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Remaking Purcell Marian High School

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First impressions can be critical. That’s especially true in the case of Purcell Marian, the venerable Catholic high school in East Walnut Hills. Walk into the main entrance on Hackberry Street, and the first thing you see is an information desk with a live human being who smiles, asking how she can help. The floors aren’t just clean; they gleam. The Rookwood tiles on the walls, also well-scrubbed, suggest that the period architecture, in vogue when the school was built almost 100 years ago, links a proud past to an optimistic present.

Not so many years ago, the students cruising through these spacious halls would have been all white and, until 1980, all boys. Today they’re co-ed and 68 percent African American, reflecting in part the changing demographics of urban education—and neighborhood transition—throughout Cincinnati. But keep looking. They walk, seemingly, with purpose. On the wall above the information desk is a video screen flashing alternating messages concerning upcoming school events, news, and personnel. This is a place where everyone—students, faculty, administration—is expected to be involved and contributing.

On the building’s north walls, inset where lockers once stood, is a series of Maasai shields in red, black, and white, the handsome if unlikely products of Purcell Marian’s creative arts program. The teacher, Joey Versoza, says all four grades (9–12) made the shields after researching their signs, symbols, and color codes. “The arts are important for the students in terms of creating and recognizing their identity as they change and grow,” says Versoza. “It gives them an outlet to explore. I think it’s crucial.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic upended school schedules, the past few months have become a crucial time for Purcell Marian to explore as well. Andy Farfsing, soon to begin his fourth school year as principal, tells me in mid-April that he and his staff are focused as much on the students’ social and emotional needs as their academic requirements. “There is no replacement for friends, hallways, lunchtimes together, and face-to-face with teachers,” he says. “Still, we are taking all we can learn from it, and we will use it in the fall.”

Speaking again in June, Farfsing is determined to bring back face-to-face learning in the new school year. Like the rest of us, though, he’s trying to adjust, adapt, and remain flexible as an uncertain future unfolds.


Purcell Marian is a proud school with a proud provenance. Mid-century movie star Tyrone Power was a graduate, and there’s a story that at one point he offered to buy the houses across Hackberry Street and build the school a football stadium—but because he’d been divorced, Cincinnati’s Catholic Archdiocese turned him down. The story is likely apocryphal, but Purcell people like it anyway. It’s part of the lore of The Castle, as the main school building is known. Signs urging support for The Castle and the Cavaliers, their mascot, act as silent cheerleaders throughout the year.

Purcell High School was founded on the site in 1928 as an all-boys school, while all-girls Marian High School was located down Madison Road in O’Bryonville. They merged for the 1981–’82 academic year in East Walnut Hills; the old Marian campus now houses Springer School and Center. In the late 1990s, a handsome new wing added a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a modern library, plus conference rooms and more, reflecting alumni faith in the school’s ongoing potential.

Like any enduring institution, Purcell Marian has evolved, either willingly or kicking and screaming. In an era of rising private school tuition—currently $10,500 annually—more than 80 percent of students receive some kind of scholarship. At a time when personal, familial, social, and societal stresses can shatter any student’s well-being, they and their families have access to four professionals from Beech Acres Parenting Center: two counselor therapists, a family coordinator, and a parent liaison. And The Castle serves all comers, from those with learning disabilities to advanced aptitudes.

Roughly 25 percent of students come from East Walnut Hills and Evanston, and Farfsing says there’s a strong contingent from Pleasant Ridge, Oakley, and Madisonville. The resurgent Walnut Hills neighborhood, he says, embraces Purcell Marian as a point of pride—a much-appreciated player in the ecology of the St. Francis de Sales district and a steady partner on the East Walnut Hills Community Council.

Upstairs, on the walls of the building’s west side, is another distinct set of visuals: flags representing the countries of origin of Purcell Marian’s diverse student body, their parents, and the staff. Like the Maasai shields, they’re as striking as they are unexpected, serving to not only enliven a potentially dreary stretch of hallway but to trumpet the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) accreditation. “I felt we needed a meaningful academic program,” says Farfsing (pronounced FAR-sing). “I wanted us to be part of a network that shared ideas looking at learning from a global lens. But more than that, we can use IB principles to educate everyone, regardless of ability. They will work for the kid who’s struggling; he or she will just go at a different pace. They won’t have IB on their diploma, but they’ll learn. They will benefit by what the honor student is doing, and the honor student will learn equally—maybe more—from them.”

