School is ending, and so the time is at hand when the Reds traditionally hope for a profitable bump in their home attendance.
Years ago, the Reds expected that bump and the fans complied — now the team only hopes for the bump, and it sometimes keeps them waiting for years. Once a baseball town on par with St. Louis, Cincinnati now finds its glory days beneath geologically ordered layers of memory.
Afflicted with cynicism through five consecutive years of losing, Reds fans are making a bid to produce their lowest attendance since 1998, when the local nine brought barely fewer than 1.8 million through the old turnstiles at Cinergy Field. Through May 21, the Reds averaged 22,235 at home, 25th of 30 big league clubs. When your franchise has produced two winning seasons in the last 10 years, fans expect the worst and don't wish to see it.
But Reds fans began losing interest during times of on-field prosperity. It's sometimes hard to pinpoint when the glory days end for a franchise, and the moment usually can be traced to a sudden drop in competitive relevance. The Reds lost their public in a haze of bitterness, ugly news and inauspicious demography. Winning didn't help.
If we must pick one anniversary date to which this perfect storm can be reduced, May 24, 1993, would be a good idea, but not the only one. Early that morning, Reds rookie General Manager Jim Bowden fired beloved manager Tony Perez by telephone. The Reds were shaky, but they weren't doomed.
The Reds started losing their grip little more than six months earlier. Lou Piniella, who temporarily saved the Reds with the 1990 World Championship a year after Pete Rose's lifetime suspension, decided he'd seen enough of Marge Schott. He refused to further enable her hesitant negotiating charade and just left. Before spring training in 1993, the commissioner's office cracked down on Schott for her racial attitudes and pushed her aside for a year.
It fell to Bowden, a 31-year-old GM, the only person Schott really trusted, not only to learn his new job but to conduct ownership functions. Bowden hired Perez as the popular move and hoped to build on a 90-win campaign from 1992.
But the Reds were 20-24 on May 24 without distinguishing themselves against good clubs, and Bowden dumped Perez.
The Reds drew 2,315,946, fourth among 12 National League clubs in 1992, the last year when the league figured attendance by counting only fans paid and in the park. In 1993, the NL went to the American League formula of counting total tickets sold, so their number increased to 2,453,232, but that ranked only ninth of 14 NL clubs.
Players and fans alike made little secret of their fury at the Perez firing, which obliterated much of the good will that hadn't been undone by Schott's antics. Cincinnati fans, so strongly attached to the Big Red Machine, took the club's shoddy treatment of Perez personally.
The Reds lost track of the intimate way in which their fans relate to the ball club. Seemingly within minutes of his hiring, Bowden dealt Paul O'Neill to the New York Yankees for Roberto Kelly, igniting a great Yankee dynasty while initiating the fall of the Reds. And the 1993 season was barely half done when Bowden dealt Kelly to the Atlanta Braves for Deion Sanders.
Bowden and Schott teamed up to assemble very fine clubs in 1994 and 1995, but the fans didn't know these guys or pretend they were friends. Despite payrolls among the highest in Major League Baseball, the Reds lopped off enormously popular third baseman Chris Sabo after the 1993 season, then let left-hander Tom Browning go as a free agent after 1994. Closer Rob Dibble, another early 1990s stalwart, blew out his arm.
Fans were strung out over waves of alienation book-ended by Rose's 1989 suspension and the 1994 players strike. A new ballpark housed a new contender in Cleveland and, not long after, the Atlanta Braves opened new digs. The regional crowds that once filled the riverfront ball yard took their business to newer parks and better ball clubs closer to their homes.
So the Reds asked local officials for a new facility and started poor-mouthing Riverfront Stadium, then wondered why fans stopped coming. When baseball suspended Schott for good in 1996, it prohibited her from day-to-day operations and allowed her to direct stadium negotiations. Thus the Reds were deprived of Schott's willingness to spend and saddled with her slow work on the ball park, which finally opened in 2003 — three years later than necessary.
When the Reds won 96 games in 1999, fans didn't care until the very end. Then new owner Carl Lindner approved a deal for Junior Griffey in 2000 and optimism dawned, soon to be doomed by impractical expectations, Griffey's injuries, a lack of ownership commitment and a farm system dry of pitching.
Lindner's front office reached a low point of indifference in 2003, when the Reds opened Great American Ball Park and then dumped salary at mid-season. More outrage. And the Reds have continued losing.
The high school graduating Class of 2006 has missed a lot of good times with a Cincinnati institution that enlivened generations of local folk. The parents of today's high school seniors remember decades of very good baseball running from Bill DeWitt's miracle pennant of 1961 through Piniella's last club in 1992. But those memories are fading.
The Reds began 2006 as one of baseball's surprise clubs, prompting their skeptical fans to cross arms and wait for disaster to strike. It might have begun this month. From May 12-21, the Reds lost seven of nine games and the St. Louis Cardinals gained five games on them. Sometimes the Reds pitched and didn't hit. Sometimes the reverse. Sometimes it was just poor play in the field. Just in time for school to end.
This is what new owner Bob Castellini and General Manager Wayne Krivsky are up against — a long, angry history in addition to a ball club with too many holes. One hopes they'll succeed. Then we can look back to where they started.
It's pretty close to the bottom.