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, and attendance is up roughly 4,000 per game at Great American, to 25,379, 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 post-season. None of the four ranked higher than ninth in attendance in its league, according to STATS LLC.
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 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 their fans with them.
"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 improbable World Series run in 2008 resulted in a half million more sales last year over 2007's.
For now, though, the small crowds are disappointing.
"It's a shame," LeCure said. "The city's been waiting for so long."