Big League Stew - MLB

It being a Monday night in the middle of September, we were bound to hear a few comments about the thin attendance at the ballparks of some of the contending teams. And we did.

That great matchup between CC Sabathia(notes) and David Price(notes) in St. Petersburg drew only 26,907 fans. The Atlanta Braves drew only 18,647 as they faced the Nationals in their quest for their first playoff spot in five seasons. Last (and certainly not least), the Cincinnati Reds drew 12,061 fans to see Jay Bruce(notes) (above) batter the Arizona Diamondbacks for two homers in a 7-2 win that dropped the team's magic number to 13. 

Fans of these teams are certainly grousing over seeing these storylines mentioned and it's not hard to understand why. Having your individual loyalties threatened because of something you can't control just plain sucks. And though a study in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal suggests otherwise, it seems pretty impossible to prove that the number of butts in the seats can have an impact on your home team's record.

And here's the thing: While writers, radio hosts and Tweeters are trying to use the figures in Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, San Diego and elsewhere to make a statement about the economy and the impact of HDTV, I think we're remembering a past that never existed in order to make swift conclusions and judgments about the present.

In other words, it's not as if past teams in those cities were playing in front of final-month crowds that looked like the Roman Coliseum. Let's take Cincinnati for example.

In our minds, I think we envision that the Queen City's teams of the past were cheered on by rabid sellout crowds at Riverfront Stadium. Surely Pete Rose and Johnny Bench played in front of packed houses nightly, while the Nasty Boys entered every game to the roar of a capacity crowd that could number north of 52,000. Right?   

Eh, not quite. After taking a quick look through some of the numbers Tuesday morning, it looks like the Reds' average of 23,219 fans through five September home dates in 2010 isn't that far off from the totals of some of the best Reds teams of the past 30 years.   

•  In 1999, the Reds battled Houston and New York down the stretch for a playoff spot. Though they ultimately came up short against the Mets in the wild-card tiebreaker, they averaged 27,099 fans at Riverfront over 12 September home dates. 

In 1995, the 85-win Reds waltzed to the NL Central title by nine games over the Astros. They averaged 24,383 fans over 13 home dates in September.

Also, in that year's NLCS, they didn't sell out Riverfront for either Games 1 or 2 against Atlanta (right), drawing only 40,382 and 44,624 fans to each game, respectively. 

In 1990, the Reds easily won the NL West by five games over the Dodgers and eventually won the World Series under Lou Piniella. They averaged 25,012 over 17 September home dates and, with the division wrapped up early, they drew poorly for the last three regular-season dates (all on weekdays) — 12,064, 11,202 and 10,150.

In 1976, the Big Red Machine worked its way to its second-straight title. The Reds led the National League in attendance that year with 2.6 million fans, but even that wasn't enough to push September's average past 30K. (The average for the month was 28,961 over 13 dates). 

Admittedly, this won't do much to stop the fans in bigger (New York, Los Angeles) and more cultish (St. Louis, Milwaukee) markets from mocking the smaller markets for their turnstile counts. And maybe it shouldn't. When a Detroit team experiencing a down season in one of America's worst economies can still draw an average of 5,000 more fans a game than some of the best teams in the league, you're going to be ripe for criticism.

At the same time, we're probably giving too much credit to modern-day factors while not recognizing that other influences still play a big role — namely, 1) the return of school nights, 2) entertainment budgets that are drained after summer vacations and earlier trips to the ballpark, and 3) people saving their money for playoff tickets once it seems like the postseason is a certainty.

Look, if Cincinnati doesn't sell out its playoff tickets, then it will be a big surprise as well as a pretty big story. But as it stands right now, it looks like we're not that far off from the norm when it comes to good September baseball on the banks of the Ohio River. 

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