Playing in a city that’s known for college basketball and the Kentucky Derby as much as anything else, Louisville baseball was inherently tasked with a seemingly impossible assignment: capture the hearts and minds of the local fans while competing during the Spring months. With all due respect to free admission and dollar beers, winning big at the sport’s highest level was the only way to make that happen, and that had never come close to happening. And yet here we are.
Somehow we’ve reached a point where we expect the Cardinal Nine to be the biggest story in the area come late May and early June, where fans hopping on the Louisville baseball bandwagon has become a tradition every bit as celebrated as Memorial Day cookouts and Waterfront Wednesdays on the Big Four Lawn.
If you were new to the city and experienced what happened at Jim Patterson Stadium last weekend, you would have thought folks around here would have been doing this for decades. The reality is, we’re less than one decade removed from a place where no one, not even those associated with the program, could have imagined this.
You see the words “in program history” floating around all the time when a sport is in the thick of its postseason, but for all intents and purposes, the Dan McDonnell era at Louisville is the program’s history.
Before McDonnell arrived in 2007, UofL had been to exactly one NCAA Tournament (2002) and won exactly zero games in the Big Dance. Since then, the Cards have missed the tournament just once, crashed the College World series twice, captured four regional titles and will be hosting a super regional for the second time this weekend.
For all the incredible success the Tom Jurich era has wrought, I’m not sure any compare with the miracle of Louisville baseball.
To put it in a light that’s easier to process for the hoops heads in the area, what McDonnell has been able to do at UofL is the equivalent of Northwestern basketball coming out of nowhere this season and beginning a decade of top-tier success that includes a pair of trips to the Final Four. It’s unthinkable until it actually happens.
On Sunday night, more than 4,300 fans sat in the rain to watch Louisville defeat Kentucky in a game that was supposed to begin at 6 p.m., but which wound up not ending until after midnight. To me, that fact is about as significant as any moment the program has experienced up to this point, because 10 years ago even the players’ parents and significant others were using the first sighting of a cloud as an excuse to leave Old Cardinal Stadium early.
It was easy to get excited about Louisville hosting a super regional for the first time in 2007, easy to get pulled back in when the Cards were a national seed in 2010 or when they made the trip back to Omaha a year ago. There was nothing easy about this past weekend. The weather was light-years away from being ideal, the games were constantly delayed and noticeably lacking in offense when they were played, and yet the fans were there for all of it. And they were loud. And they did it without the enabler of alcohol being sold inside the stadium. And they’ll do it all again this weekend when the Cards host Kennesaw State.
Being a baseball fan requires commitment, and watching a game, whether in person or on television, demands constant attention and involvement, things the average modern human 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 and its relationship with the Derby City, something which now rears its head for a few glorious weeks every year.
Baseball is a sport of mythic contradictions and inherent ironies, which is why I’ve always seen it as being perfect for Louisville. 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 proven to be years ahead of its time.
Basketball remaining king in Louisville for the next 100 years is about as safe a bet as there is, but baseball still demands its place within the city’s sports culture. Thanks to Dan McDonnell and the magic of the past eight seasons, Cardinal baseball has not only filled that void, but become one of Louisville’s most exciting and reliable traditions.
Photos by BILL WINE | Contributing Photographer