The requirements for a school to attain IB status are rigorous. But for Purcell Marian, it may be particularly notable. Just four years ago, the school’s sustained existence was very much in doubt.

When Farfsing, then the principal of another Catholic school, DePaul Christo Rey, was recruited to East Walnut Hills, Purcell Marian was arguably moribund. Enrollment was declining. Alumni support was crumbling. A number of parents were unhappy. An expense-saving “blended learning” program of computerized instruction, introduced at some cost and considerable energy, wasn’t working. The grounds and physical plant were in serious disrepair. The school had deep debt and disaffected vendors; no bus company would do business with it anymore.

Coming off a series of what one faculty member describes as “revolving door principals,” the once-proud institution was also devoid of mission focus. Was it to be for college prep, or a school to bolster pupils with learning disabilities? When the board of trustees recognized the magnitude of the problems during the 2016–’17 school year, they embraced an alumnus, Farfsing, class of 1995, to turn things around.


Short and goateed with a Mr. Clean dome, Farfsing exudes energy, intensity, and charisma that come quickly to the fore when he talks about education. “I was given the freedom to rebuild a Catholic school from scratch,” he says. “I loved Christo Rey, and I thought I would retire there. But I was approached in the spring of 2017 and told my alma mater was dying. They told me, If it can be fixed, you’re the guy. I let it sit on my heart for a month. Finally, I said to my wife, You’ll think I’m crazy, but I want to do this. She said, It’s about time.”

A principal for 10 years, Farfsing had also been a social studies teacher and director of student activities at La Salle High School. When he looked at Purcell Marian, he knew what had to be done. He told the Archdiocese his plan, and two months after the first contact, he was at work on Hackberry Street. “I spent the first semester on the phone, asking various people what had gone wrong,” he says. “My shortest conversation was 44 minutes. The school had had a series of leaders who made decisions for the wrong reasons. The blended learning lab was just one example. It had been brought in to reduce staff and cost, but there were 80 kids doing math with one teacher.”

Farfsing says computers had replaced a number of the teachers at the school—a big mistake. “Computers are a piece of the picture, but they can’t be the whole picture,” he says. “The number one variable that determines a kid’s success in the classroom is the teacher, the person who can engage students in meaningful learning and lessons. Kids will ask, Why do I have to know this? The teacher has to be able to answer. A group of Purcell Marian parents sounded the alarm to me. When I came in, 30 freshmen were transferring to other schools.”

The context in which Purcell Marian and other Cincinnati Catholic schools operate today has certainly changed in recent decades. A federation of high schools and “feeder” elementary schools serves under the Archdiocese’s oversight, with various forms of ownership and governance. Schools like Purcell Marian and La Salle are owned outright by the Archdiocese, while others are owned by various religious orders. All charge tuition, and all have reputations for varying levels of academic challenge. Should a school’s board of trustees want or need a new principal, it conducts a search and then makes a recommendation to the Archdiocese, which generally complies. Other Catholic high schools—notably St. Xavier, Summit, St. Ursula, and Ursuline—are independently owned, but have some accountability to the Archdiocese as well. They generally charge higher tuition and traditionally are thought to have higher academic standards. Not ev­eryone agrees, of course; teachers at Purcell Marian, for instance, would rank their best students with those anywhere.

Throughout much of the 20th century, each of the diocesan high schools served well-defined areas of the community, fed by elementary schools in their geographic districts. By the 1970s and ’80s, however, that pattern began to break apart. Lots of Catholic families moved to the suburbs, with the schools they left behind suffering inevitable—and often dramatic—enrollment declines. In its heyday, circa 1960, Purcell High School enrolled as many as 1,000 boys. The number was markedly less by 1980, but after adding the Marian girls enrollment jumped back up to about 800. Purcell Marian today has 335 students, with Farfsing citing an increase as a major priority.

