After just one game, a favorite has emerged to win the comeback player of the year award.
He's Mr. Red.
Retired for 15 seasons, the Reds' mascot is back. His uniform - No. 27 - and his 30-pound, baseball-shaped head are filled by Cincinnatian Jason Levy, a 21-year-old junior at Kent State University.
Mr. Red emerged from retirement to work Tuesday's Opening Day. With him came a feeling of hope. This year, things will be better, not just for the home team, but for baseball. And, for the fans in the stands.
The feelings Mr. Red brought to Cinergy Field were long overdue and sorely needed.
For the first time since 1993, Opening Day did not begin under a cloud of adversity or tragedy. The 1994 season opened on a cold Easter night to 23,000 empty seats.
The 1995 season opener had to be delayed after a lingering strike was settled and replacement players were sent packing.
Last year, umpire John McSherry collapsed and died at home plate, seven pitches into the game. The game was canceled and played the next day.
This year, Opening Day began with the distinct sense that the game's spark had returned.
You could feel it in the crowd lining the route of the Findlay Market Parade.
''The emphasis is back where it belongs, on the game, not on Marge Schott,'' said Jeff Wise as the East Central High School band from Saint Leon, Ind., marched by.
After the band passed, the registered nurse added: ''This year, baseball belongs to the people again. Look how they've responded. The game is sold out and the sidewalks are packed.'' He nodded to people standing five and 10 deep along the parade route.
As the crowd of 54,820 streamed into the ballpark, Clifford Harper of Scott Depot, W.Va., sat down in the red seats to take in his first Opening Day with his sons, Ashley and Clayton.
''This is a joyous occasion, a festival,'' he said. ''The spark is back in baseball because the players are not in it just for the money, but to play the game again.''
Two levels down, in the green seats, Mr. Red was being greeted like a long-lost friend.
Pretty women hugged him and pinched the red stitches on his leathery cheeks.
Little kids shook his hand and stared in wonder at his round baseball head.
Men wearing intense Opening Day game faces grinned, high-fived him and gave him a hearty welcome.
''Nice to see you again, big guy,'' said Joe DiMario of Hyde Park.
Mr. Red waved.
''You're looking good,'' Joe said.
Mr. Red gave him two thumbs up.
Man and mascot shook hands.
''How long has it been since your last Opening Day?'' Joe asked.
Told that Mr. Red had been on the retired list since 1982, Joe was shocked.
''He looks great,'' he said. ''Hasn't aged a bit. Somebody must have been feeding him all these years.''
Mr. Red didn't hear that. He was busy posing for pictures.
A camera flashed in his face and that of Matt Jenkins from Portsmouth, Ohio. Matt wore a Barry Larkin button pinned to a Deion Sanders jersey.
''I want to be the Reds' shortstop when I grow up,'' he said.
Barry Larkin won't have to worry. Matt's only 7.
Matt's dad, Scott, a teacher, was playing photographer.
Scott did some quick math. He's 30. He remembered when he was Matt's age.
The Big Red Machine ruled baseball. ''Mr. Red was always around. Those were great days. I'm glad he's back.''
Me, too. I take his return as a good omen. The sight of Mr. Red posing for snapshots, shaking hands and giving high-fives is a positive sign. After years of derailments and train wrecks between the Reds and their fans, baseball in Cincinnati is finally getting back on track.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.
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