April baseball: ’tis the season of panic and praise.
Of proclamations like this: that Zack Cozart will never hit, Devin Mesoraco will never miss, the Reds can’t score, el Cueto can’t be stopped, Cincinnati has collapsed –Cincinnati will rise again. Fans cling and clamor to small sample sizes, hoping a snapshot either does or doesn’t provide a glimpse into a long season.
By May, by the summer months, they start to come around to common sense. They see the stories aren’t so simple. They see that Mesoraco’s average had to come down, that Cozart’s had to come up. They see that Mat Latos, of course, would come back. That the age of Ryan Ludwick would come calling. That wins, losses, and rain delays, as they do every summer, would come.
But this season, the question isn’t whether fans will come around to common sense. It’s whether they’ll come around at all.
The early returns indicate that, when game day comes, Cincinnati stays at home. Going into Sunday’s game, the Reds ranked 14th of 15 National League teams in average home attendance. The only team faring worse in getting fans to the ballpark are the Miami Marlins, the fire-sale franchise that ticked off every taxpayer in the 305 with its subsidized stadium and player purge.
From April 14 to April 16, last year’s playoff opponent and fellow Wild-Card, the Pittsburgh Pirates, came to Great American Ballpark. And for three straight afternoons, they played in front of less than 19,000 fans scattered around otherwise empty, red seats. To put that in perspective, the St. Louis Cardinals have yet to play to a crowd below 41,000 at Busch Stadium. And if that’s aiming too high, the Chicago Cubs (who just lost a series to the Reds) have yet to seat less than 21,000 at Wrigley Field.
The most painful statistic: the Reds only average 3,000 more fans per game than the Houston Astros, a team so piteous that they recently drew a 0.0 television rating for a home game. People won’t even watch them from the couch.
For a fan base that takes pride in its passion, this represents a disturbing trend. The Reds haven’t ranked 14th in National League attendance since 2009, the year Walt Jocketty took over as GM. They haven’t ranked next-to-last since 1983, when they finished last in their division and hit for a collective .239 batting average.
But since Jocketty’s arrival, the trend seemed to be in slow reversal. For the last three seasons, the Reds have finished 10th in attendance. A small victory, but significant considering that the Reds hadn’t fared better since 2003, when GABP first opened its doors.
Still, this season’s bottom-feeding attendance numbers represent a diminished fervor surrounding riverside baseball in Cincinnati –a tradition with 19th century roots. The team that once held the crown of fan frenzy as recently as 1976, when no other National League team packed its stadium as consistently, has seen a malaise in game-day support. Just look at what’s happened since the 1990 World Series victory:
Year | NL Attendance Rank
1990 | 4th
1991 | 3rd
1992 | 4th
1993 | 9th
1994 | 6th
1995 | 6th
1996 | 8th
1997 | 9th
1998 | 12th
1999 | 11th
2000 | 10th
2001 | 13th
2002 | 12th
2003 | 8th
2004 | 12th
2005 | 13th
2006 | 12th
2007 | 13th
2008 | 14th
2009 | 14th
2010 | 12th
2011 | 10th
2012 | 10th
2013 | 10th
2014 | 14th (so far)
The steep decline from 1995 to 2009 makes sense, as it parallels a disastrous postseason slump for the Reds in which they chased October, and failed, in perpetuity. But success brought a modest renaissance in Cincinnati Reds fandom. Faces old and new were returning.
So what has changed? Where have you gone, Cincinnati? Why are fans leaving gaps in the GABP?
Reasons exist, both tangible and intangible.
The naive hope of spring might have faded fast for fans in Cincinnati. Before that Pittsburgh series that saw such lowly attendance numbers, on-field play portended a tough upcoming season for Porkopolis. Going into Sunday’s game against the Cubs, this was a team ranked 12th in runs scored, a team that had surrendered the most hits. Going into that Pirates series, it was a team already six games back in the standings.
In this season of panic, perhaps people decided the pain wasn’t worth the price of admission.
There was also a combination of factors surrounding that Pittsburgh series that bear mentioning. The games took place on three school-day afternoons, hardly prime-time for baseball in April. Two of them took place in temperatures under 45 degrees. And one of them took place on Tax Day, and though I haven’t seen research on the correlation between baseball fans and procrastinators, I’m willing to be convinced.
But these are factors all ballparks face. Wrigley Field has fared better, and they face more afternoon games, more cold weather, and let’s be honest, more bad baseball. So maybe the intangible reasons matter most.
Is it possible that the Cincinnati fan base, even with division success, with perennial playoff contention, looked at this Reds roster and decided there’s little to hold on to?
Does Joey Votto‘s patience and stoicism overshadow his greatness and superstardom? Did an offseason of more losses (Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Hanigan, e.g.) than victories dampen expectations? Did the promises of Billy Hamilton‘s immediate impact and an invincible, young rotation seem as empty as the seats?
At what point, in April, does a small-sample statistic become a huge concern?
Perhaps, if the Reds rebound from a disappointing start and disabled-list stints, Cincinnati’s faithful will return to the red seats, to the sun deck, to the ferries that carry fans across the Ohio River. Perhaps playoff contention or Billy on the bases will fill the gaps of the GAP.
Perhaps I’m panicking. After all, it’s April.
‘Tis the season.