At the same time, many of the nuns and brothers who had taught at Catholic high schools without compensation left their religious orders or died; the lay teachers who replaced them required salaries. In 2005–’06, the Archdiocese did away with districting, meaning that any student could go to any high school he or she chose—if the one nearby didn’t seem a good fit, it would be simple enough to move. Competition for bodies rose, and so did costs.

Purcell Marian was caught in the vise. George Strietmann, a 1972 alumnus who served on the board of trustees for 10 years, recalls, “When I was there, we had a strong football team, wrestling excelled, discipline was a big thing, and the education was very traditional. Maybe 75 percent of graduates went to college. The other 25 percent went to work at General Motors in Norwood.”

The population shifts, loss of “free” faculty, skyrocketing tuition costs, and lack of a strong alumni fund-raising effort all contributed to deterioration that, Strietmann says, made for “an incredibly challenging situation” at Purcell Marian. The “blended learning” initiative was rolled out over three years as a potential fix, affecting first math, then English and history, and requiring reoriented classrooms, new computers and software, and teacher training. It wouldn’t be cheap, but generous alumni stepped forward to underwrite the equipment.

It never worked, says Strietmann, because there were too many students in the room and not enough teachers, or teacher time, to go around. Before long, he recalls, “the blended learning program contributed to a negative reputation, and enrollment was dropping.” By early 2017, the board, which served largely in an advisory capacity and had been somewhat insulated from day-to-day operations, recognized that the school’s finances were seriously imperiled. Its best, and perhaps last, option was to replace the principal.


The first thing Andy Farfsing did was begin weeding the Purcell Marian faculty, hiring the kinds of people he wanted and encouraging others who wouldn’t be comfortable in the environment he envisioned to leave. Since his arrival, the faculty turnover has been about 70 percent. “I’m good at identifying young teaching talent,” says Farfsing. “I ask them to be their best every day. I ask them to be willing to reinvent themselves and to adhere to certain values, like being internationally minded. Education degrees are important, but I’m interested in people who understand what it means to be a mentor and a life coach.”

One early recruit was Bob Herring, a longtime acquaintance who, for 31 years, had been principal of Nativity Elementary School in Pleasant Ridge. After retiring in 2015 and hearing of Farfsing’s new post, he offered to help out as an unpaid teaching coach.

From the time he’d interviewed to become principal, Farfsing had proposed to both the board and the Archdiocese that Purcell Marian become an International Baccalaureate school. “I wanted something that would be bold, that would put us in a network of other high-minded educators,” he says. “Yes, we could have simply instituted Advanced Placement studies, but I didn’t want to do what other schools were already doing well. I wanted something that could be uniquely ours, and through which we could share resources, ideas, and even teachers.” He asked Herring to run it.

The IB curriculum grew out of a concept first introduced in the mid-1960s in Geneva, Switzerland, to offer challenging academics in a variety of subjects. Before graduating, students are required to give evidence of a well-considered “theory of knowledge” in oral and written presentations, do an extended essay of some 4,000 words on a topic requiring serious investigative research, and design a creative activity service project with an eye to making a societal difference in some way. IB professionals outside of Cincinnati evaluate student achievement in each of the areas.

IB programs can be found in nearly 5,300 schools worldwide, including 1,800 in the U.S., and qualifying for them is difficult. It demands training of the school’s principal and participating teachers, as well as a screening process by an outside verification team. Farfsing wanted every teacher to be IB-qualified, meaning that all would have to be trained. Herring, he knew, would be good at shepherding the school through the rigors. He also knew that Herring had a lengthy history of overseeing exchange programs with students in Ukraine and Ecuador, so his “international outlook” was proven.

Herring agreed to become the IB director, with nominal pay, and Purcell Marian’s IB program launched last fall. By February, 34 students were taking 77 classes in IB math, English, social studies, chemistry, Spanish, and the visual arts. “It’s experiential, problem-based learning in a local and global context, with emphasis on teamwork and collaboration,” says Herring. “The key is it provides the opportunity. If you want it, it’s here. We’re creating opportunities that to my mind are critical in a global era.”

