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Cincinnati Reds Greats Bench and Foster Honored at Freedom Game

It was a special night at UC Heath Stadium on Friday, as the Florence Freedom welcomed Cincinnati Reds legends Johnny Bench and George Foster to the ballpark. Both greats threw out the first pitch and were guest coaches for the Freedom as Bench filled in as the first base coach and Foster manned the third base line for an inning.  Later, Bench stood in the batter's box for photo opportunities for fans and watched Joliet starting pitcher Jordan Guth throw his warm-up pitches between innings. 
Bench and Foster then signed autographs for fans on the lower-level concourse. Florence Freedom owner Clint Brown said that while the afternoon rain may have put a mild damper on the walk-up crowd, he was pleased with the turnout, nonetheless.
"Any time we get rain in the afternoon, it's going to be a downer on our walkup, but we have 2,900 seats in the seating bowl and we sold 2,700 of them by three or four o' clock today, so it's been great."
Brown explained that providing a closer experience for fans to see their favorite players of the past has allowed these types of promotional nights to be a success. 
"The really cool thing about it is that we are not trying to be a true Cincinnati Reds. The main about being out here is that you actually get close to them. It's a much more intimate stadium, intimate experience. With the Reds, they do an excellent job of bringing all of their stars back, but you can see them from the video board."
Bringing in Reds legends like the Freedom also did last year when Pete Rose came to the park, has other Frontier League clubs emulating the promotional strategy.
"We kind of discovered this last year. Pete Rose night confirmed that we can do these kinds of things, make them financially viable and bring an experience to fans that they wouldn't normally get any other way," Brown said. "A lot of teams are watching what we're doing. You know where Pete Rose is tonight? He's with the Gateway Grizzlies in St. Louis, one of the teams in our league."
Another factor to the timing of bringing members of the Big Red Machine to the park was to keep some momentum heading into the opening weekend of the season. 
"I think for this weekend, generally we have to do something a little extra special to gain everyone's attention. The Reds are still capturing all the media attention, so for us to have a voice, this is what we have to do." 
As for the game itself, the Freedom beat the Joliet Slammer, 6-5, for their second straight win to begin their season. Florence edged Joliet in the season-opener on Thursday night, 3-1.
The Freedom benefited by a solid start from Cincinnati native, Casey Henn (1-0) who threw five innings, giving up three runs on eight hits and struck out three. They were powered offensively by Cody Bishop who smashed a homer and two doubles, going 3-4 with an RBI and a run scored. 
It was a smooth beginning for Henn, as the hard-throwing right-hander had two strikeouts in the first inning, but gave up back-to-back singles in the second. Henn was still able to get out of the jam, but had racked up 34 pitches in the first two innings.
"Early in the game, he was getting behind on hitters. A little bit later there, he started to get ahead of guys and just couldn't finish them, but Casey is going to be right there for us and give us a chance to win every night," Freedom manager Dennis Pelfrey said after the game about Henn's outing. 
In the bottom half of the second, Cody Bishop provided Henn some run support when he went deep on an opposite-field homer to left field that gave the Freedom a 1-0 lead. Joliet starting pitcher Jordan Guth had some control issues in the second as he threw pitches wide of the plate on both sides. When he did straighten things out, Bishop went yard on him.
"That's not really a surprise," Pelfrey said of Bishop's big night at the plate. "Once we get that approach nailed down for him, he's going to be exciting to watch as well."
Then Henn ran into some more difficulty in the third. The trouble occurred when second-baseman Daniel Fraga booted a ground ball right at him that allowed the go-ahead run for the Slammers who took a 2-1 lead.
Center fielder Jake Luce started a two-out rally the following inning with a single. Then, when he attempted to steal second base, the throw down by the catcher bounced off of Luce's helmet and rolled into right field allowing Luce to go to third. First baseman Sam Eberle, who wore a special blue tie-dyed jersey that was later auctioned off after the game, hit a ground ball to second baseman Max Casper who was unable to field it cleanly and committed the second error of the inning that allowed Luce to score. Bishop followed up with a ground-rule double to the right field gap that moved Eberle to third. To add to the Slammers' sloppy play, Guth threw a wild pitch that went about six feet behind the batter and allowed Eberle to score, giving the Freedom a 3-2 lead. 
The scoring wasn't over for the Freedom. In the fourth, they added three more, highlighted by Travis Weaver just making it under the tag at home on a sacrifice fly. A short time later, Luce drove in another run on a double that left field Hunter Ridge tracked poorly and allowed it to go over his head. After all the damage done, the Slammers found themselves down 6-3. 
From there, Joliet was able scrap back into the game in single bursts as both first baseman Chris Serritella and Mike Garza both hit solo home runs to move the score to 6-5. Graza's came in the ninth inning when reliever Daniel DiSimone left the pitch a smidge too high which allowed for a line drive home run and making what once felt like a comfortable lead into a nervous final frame. 
DiSimone, however, was able to close it out for the Freedom, working two and two-thirds innings and picking up his first save of the year.
Story by Bryan Burke, associate editor/Photo by Toni Hanson