CINCINNATI – When the Reds called up crowd-pleasing reliever Aroldis Chapman at the end of August, players hoped his 103 mph fastball would finally fill the seats at Great American Ball Park.
"We were talking about it a little bit in the bullpen," Cincinnati reliever Sam LeCure said. "We were saying, 'I hope when Aroldis comes, they can get more people in the seats.'"
Not even his blink-of-an-eye pitch could pack 'em in.
The Reds are on the brink of securing their first playoff appearance in 15 years, but they're having trouble drawing much of a crowd to see it happen. Attendance is up roughly 4,000 per game at Great American, but the Reds still rank near the bottom of the National League.
They're not alone, either. Atlanta, San Diego and Tampa Bay are struggling at the gate while they fight for a spot in the postseason.
Heading into games on Thursday, all four were in position to make the playoffs as either division champions or wild-card teams. None of the four ranked higher than ninth in attendance in their leagues, according to STATS LLC.
—San Diego is on track for its first playoff appearance in four years, but ranks 11th in attendance at 26,038 per game. Last year, the Padres drew 23,735 per game.
—The Reds rank 12th at 25,379 per game, an increase from 21,579 last year but still a disappointment. They sold only 12,061 tickets — their smallest crowd of the season — when they clinched their first winning season in 10 years on Sept. 13.
—The Rays have been going back-and-forth with the Yankees in the AL East all season, but their attendance has gone backward. Tampa Bay is selling 23,081 tickets per game, a decrease from 23,147 last year. That ranks ninth in the AL.
—Atlanta was second in the NL East and led the wild-card race by a half-game over San Francisco. In Bobby Cox's final season as manager, the Braves have experienced a slight rise in ticket sales. They're averaging 30,042 per game, up from 29,304 last year.
Each team has a different dynamic at work. The Rays have a history of struggling to sell tickets. The Reds just broke a streak of nine consecutive losing seasons, which made them an afterthought heading into the season. San Diego and Atlanta also are surprising contenders, and warm weather on the West Coast and in the South presents other options besides going to a ballpark.
There's one common thread.
"I understand with the economy the way it is, some people can't afford to come out to the game," LeCure said.
Attendance overall is down minimally in the majors this season, from 30,215 per game last year to 30,078. The economy has cut into not only baseball's crowds but those for other professional sports as well.
Beyond that, it's anyone's guess.
The Reds' long streak of futility — no playoff appearance since 1995, no winning record since 2000 — cut deeply into fan interest. They drew only 1.7 million fans last year, their smallest attendance since 1986 when they were at Cinergy Field. One game drew only 9,878 fans, the smallest gate since Great American Ball Park opened in 2003.
It was a measure of how much the losing has hurt fan interest.
Their biggest crowds this season came when the rival Cubs and Cardinals were in town, bringing tens of thousands of fans with them. At some games, the visiting fans drowned out the home crowd.
"We welcome them because we need the attendance," Reds manager Dusty Baker said before a series with Chicago. "We need the attendance so we can sustain and get some more — more players, that is."
The Reds' payroll depends heavily upon attendance. Cincinnati increased its opening day payroll from $71 million last year to $72.4 million, which ranked 19th in the majors. The Reds are hoping for a significant bump in attendance next year to give them more payroll flexibility.
Historically, teams usually see a jump in attendance the year after a great season. Tampa Bay's attendance increased from 1.38 million in 2007 to 1.81 million in 2008, when it went to the World Series and had those playoff crowds. The improbable postseason run resulted in a bump in ticket sales to 1.87 million last year.
The Reds know what that's like.
They drew 2.06 million fans in 1999, when they made an unexpected push before losing a one-game playoff to the Mets for the wild card. Season ticket sales increased in the offseason, and made an even bigger jump when the club acquired Ken Griffey Jr. at the start of spring training. Cincinnati sold 2.58 million tickets for 2000.
For now, though, the small crowds are disappointing.
The Braves won 14 straight division championships through 2005, an unmatched run of titles. They've made an unexpected run toward the playoffs in Cox's final season before retirement. The feel-good story has resulted in an increase of only 638 fans per game.
The most famous Brave doesn't understand.
"These young kids are playing well," Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said recently. "Oh man, we've got some good-looking young kids out there. The city should be excited about what we have here."
In some cities, the excitement is still small-scale.
"It's a shame," the Reds' LeCure said. "The city's been waiting for so long."