Before the state closed down schools due to the pandemic, Farfsing and Herring used the IB network to find a COVID-19 protocol at a school in Taiwan and tweaked it for local purposes. They decided that classroom instruction would continue by computer—luckily, students already had their own school-issued laptops. Not every class met every day—“it was too much,” Farfsing says. Instead, each class met once a week for two and a half hours at a time.

Farfsing has made changes everywhere at Purcell Marian. He brought in a chief operating officer, Micki Spencer, whose first priority was to assure strong customer service in all its forms: teachers to staff, parents to teachers, administrators to parents. The welcoming front desk person reflects her aspiration. “We needed to build trust back for everyone who walks into the building,” Spencer says simply. Now with eyes on admissions, the business office, counseling, and athletics, she says, “I thought I knew what I was getting into, but it was bigger than I imagined.”

Farfsing hired a new chief financial officer, Jenny Jostworth, to eliminate bad debt, create a “rainy day fund,” and put the school in better standing with its vendors. He named Chris Wilke director of career initiatives to focus on preparing students for one of three post-graduate endeavors: college, employment, or the military. He hired Emma O’Connor to create a Spanish outreach program, Asistencia Latina, for the 8 percent of school families who don’t speak English as their primary language.

D.J. Dowdy, a University of Cincinnati graduate and football player, is the new athletic director, tasked with arresting what Farfsing perceived as a decline in sports success. Purcell Marian has long been strong in basketball, but less consistent with football. Farfsing withdrew the school from the Greater Catholic League to become part of the Miami Valley Conference, creating a more equitable level of competition, and eliminated physical education as a requirement. Instead, students play a school sport for two seasons. To the existing options of football, basketball, baseball, cross-country, bowling, and cheerleading, Farfsing and Dowdy reinstated girls’ soccer, which had been canceled years ago; 17 players signed up for the spring season. They also brought back the marching band.

English teacher Barret Bell says she was drawn to the school three years ago because of the student body diversity and Farfsing’s embrace of new approaches. “It’s a genuine coming together with a grand sense of possibility,” says Bell. “It isn’t a foregone conclusion that these students will go to college, and we don’t have the kind of ‘diversity’ you find in schools that, in truth, are segregated within their own walls. It is truly diverse. I don’t think there’s another school in this region like it.”

Sister Janet Linz, a 20-year veteran of The Castle, connects students of limited resources to the tools they need to be successful, as co-director of the Lavatus Powell program. “I’m passionate about working with kids,” she says. “I want to know how I can be part of their graduation, their lives, giving them the skills to move forward. The kids have kept me here.” The revived Purcell Marian hosts students of varying ethnic backgrounds, varying abilities, varying psychological profiles, and varying aspirations. Fewer than 50 percent are Catholic, but all take religion class in each of their four years. They hear a prayer once daily, either on the intercom or led by a teacher in the classroom, and they attend mass once a month. “We all share something in common when we look at a higher power,” says Linz. “But we express it differently.”

With the new school year set to launch this month, Farfsing has developed a three-pronged approach to reopening The Castle. Plan A calls for a return of the full student body with social distancing, including one-way traffic flows in the hallways and no use of the school cafeteria. Plan B will go into effect if tighter protocols are required, man­dating a 50 percent reduction in class sizes—meaning that half the students would attend one day and half the next. On the alternate days, when they remain at home, students would take class online. Farfsing says Plan C will be implemented only if COVID-19 resurfaces in a big way, which would mean a return to 100 percent remote learning.

As someone who likes to be bold while controlling as many variables as possible, Farfsing acknowledges that he needs to rely on faith and hope while plotting out students’ return to The Castle. He sees it as another opportunity to make a first impression.

Editor’s Letter, August 2020: Searching for Silver Linings

We’re all searching for silver linings in this cloudy time. We want to believe that all of the disruption, uncertainty, and down time will add up to something positive in the end, that our discomfort and sacrifice will yield some deeper meaning, and that better days lie ahead.

