A beloved Reds Twitter topic of our own Chad Dotson involves not one single player on one single Reds team:
Literally my favorite thing about Reds fans of my generation is that EVERYONE remembers loving these as a kid. And no one can really explain why. https://t.co/KYN854YndZ
— Chad Dotson (@dotsonc) February 2, 2023
Every time this topic arises, the replies are awash in praise and fond remembrance of the rubber strips, wide and chunky at Riverfront and still present, albeit in a more disappointing fashion, at Great American. As I child, I never thought much of why these existed, or what they were; they simply existed, and they were to be stomped upon.
This ignorance continued until I became an employee of the Reds Hall of Fame and trailed after one of my new colleagues as he escorted an unruly flock of third-graders around the horn. He told them to stand on this 21st century form of the rubber gap–which to be honest, I hadn’t really noticed until that moment. The children lined up, bouncing slightly but otherwise singularly unimpressed.
“These are expansion joints,” he said. “They are all around the ball park. When it’s very hot or very cold, these help the concrete in the stadium become a little bit bigger in the summer and a little bit smaller when in the winter. It helps to avoid cracks.”
I stared at him, then back at the children pressing their toes into the rubber, then up at the skyline, two childhood memories suddenly joining hands. The first– one which I am sure many Cincinnatians Of a Certain Age share– was of standing in Riverfront’s thicker, wider cracks, treading little sneakers into the sudden vacation from the gray walls and corridors.
This was necessary for each joint I encountered, and I suddenly acquired a renewed appreciation for my father’s patience while escorting me and a neighborhood buddy up the ramps. He never tried to hurry us along or point out that we were absorbed with mashing our feet into the rubber while Dave Concepción was batting with two on.
And I remembered, too, looking up at the endlessly high CN Tower in Toronto, immeasurably impressed and also squicked out by a fact just revealed in the guidebook: The building grew and shrank a difference of three inches a year. (I saw a picture of the CN Tower recently; it seems to have concentrated all its energies upon shrinking.) How was this? Towers were not living. They could not grow up or shrivel down. What sort of strange powers were stirring in Canada?
The answer– and no doubt it never occurred to me until well into my adulthood because, at its core, it involves math– revealed nothing more than the natural fluctuations of the seasons. The expansion joints in the stadium allowed for organic change, inviting concrete to become flexible. Instead of trusting a gaping hole that we would have tripped over or straight fallen through, they bridged the space between the two. Such fluidity honored both the necessary rigidity of the building material while still allowing space for the incremental progress of the Earth around the Sun.
A possible reply to Chad’s question is contained there: We loved the expansion joints because they provided a moment of inviting liveliness in the soulless progression of 70’s architecture. It was a rest. It was a moment for children to slip through expectations of Behaving Amongst Other People and bounce about on a non-threatening, thick and forgiving surface. That is why seven-year-old Beth danced on the lines at Riverfront but grown-up employee Mary Beth walked right past the technologically advanced version in its successor.
Expansion joints are baseball’s Santa Claus and at least as culturally important. They invite both preservation and play.
They are how we avoid cracks.