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03/30/2006 9:52 AM ET
Have a ball where bats are made
Louisville also boasts Muhammad Ali Center, Churchill Downs
Fourth Street Live! has quickly become a popular entertainment and retail destination. (Courtesy of New West)

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Before the rise of the NFL and the NBA, America was rivted by three sports: baseball, boxing and horse racing. And without Louisville, Ky., who knows if any of those three sports would have enjoyed that degree of popularity.

Cornerstones of each sport are prominent fixtures in this northern Kentucky city, with the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum, the Muhammad Ali Center and Churchill Downs all located within five miles of one other. Combining those three attractions with the Triple-A Louisville Bats, the University of Louisville and Fourth Street Live! -- the city's newest and most popular nightspot -- results in one of the most vibrant cities in the International League.

Still, the first thing people think of when they hear Louisville is a factory on the corner of West Main and South 8th streets.

The Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum is one of the more recognizable features in downtown Louisville. After all, how can you miss a 120-foot baseball bat leaning against and over a five-story building? The Hillerich & Bradsby Co. has been a fixture in the area ever since Bud Hillerich turned his first bat in 1884. His signature is also the one that graces the bat -- a replica of the 34-inch club Babe Ruth used in 1927 to hit 60 home runs -- that stands at the entrance of the museum and factory.

Toward the rear of the complex, visitors come across another giant-sized baseball icon: a 17-ton sculpture of a baseball mitt, simply titled "Play Ball!" People are encouraged to climb in and on top of the 450 million-year-old rock, though the younger crowd is usually found crawling around the slate gray Kentucky limestone.

Once inside the museum, it seems like part of the Baseball Hall of Fame moved south, featuring bats of some of the game's greats on display while allowing visitors to actually handle some old relics. In the Oval Room, several dozen bats are suspended from the ceiling like long, wooden Christmas ornaments of black, brown and red. If you're daring enough, you can venture into Bud's Batting Cage and try using replicas of Ruth and Ted Williams model bats in simulations against current Major League pitchers.

There are many interactive exhibits throughout the tour, but the last stop has always been the highlight: a walk-through and demonstration inside the famed bat factory.

The museum has only been around since 1996, but tours of the factory have been going on for many years and remain the top attraction in the building, according to Anne Jewell, the museum and factory's executive director.

"We've actually been giving tours since at least the 1930s, and that's the part of the tour that most people want to see," Jewell said. "I think the thing that makes it the most popular part of the whole tour is that not many people nowadays know what a factory looks like, so that's part of the allure."

A couple blocks from the factory and museum is a place that commemorates "The Greatest." The Muhammad Ali Center (MAC) opened its doors last November 19 -- the same day as Ali's 19th wedding anniversary -- to great fanfare. Former President Clinton, Bob Costas, Lennox Lewis, Jim Carrey and James Taylor were among the celebrities on hand. The six-story building serves not only as a museum but as a classroom, library, meeting place and administrative center to meet the broader goals of the Ali Center.

"Ultimately, the Ali Center is a center of ideas, not artifacts," Ali Center president and CEO Mike Fox said. "Beyond the exhibits, the center is a global gathering place where people come to learn, share and celebrate our commonalities as human beings and formulate ways of advancing humanity today and in the future."

Ali was born Cassius Clay in Louisville on Jan. 17, 1942, and went on to become not only arguably the greatest boxer of all-time but one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. His religious and social concerns also have paved the way for him to become one of the world's most recognizable humanitarians.

The MAC houses numerous exhibit halls, featuring displays of Ali the Artist, which showcases some of his poetry, drawings and humor just outside the Orientation Theater, as well as the Train with Ali exhibit that gives visitors a hands-on chance to see what Ali's training regimens were like. You can even feel the power behind an Ali punch. There's also the Walk with Ali exhibit, which shows the former champion's six core values and invites those who want to identify their own character strengths through interactive activities.

The third of Louisville's triumvirate of sports landmarks is as much a rite of spring as Opening Day. Churchill Downs has hosted the Kentucky Derby for 132 years, with its popularity and pageantry never wavering. The opening leg of horse racing's Triple Crown is run on the first Saturday of May and draws celebrities of all kinds to see 3-year-old thoroughbreds charge down the track for a few fleeting but exhilarating minutes.

The signature feature of the facility are the twin gray spires jutting up from the original grandstand that have come to symbolize not only the track but the Derby itself. Churchill Downs also pays tribute to all of its memorable races with the Kentucky Derby Museum, located just to the left of the Downs' main entrance on Central Avenue. The museum offers a wide range of activities, from the Warner L. Jones, R. Time Machine that allows people to select archived films of races dating as far back as 1918, guided tours around the paddock area and a chance to be a jockey and ride a simulated race.

Sports are not the only source of entertainment for Louisville residents. Almost two years ago, the Fourth Street Live! Complex opened and became one of the major pieces of the city's downtown revitalization project. The entertainment and retail center is located on South 4th Street, between Liberty Avenue and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and has an almost endless supply of restaurants and bars like the Hard Rock Cafe, Sully's Irish Pub, Parrot Beach and Howl at the Moon.

Good food and company aren't the only featured attractions at Fourth St. Live! Country music is one of the more popular draws and local denizens get a healthy dose of it with the Hot Country Nights Music Series, which runs from late May through early September. The series has brought in performers like Joe Nichols, Keith Anderson and Sugarland. The biggest name to grace the new venue was Gretchen Wilson, who stopped by the Hard Rock Cafe on Aug. 11, 2004, and crammed nearly 30,000 fans into the main concourse.

Add in one of the International League's best ballparks in Louisville Slugger Field, and this Kentucky city certainly has become a thriving community.

Michael Echan is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.