Lots of people in the news are talking about silver linings. Restaurant and store owners who’d always wanted to set up online ordering and delivery service. Cultural groups always meaning to add virtual programming. Companies that never got around to figuring out flexible work options for employees. African Americans convinced that systemic racism would never be acknowledged. School officials insisting that their teaching models were too complex to change. Elected officials who claimed there wasn’t enough money to provide universal health care, build a better unemployment safety net, boost small businesses, or forgive college loan debt. As we’ve seen, all of these things are possible and, in fact, doable in a pinch.

Let’s add to that wish list a sustainable local system providing fresh, healthy food at all price points for all Greater Cincinnati residents. In this month’s cover package, “Eat Local,” we explore another silver lining in the pandemic’s wake: the growth of local farms and wholesalers delivering fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, eggs, and herbs to our doorstep.

You might stop by a grocery store any day of the year to buy strawberries grown in Mexico. They’re cheap, and they taste strawberry-like. Then COVID-19 disrupts the entire food supply chain and infects workers in distribution warehouses along the product’s journey to Cincinnati. How comfortable are you grabbing them now? Instead, buy strawberries from a farm in Clermont County, get to know that family, and keep your money in the local economy.

The big question, of course, is what happens after the pinch loosens. Do we slouch back to business as usual, or do we get our heads out of the clouds and make the possible permanent? If it’s the latter, better days are actually ahead.

Umber 87 Wax Bar Puts a Spin on Self Care Using Wax and Vinyl

Over-the-Rhine’s newest wax bar Umber 87 combines self care with creativity. Owner Siobhan McNear, whose motto is “release what you want so that you may receive it,” starts each session by by playing the customer’s favorite music so they can relax, heal, and rejuvenate. “I think the fact that our mission is to serve first keeps people coming,” says McNear, who already has regulars after only a month and a half in business. “This is where you come and listen to music and stories; you have the ability to tell me about your day and your dreams—it’s really a space to manifest.”

Although Umber 87 hosted its official grand opening on July 2, the wax bar has been years in the making for McNear, and it reflects two of her biggest passions: enhancement beauty and music. For more than a decade, McNear, a Cincinnati native who considers herself a musician first, spent time touring with singer Jennifer Hudson and performing on entertainment mainstays such as the Ellen Show and the BET awards. During her time off the road, she graduated from beauty school and honed her wax skills until the moment finally came where she decided to “just go for it,” and the idea for Umber 87 was born.

For McNear, location was paramount and she searched for several months before deciding on her current Walnut Street storefront. “You’d have to travel up to Hyde Park before to find a place like this,” she says. “I didn’t see anything like it in Over-the-Rhine.”

Customers can choose from a list of face and body waxing services, ranging from an eyebrow wax to a Brazilian, but McNear assures that the bar takes care of anything “that grows hair.”

Inside, McNear carefully curated the wax bar’s decor to reflect an eclectic, welcoming environment. Work by local artists decorate the walls and music fills the rest of the space. Adding a personal touch, some of the bar’s decor comes from her home and most of the records she plays are from her personal vinyl collection. Even the name, Umber 87, is a reflection of McNear. Umber is a color that’s described as “a pigment of the earth,” which symbolizes the empowerment of people of color, and 87 represents McNear’s birth year.

McNear, who used her savings to fund her business, is currently Umber 87’s only employee. Her long-term goals include expanding to other cities, with each location curated to match the city’s music and culture. Expansion plans aside, McNear is grateful to have opened her first storefront in her hometown. “Cincinnati has always been my home, I’ve been all over the world and there’s no place like it,” she says. “It is a pleasure to be able to open my first business here and to be able to give back.”

Umber 87 Wax Bar, 1414 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine

Local Nail Artist Maggie Stewart Reflects on the Pandemic Shutdown

In high school Maggie Stewart had an experience that would change her life: “I was getting a pedicure, and the nail tech asked me if I wanted nail art. She did five dots, and that was a flower, and I thought, I can do that.” She was right. Stewart started out with drugstore nail art supplies, cutting down brushes and using bobby pins for detail work and dots. From there, she attended cosmetology school, where one of her teachers challenged her to create more advanced nail designs, which eventually included recreating Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. That’s when she realized, “I can take everything and put it on a little microscopic canvas.” This experience inspired her to think of every set of nails as “10 tiny canvases” ready to be painted.

