By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer
As a young cleanup hitter making his Opening Day debut in a new ballpark, Reds right fielder Austin Kearns represents the future of this franchise as well as anybody.
But when he looks back on this day years from now, he will remember it best for what wasn't here - the fighter jets of the 161st Fighter Wing of Terre Haute, Ind. Such fighter-jet flyovers have become de rigeur for the opening of new stadiums, but their absence Monday - they were deployed to the Persian Gulf - brought the war home for many.
"The fact that they were called up to serve shows you where we are right now (in the country's history)," Kearns said. "It also puts in perspective the game of baseball. It can be of very little importance at times like this."
Kearns said that yes, he always will remember that this was his first Opening Day, that he got to meet the 41st president of the United States and exchange pleasantries, and that when Lee Greenwood sang "God Bless the USA," it was an emotional time for everybody.
"If you didn't have some emotions running during that, it's kind of un-American," Kearns said. "Everybody's hearts and mind should first and foremost be over there, not over here at a baseball game."
Kearns said that once the emotional pregame ceremony was over, the baseball butterflies kicked in, but that the adrenalin-pumping feeling was removed a bit when the Reds got down 6-0.
Still, Kearns called it an extraordinary day, given that he was making his Opening Day debut in a brand-new stadium in a patriotically charged climate, and that there was no way he would ever forget it.
Kearns was 0-for-3 at the plate but was credited with an RBI for walking with the bases loaded.
Before the game, he held court with several reporters from Lexington, his hometown. Asked if there was any "feature" in the ballpark that he favored, he said he liked it all.
"Just knowing that everything is new and that we're the first Reds team to play in it is neat," he said. "This is a baseball town. To have a new ballpark, it's very much a new beginning."
Since he was drafted out of Lafayette High School in 1998, Kearns had been told he would be in the majors one day.
"I figured (after being called up last year and doing well) that I'd get to play an Opening Day sometime, but I didn't know when it would be," he said. "I'm fortunate to be here in Cincinnati, and it's kind of close to home for me."
Kearns finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting last year. He hit .315 in 372 at-bats with 24 doubles and 13 home runs.
He said he immediately could sense the buzz of Opening Day, compared to Friday night's christening of the new ballpark and its first day game Saturday. He hit a home run Friday night.
"There's a great sense of excitement here," Kearns said. "I was in Dayton as a minor-leaguer when we opened a new park there. It makes a difference to the players. When you get tired late in the season, but you've got a full house, that's an easy pick-me-up. That should get you ready to go."
He called Great American "one of the best parks in the league.
"There's nothing like a crazy wall or hill - like there is in Houston (in center field) - but it has its own figure. The only thing that's a little different about it that's going to take some getting used to is the wind."
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