Thursday, September 09, 1999

Baseball dead in Cincinnati? Not quite




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The man behind the cash register was conducting business without benefit of a radio Wednesday afternoon. So he relied on his customers for updates on the Reds.

        News of Greg Vaughn's latest homer had reached me via e-mail at exactly 3:48 p.m., but the details were still a little sketchy as I stocked up on caffeine for the stretch drive before deadline. The electronic bulletin neglected to make any mention of baserunners.

        “I think it's 4-2,” I told the shopkeeper Wednesday afternoon.

        “It's 5-2,” another patron promptly announced. Vaughn's fifth-inning blast had been worth two runs, and at least one local fan was keeping careful track. The Reds went on to win 6-4. Hope springs eternal.

        There are people who will tell you baseball is dead in Cincinnati; that the turnstile count at Cinergy Field this summer is proof that the home team has lost the hearts, minds and discretionary dollars of the community; that the ballpark to be built on Main Street is a lavish waste on a lost cause.

        Just because most of the people making this case are East Siders or Outsiders doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong.

So, attendance is down
        Perhaps the birthplace of professional baseball will never recapture the golden glow that spanned the 1970s, when Riverfront Stadium was the epicenter of baseball excellence.

        Perhaps two decades of strikes and scandals and payroll slashing have severed a bond first formed during Ulysses S. Grant's rookie year in the White House.

        Perhaps all those fans who have been traumatized by downtown traffic will never return, even after Ft. Washington Way is finished.

        Perhaps, when pigs fly, they won't lose your luggage.

        The notion that baseball has become passe in Cincinnati is founded largely on attendance figures and neglects a compelling body of anecdotal evidence: dials turned to Marty and Joe; eyes scanning ESPN for updates from Houston; kids bidding up Sean Casey's baseball cards as if they were semiconductor stocks; first-time callers ripping Brett Tomko.

        Ask 10 people at random what they think of Aaron Boone. Then ask the same people if they can name the mayor. See which question elicits the more confident response. Then tell me baseball is dead.

Reds get in your blood
        The Reds are not the regional draw they once were. Their season ticket base has slipped. Their charmless ballpark suffers by comparison with the designer digs in Cleveland and the quaint quirkiness of Wrigley Field in Chicago.

        But beneath all the apparent apathy are the same people who understand the significance of Hal King and Ed Armbrister; who recall a certain opposite-field home run by Johnny Bench and a famous throw by George Foster; who treasure the scrawled signature of Ted Kluszewski or Gordy Coleman. These are the people who went all misty when Pete — no last name necessary — struck that single against Eric Show.

        You grow up with this stuff and it gets in your blood.

        Reds fans remind me of the French Resistance, waiting for the signal to spring into action. That they have not made their way to the ballpark in big numbers this summer does not mean they don't care.

        What it probably means is they are busier, content to follow the game on radio while chauffering children to soccer practice or surfing the Internet.

        All sports teams face more competition for entertainment dollars and time commitments than they did 20 years ago. The Reds have sometimes been slow to react to changes in the marketplace.

        Still, if baseball is dead here, why is General Manager Jim Bowden boasting that the club's new cap is now the game's second-biggest seller? Why has this pennant race spawned a surge in day-of-game sales? Why was it possible Wednesday afternoon to follow the Reds through word of mouth?

        Answer: This is a baseball town. Since 1869.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

REDS 6, CUBS 4
Home run surge hard to explain
REDS NOTEBOOK
Astros 10, Phillies 2
SULLIVAN ARCHIVE