The Cincinnati native didn’t take the traditional path to becoming a nail technician and artist. While most people in the field start out working in a big, open salon to build clientele, Stewart decided to take the risk of jumping straight into the “booth rent” phase of her career, setting up her own space in a local salon. “I always wanted to work for myself,” she says. “There were 20 very successful hair stylists around me, and I thought, If I can’t be successful here, surrounded by these people…” Four years later, Stewart had built up a nearly full clientele—her leap of faith was paying off.

Then the pandemic hit. Stewart describes the mid-March COVID-19 shutdown as simply terrifying. With restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus, salons like the one Stewart works out of were closed. “Being told that I’m not allowed to go to work was so nerve-wracking,” Stewart says. “I had no idea what my job was going to look like going back.” Fortunately, Stewart was able to find ways to make the most of a scary situation. She took the opportunity to start creating more paintings—this time on actual canvases, many of which have sold since the shutdown. She also realized that the forced time off provided the perfect opportunity to start searching for her own commercial space. Now Stewart has plans to open her own nail salon and art gallery—called Ten Tiny Canvases, of course—in Walnut Hills within the next few months.

Photograph courtesy of Maggie Stewart

Photograph courtesy of Maggie Stewart

Photograph courtesy of Maggie Stewart

Photograph courtesy of Maggie Stewart

Coming out of the shutdown, Stewart feels blessed to have gained back a majority of her pre-pandemic clientele. Sanitation is a major priority for Stewart, and she takes a lot of pride in making sure every client’s experience is as clean and hygienic as possible. “Everyone should feel comfortable where they get their nails done,” she says. Her advice for anyone who wants to head back to salons post-shutdown is this: “Speak up and be comfortable. Ask questions. You can ask, Hey, what do you sanitize this with? If you have a concern, voice it.”

Ultimately, Stewart is thrilled to be doing what she loves again: creating unique works of art that help her clients express themselves. “Nails are personality,” Stewart says. She hopes her nail art can inspire customers, just like a nail technician did for her in high school. “I feel like if I can make it, anybody else can too,” she says. “I just try to share my story and build confidence in other women.”

You can admire Maggie Stewart’s nail art on Instagram at @magsnails.

Click through our gallery to view more photos of Maggie Stewart’s work:

The Cincinnati Reds Find a New Star in the Nick of Time

Opening Day arrived this year without the usual fanfare, though it came with no less excitement for fans in Reds country. Though forced to watch the contest on television, many, including me, were eager to see the new additions to the Reds roster, and we weren’t disappointed. Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama, and Nick Castellanos all drove in runs in Cincinnati’s 7-1 victory over Detroit. For one day, the sun shined, butterflies floated on the summer breeze, and smiles were everywhere.

 

Well, almost everywhere. While Moustakas got plenty of digital ink for a three-hit, four-RBI performance in his Reds debut, it was Castellanos who got the headlines. It provided an early glimpse into the personality of one of Cincinnati’s biggest-ever free agent signings.

Last winter, Castellanos inked what has been termed “a one-year contract disguised as a long-term deal.” In theory, Castellanos agreed to four years and $64 million to play for the local nine. The devil, of course, is in the details: He can choose to opt out and enter free agency after his first season, or after his second season. His long-term future in the Queen City will be a popular topic of conversation around digital water coolers this winter, no doubt. For now, he’s a Cincinnati Red, and we’re glad to have him.

But Castellanos was pretty hot on Opening Day, after manager David Bell removed the slugging right fielder from the game in the seventh inning in favor of pinch-runner and defensive replacement Travis Jankowski. As soon as the game ended, Castellanos bounded out of the home dugout, glove in hand, and made his way back out to right field.

He was soon joined by Reds coach Jeff Pickler. The two were seen to have a spirited discussion, whereupon Pickler went back into the tunnel beneath the stadium and returned with a pitching machine. He proceeded to pepper line drives and fly balls at Castellanos. The defensive workout ended only when Bell walked out to right field and had what he later described as a “tense” conversation with Castellanos.

