A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Florence Freedom open season with Home Run Derby featuring former Reds Reese, Sanders, Young

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

The Florence Freedom kicked off its 2018 Frontier League season in style at UC Health Stadium Thursday night against the Joliet Slammers.

In addition to participating in the Home Run Derby, former Cincinnati Reds stars, (l to r) Pokey Reese, Dmitri Young and Reggie Sanders threw out the first pitch at Thursday’s season opener for the Florence Freedom (photos by Mark Hansel). Click to enlarge.

A Home Run Derby featuring former Cincinnati Reds stars Pokey Reese, Reggie Sanders and Dmitri Young highlighted the Opening Day festivities and a few lucky fans got to join in the friendly competition.

The former Reds had to swing for the traditional fences and Young managed to yank a few over the right field wall. Fans chosen at random  that purchased special meet n’ greet packages and some media celebrities that were paired with the former major leaguers aimed for a shorter fence set up for the contest.

The former major leaguers also threw out the first pitch and signed autographs for fans.

Young said one of the highlights of his career was playing with Reese and he thanked the Freedom for “bringing them back together.”

Bryan Carter of Delhi Township is a longtime Freedom fan who has been to two Frontier League All Star Games and a previous opening day that included former Red Dave Concepcion. His kids bought him the VIP package for his birthday so he could meet a few more of his favorite players and he got a chance to spend a few minutes with Sanders Thursday.

Josh Sneed and his son Dean, 6, are avid Florence Freedom fans who enjoy the friendly atmosphere of Independent League baseball.

“I like Reggie and I like Dmitri, but really I like them all,” Carter said. “This place is great for the kids – there is always something going on – some of my grandkids are coming later tonight for the game. It’s an intimate setting, it’s not huge, so you don’t get lost and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

The evening also included dollar beers, a popular Freedom promotion, and the baseballs for the first pitches thrown out by the former Reds, were delivered by a UC Health air care helicopter.

Charles Huff of Crittenden said he has been to a lot of Freedom games. He said he loves UC Health Stadium and he loves baseball.

“It’s a great baseball game and atmosphere, it’s a great field and a great place to bring your family if you love baseball,” Huff said.

Josh Sneed of Union, was attending opening night with his six-year-old son, Dean, who has been coming to Freedom games for three years. Dean Sneed said the Freedom are his “favorite team” and he has been to about 20 games in his short career as a fan. He was excited to see the Home Run Derby

“It’s such a family-friendly place, it’s convenient, free parking, on and off the highway,” Josh Sneed said. “Dean has a peanut allergy and we love that it’s a peanut-free ballpark, so we don’t have to worry about that either, that’s a bonus.”

Florence City Councilman Mel Carroll said the Freedom are Florence’s team but he loves that fans come from all over to watch them play.

Former Cincinnati Reds stars (l to r) Pokey Reese, Reggie Sanders and Dmitri Young talked about what it means to be back in the area where they had some of their best seasons and how the game of baseball has changed in recent years.

“The Florence Freedom are something we are very proud of,” Carroll said. “We’re glad that we have a beautiful night here for baseball and we are looking forward to a great season, we’ve got a lot of great players. We invite everyone to come out and be a part of it all summer long.”

The former Reds stars spoke to the Tribune between the home run derby and an autograph session about how it felt to be back in the area where they enjoyed some of their best years, and how the game has changed since they played.

Reese, a two-time Gold Glover, came up as a shortstop, but is best-remembered as a second baseman. He was a member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that broke the “Curse of the Babe,” winning the team’s first World Series since 1918.

“It means a lot (to come back),” Reese said. “I played here for five years and for them to bring us back is an awesome feeling.”

Young came up with the St. Louis Cardinals, but blossomed as a Red, earning the nickname, “Da meat hook,” for his hitting prowess. He finished with a .292 lifetime batting average and was a two-time All Star with the Detroit Tigers after he left the Reds.

He said baseball is always fun.

“We try to get away from the game once we get out of it, but because of our love for the game it draws us back,” Young said.

Sanders came up with the Reds and was a standout during his seven seasons in Cincinnati. He was an All-Star in 1995 and finished sixth in the MVP voting that year.

He is one of a select group of players to hit 300 home runs and steal 300 bases during his career.

Sanders said even something like a home run derby can get the competitive juices flowing.

“I don’t know if you want to be THE guy, but you like to compete and like to think that you still can compete,” Sanders said.

Sanders joked that Young, the only left-handed hitter in the group, got his home runs because the wind was blowing out to right field.

“And I took advantage of it,” Young said.

All agreed that the use of analytics has changed the game since they played, and the jury is still out on whether it is for the better.

“When I was getting out of it, they started getting more and more into the numbers and teams are hiring guys out of Harvard that are good at number-crunching,” Young said. “They are trying to create a player based on numbers and I think it has a place in the game, but it’ not the be-all, end-all. Old-fashioned scouting, using (your eyes) to evaluate players is the way to go but the analytics should be a part of it.”

Freedom owner Kim Brown talked before the season opener about what baseball and the team meant to her late husband. Clint Brown, who died unexpectedly in January, purchased the Freedom out of bankruptcy in 2004.

Reese said you need guys in the game who played the game and Sanders said it’s hard for players to respect a coach who has not.

“Players look at those baseball cards and if the guy trying to teach them has never played the game, it will go in one ear and out the other,” Sanders said.

Despite the excitement generated by the beginning of a new season and the Opening Night festivities, there was a somber tone at times in the evening.

Clint Brown, who had owned the team since 2004 and was the face of the Freedom, died unexpectedly in January. Brown purchased the team out of bankruptcy and the “Big Man” worked tirelessly to make the Freedom a top-notch competitor in the Independent Frontier League.

Brown would have been proud of his team Thursday as the Freedom opened the season with a 9-4 win over the Slammers.

Kim Brown assistant general manager and now the team’s owner, teared up as he talked about her husband’s passion for baseball and the Freedom.

“My husband was a baseball nut and when this came available and he bought it, he poured his heart and soul into it,” Brown said. “He’s made it a great thing for families. Our kids were brought up here and our grandchildren are being brought up here – our youngest granddaughter is 15 months old and she loves baseball. We did this for the community and to provide a place so families can be here like our family is.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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