At last, a night at the ballpark

An ode to the Clippers' triumphant return

Kevin J. Elliott
The Columbus Clippers face the Louisville Bats at Huntington Park in 2019.

Huntington Park, home of the Columbus Clippers since 2009, has routinely been named one of the best minor league venues in the nation. Even if you don’t enjoy baseball, or even sporting events in general, catching a game at Huntington Park is an excellent and affordable way to reacclimate with humanity. 

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Starting June 15 Huntington Park will roll at full capacity, but when I visited on a recent Friday night, masks were still required, seats were distanced in pods and the ushers were working overtime to provide an extremely safe environment. It truly felt as if we were breaking the seal.

If you’re vaccinated (Huntington was even offering free jabs at the information booth), the outdoors is still where you want to be this summer, and at a Clippers’ game, there’s no lack of fresh air. The best Clippers experience is arguably a standing-room ticket, usually found for less than $10, which you can use to roam the compact, homespun luxuries of Huntington Park, stopping at the rails in right field or the grassy knoll in center to attach yourself to the game, even if it's just for a moment. 

Given there have been Major League Baseball franchises in both Cleveland and Cincinnati for well over a century, it’s unlikely Columbus will ever get that sparkling designation. That doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to love about Columbus’ history as a Minor League baseball city. Professional baseball has been played here since 1894, save for a six-year span when the Columbus Jets left town for Charleston, West Virginia, in 1971 and when the Clippers were born in 1977. Cooper Stadium, now decaying on the Near East Side, was an icon of the minor leagues, hosting the likes of Don Mattingly, Derek Jeter and Roberto Kelly before they became stars for the Yankees.

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Since the closing of Cooper and the opening of Huntington, things were made clean and new, the price of beer was raised, corporate boxes lined the space behind home plate, and the Clippers fittingly became the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. But the upgrade hasn’t sterilized a single thing about the communal charm of baseball. The ballpark still commits to the infamous dime-a-dog night. You can still toss your peanut shells on the ground. You can boo, hiss and cheer, and in between it all you still respond to the organist's six notes that end with “Charge!” 

Minor League ballparks, despite the upgrades, still have a scrappy lawlessness — a reflection of the perseverance and lack of spotlight a minor league roster goes through every day. For our Clippers, the goal is a steady career in professional baseball. For current catcher Ryan Lavarnway (more on him in a moment), who has been a vagabond of the MLB, now playing for his eighth team in a 10-year tenure, being a Clipper is a demotion. I’m sure his promise to his team is to play hard each and every night, but when Lavarnway is behind the plate, you can bet his hope is that at any moment the Indians will call him up to play prime-time at the Jake.

I suppose it’s that underdog spirit that gives minor league baseball a quirky allegiance. No matter the players on the field on any given night, you participate. The ballpark gives you credence, a freedom among the crowd. Though you are not wholly anonymous in that crowd, it allows for a positive mob mentality. You are all rooting for a win. 

Down 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning, this game against the Omaha Storm Chasers was out of reach and the beer had stopped flowing. A rowdy group of 20-somethings had become inchoate to the proceedings on the field and began a game of cup stacking. At first it was an annoyance. Was it time to leave?

Eventually, though, the feat became impressive enough that the Jumbotron producer thought it more important than the actual game. We played along. Kids were scavenging leftover litter from the ground and adding to the now-snakelike stream of empty cups stretching several rows of seats. At one point, even as the Clippers had tacked on two runs and had the bases loaded with no outs, the camera followed a group hauling another equally serpentine collection of cups from the other side of the park. They connected. 

The entirety of Huntington Park at this point was chanting, “Ral-ly cups! Ral-ly cups!” Eventually “Sell more beer!” became the call, with little attention paid to the game. It was then our buddy, Ryan Lavarnway, hit a deep grand slam to the left-field bleachers. Before a suitable reaction there was a palpable pause. The “rally cups” had worked! The lights flickered. The crowd realized the fortune of Lavarnway. Eruption. Cups filled the sky as drops of leftover swill rained down on fans who didn’t seem to mind. In that moment, Lavarnway was the star, a hero. The Clippers won 10-7.

It’s true, baseball can be brutally boring for those who don’t take the time to adapt to the pace of the game. Learning how to keep score, how to read a stat line, the complexity of rules and regulations — these are things that can be taught and appreciated, that can transcend mere sport. The “rally cups” and the eventual grand slam, those were incidents of pure, magical baseball I encountered in my first return to the ballpark, and that I’ve encountered many times in my past. If anything, our collective time away has only enhanced this experience. Don’t take these summer nights for granted. 

Huntington Park returns to full capacity starting June 15 with a series against the Toledo Mud Hens. Visit milb.com/columbus for a full schedule and to purchase tickets.