Hal McCoy: Baseball works in Dayton — who knew?

Former Dayton Dragon Amir Garrett pitches during the Reds Futures game at Fifth Third Field on Saturday, April 1, 2017. The 2017 Reds lineup took on the top prospects in the Reds farm system. Nick Falzerano/Contributed
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Former Dayton Dragon Amir Garrett pitches during the Reds Futures game at Fifth Third Field on Saturday, April 1, 2017. The 2017 Reds lineup took on the top prospects in the Reds farm system. Nick Falzerano/Contributed

The Futures Game on Saturday at Fifth Third Field brought back a bad memory, a column I wrote that I now wish I had kept in my laptop.

It was 1999, the same year the Cincinnati Reds came within a loss to the New York Mets of making the postseason.

The announcement was made that for the first time since the 1950s the city of Dayton would possess a minor league baseball team.

I nearly choked on my Honey Nut Cheerios and then laughed and shook my head. Whose foolhardy idea was this? Minor league baseball in Dayton? Don’t ask me to invest.

I immediately sat down and wrote a column in which I penned prophetically, “Baseball will never fly in Dayton. Why would fans pay good money to watch a Class A minor league team when the Cincinnati Reds are only 50 miles away?”

I sure barreled up that one and knocked it out of the park, right? The Dayton Dragons began play in 2000 and their streak of consecutive sellouts is at 1,177. Yeah, minor-league baseball won’t fly in Dayton. It not only flies, it uses rocket fuel.

Emphasis on my false prophecy surfaced Saturday when the Reds played an all-star collection of their minor-leaguers at Fifth Third Field. The Futures Game sold out shortly after tickets went on sale, fans were cluttered on the grass behind the right field wall, they sold $10 standing-room seats and 8,837 showed up.

And it was 42 degrees at game time with a chill wind blowing in off the Great Miami River that left icicles dangling from ear lobes. And most of them saw it all, a 5-1 Reds victory achieved on a three-run home run in the sixth inning by Rule 5 catcher Stuart Turner and a solo home run each from Scott Schebler and Patrick Kivlehan.

There were 16 former Dayton Dragons on the rosters of the Reds and the Futures. When Amir Garrett makes his starting debut for the Reds in St. Louis next week he’ll be the 82nd former Dragon to put on a Reds uniform. Among the noteworthies of the first Dragons team in 2000 were Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns.

Garrett was on the mound Saturday as the Reds starter, making his final tuneup. It was a long trip from the time the Reds coaxed him out of St. John’s University, where he played basketball, to where he is now.

He pitched three scoreless innings and held the Futures to three hits with no walks and three strikeouts.

“I got beat up a little bit when I first got here,” said Garrett, referring to late 2013 when he was 1-3 with a 6.88 earned-run average in eight starts for the Dragons. “I was pretty raw and I was 25 pounds lighter.”

Maybe basketball wasn’t such a bad idea for the 6-foot-5, 228-pound left-hander.

“I remember those beatings, but then I had a pretty good second half in 2014 and the fans were awesome — the main thing that I remember,” said Garrett. “The fans and the boosters were really good to us here in Dayton. I really loved it.”

Of the current Reds, Joey Votto, Zack Cozart, Tucker Barnhart and Billy Hamilton, among others, spent time in Dayton. Adam Duvall didn’t.

The Reds played in Louisville on Friday night against their Class AAA team, the Bats. It was a big night for Duvall, a native of Louisville who didn’t play in Dayton because he came to the Reds from the Giants in the Mike Leake trade.

“Duvall had his night Friday in Louisville,” said Hamilton. “I told him when we got to Dayton, ‘This is my city.’ I was just messing with him because I played a lot here and he didn’t play here. I told him, ‘Last night was your night, today is my day.’ ”

Nick Senzel makes a play at third base during the Reds Futures game at Fifth Third Field on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Senzel, the top prospect in the Reds farm system and the No. 2 prospect in all of minor league baseball, played third base for the Futures squad.
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Nick Senzel makes a play at third base during the Reds Futures game at Fifth Third Field on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Senzel, the top prospect in the Reds farm system and the No. 2 prospect in all of minor league baseball, played third base for the Futures squad.

Hamilton might have been “just messing” with Duvall, but what he said is true. Hamilton probably was the most popular player to come through Dayton.

In 2011 he stole 103 bases, an all-time Reds organization record. The next year at Bakersfield and Carolina, he set an all-time professional record at any level with 155 thefts.

Hamilton played shortstop in Dayton and there was a game when the left fielder, standing near the warning track, lost the ball in the sun. Hamilton realized it and sprinted from shortstop to deep left field and caught the ball with his back to the infield. Yes, Hamilton can outrun the sun. And there was the time he scored from second base on a shallow fly.

That’s the stuff of which legends are made and Hamilton was legendary during his short stay in Dayton. His visit Saturday was quiet, two outs in two at-bats.

Blake Trahan fields a ground in the infield during the Reds Futures game on Saturday, April 1, 2017 at Fifth Third Field.
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Blake Trahan fields a ground in the infield during the Reds Futures game on Saturday, April 1, 2017 at Fifth Third Field.

“There are memories here, especially in Dayton,” Hamilton said before the game. “It was the year we broke the record at 815 (consecutive sellouts) and I was so happy to be a part of it.

“And now it’s amazing to come back here and see all the same fans who supported me when I was here.”

Reds manager Bryan Price believes it is an uplifting experience for the team’s minor-leaguers to play in Dayton.

“You don’t forget your experiences at places like this,” said Price. “A lot of people think players make the big leagues and forget what happened to them beforehand. And that’s not the case.

“Having a facility like this and playing in front of a sellout every night is something that most young players can’t talk about. They went from high school to college where they played in front of maybe a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people.

“Then they come to Dayton and play in front of a sellout every single night and it is a great way for us to introduce our young players to professional baseball. After this, it isn’t until they get up to (Class AAA) Louisville or to Cincinnati that they can expect something like this.”

Price recalled his Class A days playing “at a couple of spots in the California League that probably didn’t average more than a couple of hundred people a game.

“The game has grown and the owners of these affiliates have done a great job of building a fan base and making the experience in these mini-parks special with inter-active stuff and better food, giving fans a million different reasons to go to the ballpark regardless of age.”

And there they were on this chilly afternoon, draped mostly in red, over-stuffing the downtown ballpark. Yes, like the Wright brothers, baseball flies in Dayton.

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