Castellanos was destined to take some social media criticism (“the new guy isn’t a team player!”) but I imagine that most had a different reaction, similar to mine. I loved it, and it occurred to me immediately that this guy is absolutely perfect for a town like Cincinnati. He’s upset about being removed for a defensive replacement, and how does he respond? By working even harder!

Even better, after his fiery outburst on Opening Day, Castellanos hasn’t cooled down one iota. Coming into Wednesday’s game against the Royals, Castellanos was hitting .290/.380/.726 with seven home runs and 16 runs batted in. He’s tied with Mike Trout for third in homers among all big leaguers and is just one off the National League lead.

As August dawned, Castellanos was awarded the NL Player of the Week award, the second time he’s collected a Player of the Week award (he won in 2018, when he played for the Tigers). During the week that garnered him the honor, Castellanos went 9-for-21 (.429) with four homers, two doubles, 10 RBIs, and a 1.595 OPS. He hit a grand slam in a win over the Cubs and hit two homers against his former Detroit teammates in the first game of a doubleheader sweep.

He’s in the NL’s top five in pretty much category. Castellanos even has the fourth-best betting odds to be the Most Valuable Player at season’s end, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Yes, defense is still an issue. In the two-homer game mentioned earlier, Castellanos committed a key error in right field that permitted three runs to score, briefly tying the game before Cincinnati pushed across the winning run in the final frame. But, hey, he’s working on it, right?

I’m only half-joking there. Castellanos has developed a reputation as a poor fielder over his career, and the metrics seem to lend support to that general consensus. But there’s every reason to hope that he can turn into a serviceable defender. He’s certainly athletic enough; this is the same guy, after all, who led the league in triples back in 2017.

But enough about the one area where Castellanos is less than perfect. Let’s talk about his bat. He’s been the lone Red in the everyday lineup who has been consistently great during this decidedly uneven start for the home team. How did we get to the point where Castellanos is being discussed in the same breath as the best hitters in the league, even if only in the early going of this chaotic season?

First things first: Castellanos has always been a good hitter, and a doubles machine. He led the majors with 58 doubles last year, only the 10th player in the entire history of baseball to hit that mark. The last time a right-handed hitter reached that total, before Castellanos last year? Try 1936.

There were murmurs among some observers that Great American Ball Park might be the perfect location for Castellanos, with the idea that some of those doubles could turn into home runs. Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who managed Castellanos last year after a mid-season trade landed the slugger in Chicago, had this prescient take back in spring training: “He’s uncanny with his ability to hit doubles. It’s crazy. When he hits the ball, it’s in the gap or down the line. Beyond that, he comes to play every day. He’s a much better outfielder than he’s given credit for. In that ballpark, he has a chance to kill it.”

And kill it, he has. I won’t bore you with all the data, but suffice to say that the analytics agree with what your eyes are seeing. His exit velocity is way up, and his barrels are almost off the charts. He’s “barreled” up a ball on 23.3 percent of his plate appearances, a mark that places him within the top 2 percent of the league. (I’ll stop nerding out on you now, but if you’re interested in the Statcast data, click here and dive in. It’s glorious.)

So he’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has, and while Castellanos will almost certainly cool down at some point, there are encouraging signs that he has developed as a hitter. First of all, he has improved his launch angle substantially over the last couple of years, which will contribute to more longballs obviously. At GABP in particular, his improved launch angle combined with a career-high exit velocity is a recipe for lots of trots around the bases.

But Castellanos is also making a concerted effort to improve his plate discipline. When he joined the Reds, pitcher Trevor Bauer told him that the rap on him when he played for Detroit (in the same division as Bauer’s Indians) was that he would swing at too many pitches outside the zone. “Trevor and I actually had a conversation about that same topic before the season started, and challenging me just to be more disciplined and having a more concrete plan of what I’m looking for and what I want to do before I get to the plate,” Castellanos said. “I just kind of said challenge accepted.”

Early returns are good. Castellanos hasn’t improved his strikeout rate, but the percentage of pitches outside the zone that he hacks at has dropped to 35.9 percent, from 40.9 percent a year ago. That’s not Joey Votto (career: 21.5 perent) territory, but it’s trending in the right direction.

