When Cam Miller was 10, he and his friends would hop on their bikes at 45th Street in Latonia.
They would weave through the streets of Latonia onto Decoursey Pike, then to Madison Avenue. They’d cross the Roebling, coming to a stop at Riverfront Stadium, parking their bikes at the bike rack and go inside.
These days, the local filmmaker has a shorter ride to the site where the stadium used to sit. He leaves his Dayton house and rides his bike along 6th Avenue until he gets to the UDF (you know how we do directions around here. None of these North/South shenanigans). Then he rides over the Purple People Bridge and turns left.
He often continues just past the stadium to turn into the parking garage under Moerlein Lager House, where it’s easy to miss a small plaque between parking spaces and the stairs that lead to the restaurant.
The plaque is shaped like home plate. In fact, it’s the spot where home plate sat when Riverfront was Riverfront. It’s where Johnny Bench once crouched, catching curveballs from Tom Seaver.
So many things are fitting about Miller being tasked with creating a documentary for the Reds Hall of Fame, which he is calling Riverfront Remembered.
The stadium, with its smells (damp concrete, stale popcorn, pretzels, cigars), its sounds (the crack of the bat hitting the ball) and its views (or maybe lack thereof – once you were in the stadium, you couldn’t see out) were a part of Miller’s teen years. They were like a distant cousin who visited all spring and summer, only to leave once fall hit, and he would spend all winter waiting for his cousin and friend to come back.
“I’m really looking forward to sharing this ballpark that has kind of been forgotten,” said Miller, who has been making films for the Reds for 16 years. “I’ve always had this special relationship with Riverfront because it’s the first park I ever saw a game in. I had always been told that my first game was 1978. But it turns out that I was actually at the 1975 World Series. I was 1 ½ years old, sitting on my mom’s lap.”
In his teen years, Miller would call his dad, Charles, after some games on his dad’s big, boxy cell phone, pleading with him to pick him up so he didn’t have to ride his bike the 45 blocks back to Ludlow.
He would also watch games with his dad. So many games. Sitting in the stands, eating a hotdog, listening to the sounds of a stadium whose main focus was baseball.
“I think at that time, people looked at stadiums as a place you went to, you parked your car, you watched the game and then you left,” said John Fay, a former Reds beat reporter who was 13 when Riverfront opened. “GABP is more of an experience, with The Banks and things like that. It keeps people down there longer, and that was not the case with Riverfront.”
Miller is big on anniversaries, so he wanted to be intentional with when the tribute to Riverfront would be shown in the Jeff Wyler Hall of Fame Theater at the Reds Hall of Fame.
“Our original goal was for June 30 because that’s when Riverfront first opened,” Miller said. “I always try to do all my premieres on anniversaries. I do that for all my films.”
But June 30 became meaningful in a different, unexpected and devastating way: His father’s death.
While fitting may not be an appropriate way to describe the passing of someone’s father, poetic may be closer. Poetic because Miller’s father, who considered Riverfront a second home, died on the 52nd anniversary of the stadium’s opening.
And Miller’s film, at once a tribute to the stadium and to his beloved father, will premiere on Sept. 9, which would have been his father’s 74th birthday.
“It’s a personal film for me more than any I’ve done,” Miller said. “Especially with my dad recently passing. You just feel that energy and I can sense him here.”
Now, as Miller crouches in the Moerlein garage, right where Bench did all those years ago, he is wearing a Reds hat and T-shirt. He is holding a piece of the turf (yep – Riverfront had turf, which was considered new and fancy at the time) and a baseball, talking about the film he feels he was meant to create.
“I thought, I want to do this differently,” he said. “I didn’t want to have the radio calls. So what I did was I extracted all those radio calls, just having the crowd noise. I would take out Marty Brennaman and Joe – I would take out their voices so all you hear is the crowd noise. So when a moment happens on screen, it’s Johnny Bench’s home run, but you’re hearing the crack of the bat and the explosion of the crowd.”
The goal, he said, is to transport viewers back in time.
“So you get to hear these little nuances of things like somebody selling popcorn or beer and you hear that ‘Beer here! Two dollars!’” he said. “So, hearing that, you’re taken back to that moment.”
He’s finding other ways to transport people back in time for the premiere as well. There will be seats brought out of storage from the original Riverfront so that people can actually sit in the seats while they watch the film. There will be a popcorn machine and pretzels.
“I want you in Riverfront for 30 minutes,” Miller said. “Because we forget about these parks when they’re gone. Now look at us: We are in a parking garage under Moerlein Lager House in The Banks and things have changed. In 1970, it wasn’t about how can you bring entertainment down here. It was like, let’s build a stadium so we can have a football team and a baseball team share it, and it saves us money.”
Back then, Miller said, it was about the functionality.
“It wasn’t ‘Come down to The Banks and have a good time and get drunk and oh there’s a baseball game going on,’” he said. “I’m hoping that this film kind of makes people realize that, oh yeah, I go to Great American and I get sloshed by the sixth inning, but there was a baseball stadium here that wasn’t just a stadium. It was home for so many people.”
Miller’s father died just after listening to Miller talk about Riverfront on WLW radio. That’s when Miller decided he needed to add a dedication page at the end of the film. But as opposed to a traditional dedication page, he did something a little different.
“I put word out on Twitter that, if you have a loved one who took you to Riverfront Stadium and they passed on, let me know and I’ll put their name on the scoreboard at the end of the film,” Miller said. “I received hundreds of emails. They just keep coming. It’s, ‘Hey, my dad took me to a game in 1977’; ‘My dad took me to a game, and he passed in 2003’; It’s just so powerful. I want them to be able to sit there and look and see that, and it’s going to bring them back in time.”
Riverfront Remembered will be screened at the Reds Hall of Fame Theater on Sept. 9. The screening is currently sold out.