BY KEVIN KELLY | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Fans who visited Great American Ball Park during the Reds' first home stand, and even some players, probably strained their necks checking out the franchise's new look.
The Ben-Gals now have major-league company: the Reds have cheerleaders.
"I think it's a great idea," left fielder Adam Dunn said. "It gets the fans into (the game) and gives us something to look at."
The new MDX Reds Crew, all-female cheerleading and dance troupe sponsored by Mountain Dew's new energy soda, formed this spring.
About 30 hopefuls auditioned last month for 12 spots. The majority of those selected have cheered or danced competitively at the professional or collegiate levels.
"It's the kind of thing we hope takes off and continues to be a positive and uplifting thing," said Phil Castellini, senior director of ballpark operations for the Reds.
"I think it's a fun, healthy, energetic addition to an already fun venue. We think the possibilities are endless."
Clutching red pompoms and sporting form-fitting outfits that offer a new take on the traditional baseball uniform, the Reds Crew is an offshoot of the more conservatively attired Pepsi Reds Rally Pack that launches T-shirts into the stands and dances atop the dugouts.
Three or four Reds Crew members work weekday games and four or five work weekend games. Each works under an independent-contractor agreement with the team and is paid based on the number of games worked.
"We're not here to 'flaunt,' for the lack of a better term," said Reds Crew supervisor Allison Leonard, a former Ben-Gals cheerleader. "We want the girls to be collegiate and classy and sporty.
"I really foresee this as being a huge opportunity for the girls to be involved and help make a difference in the community."
The troupe performs one choreographed dance routine on the field before the game. It joins the Reds Rally Pack atop the dugouts for more choreographed dancing between two designated innings that vary by game.
"We're being respectful of the purist nature of the game," Castellini said. "In our opinion, there's not supposed to be anybody on the field but players, umpires and grounds crew when necessary.
"So we did not look for ways to try and get them on the field in between innings, nor do we have a goal to do that."
The Reds Crew spends the rest of its time at games assisting with various in-game promotions and mingling with fans.
"With other cheerleading and professional dance teams, you're always down on the field and you're not really interacting with the crowd," said Reds Crew member Amy Livingston, 28, who cheered for the Cincinnati Swarm and Cincinnati Marshals indoor football teams and owns the Wellness Circle Inc. in Mason. "This really puts you right in the middle of the crowd.
"I think it's nice for the fans, too, because they feel like you are approachable and you are part of the Cincinnati Reds. It kind of makes them feel closer to their team."
But a concept unlike anything Reds fans have experienced before at the ballpark has drawn a mixed reaction.
Some fans snapped pictures of the Reds Crew or asked for autographs during the home stand. One fan approached Leonard during a rain delay April 7 and praised the idea.
"I think the fans are embracing it," she said. "I'm not going to lie and tell you there haven't been some negative comments, but I think it comes with the territory."
Tuesday's and Friday's broadcast of "SportsTalk" with Andy Furman on 700-WLW included discussions of the cheerleaders. The majority of the callers Tuesday did not support the idea.
"I don't think it's hurting anybody," Furman said Thursday. "But certainly there are people that are baseball purists in this town who say, 'What do we need it for?' It's almost funny and comical to have it in baseball, I think."
Mike McCafferty, a Cincinnati attorney, attended two games during the home stand.
"I think a lot of (young) people are kind of more into seeing something like that than getting a T-shirt thrown to you," he said. "(Reds chief executive officer Bob) Castellini seems in touch a little more with the fans than prior owners."
Even in a sport that operates without game clocks, television timeouts or halftimes, this is not unprecedented.
From Latin America to Asia, cheerleaders are fixtures at some baseball games.
A handful of Major League Baseball teams have tried the idea with mixed results over the past decade. The Florida Marlins, however, have made it work.
The Marlins Mermaids, a 20-member group that debuted during the 2003 season, thrive in the culturally diverse South Florida area.
"Especially in this market, sizzle sells," said Sean Flynn, Marlins vice president of marketing. "It was a pretty easy integration because of the environment here and almost kind of a no-brainer once the idea was brought up.
"We were fortunate enough to find a corporate partner, Banana Boat, which is a perfect fit. Since then, it's just taken off."
The Mermaids average 450 community appearances per year, and rival Billy the Marlin for most appearance requests.
They perform a choreographed dance routine on the field before the game and after the top of the fifth inning, dance on the dugouts three times a game, and act as emcees for in-game promotions. Afterwards, the Mermaids sign autographs and pose for pictures as fans leave the stadium.
"We've kind of developed our own way to utilize this asset, and this team is an asset," Flynn said. "Off the field is really where the big upside is. The in-game element brings added value."
The Reds hope to achieve similar success with the Reds Crew.
Plans are in the works to assist charities and represent the team at various team- and community-related functions.
"If they continue to be well-received and we're using them in various capacities," Phil Castellini said, "then I think it's something that will work and we'll continue."