Cardinal Baseball’s Bases Are Loaded

There aren’t many guarantees – not in a tournament where five of the eight national seeds were bounced in the regional round a year ago, and where a No. 4 seed (the equivalent of a No. 13-16 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament) won the whole thing in 2008.

Regardless of what Dan McDonnell’s team does during this weekend’s regional tournament at Jim Patterson Stadium, here’s one thing I think we can say for sure: Louisville baseball has officially become “a thing.” And not just a “here’s something fun to follow now that basketball is over” thing, but a “one of the hottest and most respected programs in the entire country” thing.

Cardinal baseball may as well not have existed when I was growing up in Louisville, even though I dedicated a solid chunk of my teenage years to the sport. There was no real marketing of the program. They played at dingy Old Cardinal Stadium, and they didn’t win very much. In fact, when Dan McDonnell arrived on Floyd Street in 2007, UofL had made just one NCAA Tournament appearance and had never won a game in the big dance. You can fill in most of the major blanks in the story of the time between then and now.

Even with the College World Series appearances, conference championships, and regionals and super regionals at Jim Patterson Stadium, McDonnell’s greatest accomplishment as a head coach might have been making Louisville baseball cool. Sure, success has a tendency to breed buzz and excitement, but not always. Success doesn’t guarantee something like a record crowd of 6,138 fans showing up for a regular season home game against Florida State. Success doesn’t guarantee that local Little League squads are going to start making team excursions to watch you play instead of hitting up the Triple-A affiliate in the bigger stadium.

Photo by Michelle Hutchins | Louisville Athletics

Photo by Michelle Hutchins | Louisville Athletics

These are the things that are happening in a city that long ago ditched the ball with 108 stitches for the inflated one. Call it a long overdue baseball renaissance.

As one of the first Major League Baseball cities in America, Louisville’s Colonels played in the American Association from 1882-1891. The club won the pennant in 1890 and went on to play in an early version of the World Series, where they tied the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in three games. Though irrelevant in the broad scheme of things and absurd because it ended in a tie, the series is historically important: Legend has it that during one of these games Colonels star Pete Browning used a bat made by young Bud Hillerich at his father’s woodworking shop. This first bat would eventually evolve into the Louisville Slugger brand that would pervade the game at every level.

Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most notable Louisvillian of all, exuded courage throughout his career. But one of the most noble acts in the history of sports occurred in the summer of 1947 when universally respected Dodger captain – and Louisville native  –Pee Wee Reese walked outside of his dugout and draped his arm around a rookie named Jackie Robinson, who was being given a particularly hard time by the home crowd in Cincinnati. Though he would be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1984, it was this act (as well as his refusal to sign a petition started by Dodger players during spring training in ’47 – which said they would boycott the season if Robinson was brought up) that made him one of the most revered men in the history of baseball.

Even for those raised when the city’s reputation for basketball obsession was firmly in place, there’s something special about baseball that any Louisvillians who’ve dedicated a solid chunk of their lives to the sport could tell you.

Now the city’s biggest diamond show resides on South Second Street, and it will be on full display again when Louisville takes the field as the NCAA Tournament’s No. 3 overall seed this weekend. Regardless of what happens at Jim Patterson over these next couple of weeks, McDonnell has made Cardinal baseball an attraction larger than any of us who grew up here could’ve imagined.