and Bar. One such item -- the Grand Slam -- is essentially everything in one: Pulled pork, brisket, chicken, French fries and pickles, served on a roll. It costs $25, but on the plus side it could easily feed two.
Greg, proudly wearing the Designated Eater shirt he procured in 2014, spent a lot of time contemplating the Grand Slam. Ultimately, he decided that cutlery was required.
“A mess, that’s my first impression,” said Greg. “Sweet sauce, meaty, fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender. It’s kind of transcendent. It’s not Arby’s. This is ALL the meats. They have the meats at Four Pegs.”
Thank you to two-time Designated Eater Greg Hotopp, a man of rare distinction. And thank you to, well, you. Your readership is greatly appreciated. I’ll have more for you to read from Louisville down the line. Next week, the road trip narrative resumes across the Ohio River. See you then, Hoosiers.
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Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.