Plate discipline is a hard thing to learn, but even a little improvement could reap big dividends, as we’ve seen in the small sample of this season thus far. Only time will tell whether Castellanos has really turned the corner and become a legit star in this league or whether he’ll even stick around past this year.

For the moment, he’s the best hitter in the Reds’ lineup. If he decides to make Cincinnati his long-term home, Castellanos may just end up being the most popular guy in town.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

Western & Southern Open Moves to New York

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The professional tennis tournament leading into this month’s U.S. Open will look normal—Western & Southern banners on the courts, Rookwood Pottery trophies for the winners—but the action is happening far from Mason. The U.S. Tennis Association, which owns the Western & Southern Open, moved the Cincinnati summer tradition to New York City to couple it with the U.S. Open.

The event traces its roots here to 1899, and relocating it was painful but necessary. “Three-quarters of our players need a passport to play in the tournament,” says Chief Operating Officer Katie Haas (including last year’s men’s winner, Daniil Medvedev, pictured above). “Between the international travel concerns and quarantining players during run of play, our best option for the tournament became combining it with the U.S Open.” She says players and their coaches and support staff can get direct international flights to New York and, between host hotels and the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, can operate in one protective “bubble” over several weeks.

The Western & Southern Open will be the first combined men’s and women’s pro tennis tournament since the pandemic shutdown, running August 20–28. The U.S. Open follows on August 31.

No Storefront? No Problem for Fat Ben’s Bakery

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Ben Arington bakes for the people. Ever since he entered the culinary industry at 16, the best part of working in food, for him, has been all the people he’s met and formed relationships with. It’s the people that keep Fat Ben’s Bakery going, and it’s those relationships that Arington has missed the most since the pandemic began.

Arington launched Fat Ben’s Bakery in 2016, after years spent in various restaurants and bakeries in Ohio and New York City where he honed his skills. Fat Ben’s has a mostly digital model, with Arington accepting orders via email and posting his custom cakes and pastries on his social media pages. Without a website or a storefront, Arington says his Instagram remains the best menu of the goods he offers.

Arington accepts orders for all kinds of custom baked goods, but his favorite projects are the challenging ones that require him to get creative. When coming up with new ideas, Arington sources inspiration from chefs and bakers he knows in New York City and Los Angeles. His Instagram is full of colorful and crazy desserts: an Animal Crossing cake, a Cheeto sugar cookie, a Fruity Pebbles doughnut, and a panna cotta that resembles an ashtray littered with cigarette butts—and these are just a sampling of Arington’s crazy creations.

“I get more excited when someone asks me for something that is just so bizarre,” he says. “I had a request the other day for a dumpster fire birthday cake…[the customer] was like, I just think it’s the best way to describe my birthday in the year 2020, and I was like, I am so here for that.”

Although Fat Ben’s is already a largely virtual business, Arington still had to adapt quickly when the pandemic hit. The business he typically gets from wedding cake orders, for example, took a hard hit. To supplement that, Arington started a series of “quarantine boxes,” which are themed boxes featuring a variety of baked goods that people can order online and then pick up from Arington’s house without contact.

Arington’s quarantine boxes each follow a specific theme like the 90s, the TV show Friends, and famous celebrities and songs. Examples of his specialty sweet treats include a Flinstone’s push-pop made from orange cake with vanilla icing, a “The One Where Ross is Fine” margarita cake with tequila-infused buttercream, and a Britney Spears “Toxic” edible slime made from Toxic Waste sour candy.

“During this time right now, I think people need a little bit of hope because everything is so dark,” Arington says. “I feel like these boxes I’m creating are bringing a little bit of happiness and hope to each one of my clients.”

The boxes have attracted a lot of attention, almost always selling out within minutes of Arington posting them online. And while they’ve certainly helped his business thrive, Arington still wishes he had more opportunities to connect with clients. “I am just eternally grateful for everything that I get from people in Cincinnati,” he says. “I get very, very emotional…I have to thank Cincinnati for making me who I am today.”

Fat Ben’s cakes start at about $45 depending on customizations, with three-tier wedding cakes starting around $225. His pastry boxes typically range from $25–$45. You can place an order with Arington by emailing him at Ben@fatbensbakery.com.