When it was announced that FC Cincinnati had been invited to join Major League Soccer, the scene downtown at Fountain Square was mesmerizing. Jeff Berding, the team’s GM, had an interesting description of what he saw:
“It looked like the Reds had just won the World Series,” he said. “It was just—the square was full of thousands of people in blue and orange and my heart sort of skipped a beat, and I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is really a big deal for this city.’ ”
When I read that quote, I immediately noted two takeaways. First, the Reds are the go-to when it comes to describing something that Cincinnatians celebrate, and that’s because the Cincinnati Reds are woven into this city’s DNA. Love for this baseball club is passed down from generation to generation, and has been for nearly a century and a half.
The other thing I noticed was Berding’s last sentence: “[T]his is a really big deal for this city.” There are a number of reasons why the FC Cincinnati phenomenon has been huge for the city, but here’s a big one—in an environment where interest in baseball is dropping across the board, the Reds have continually failed to give the city anything to celebrate.
Listen, I’m still optimistic that the Reds will be aggressive over the winter and the 2019 version of this club will be firmly in playoff contention all season long. No, seriously. They aren’t that far away, if management will decide to go all-in this off-season.
But I was digging around at Baseball-Reference recently, and I saw some things that made me very, very sad. Since misery loves company, I thought I’d share them here with you, my dear readers.
Going into last weekend, the Reds were 59-82 and 24.5 games out of first place. Precisely one year ago, Cincinnati was 61-79 and 15.5 games back. Check out the three previous seasons:
2016: 57-80, 31.5 GB
2015: 56-79, 30.5 GB
2014: 67-75, 11 GB
You have to go back five full years since the Reds last played meaningful baseball in September. It’s hard to remember now, since it’s been so long ago, but at this point in 2013 Cincinnati was 80-62 and 2 games back. They ended up flaming out in the Wild Card game, but, hey, they were in the mix. That’s all I ask.
But: Five. Full. Years.
I have spent five full years of my life watching a team that’s been nowhere in the vicinity of competitive baseball. Five years of writing about the Reds and thinking about the Reds and watching the Reds and spending money on the Reds and (ahem) publishing a book about the Reds. Five years of my life that I’ll never get back.
Certainly, I’ve had some fun over those five years, mostly because I love baseball and I like hanging out and talking with Reds fans. And I’m being honest: I really do think the Reds could be good next year.
But why should Cincinnati’s casual sports fans care at this point? You’d classify me as a hardcore fan, and I have completely lost patience with the rebuild. I see the Braves and Phillies making drastic moves, doing everything they can to speed up the process of building a competitive team, and I’m frustrated that the Reds continue to lose year after year after year.
The Reds do a good job of making the gameday experience at Great American Ball Park fun, but dollar dogs and bobbleheads don’t fill the seats like a winning team does. Especially in the current environment, with attendance down all across baseball at rates not seen since the year after the 1994 strike.
Things are even worse in Cincinnati, with attendance declining each of the last five seasons. This year’s average attendance of 20,184 is the lowest for the Reds in the history of GABP and the lowest for the franchise since 1984. (It’s an imperfect comparison, given the number of home dates for each club, but FC Cincinnati’s average home attendance is 25,230.)
In discussing this column idea with my editor, John Fox, a baseball fan who wasn’t raised here, he emailed: Being here in Cincinnati, especially downtown Cincinnati, I honestly worry that baseball in general and the Reds in particular (because they don’t win) are dropping fans right and left. Other than the opening day parade, there are few signs in Cincinnati that the Reds are still a big deal.
There are 30-year-olds who don’t remember the last time the Reds won a playoff series. To the average twentysomething wearing blue and orange, singing and tossing smoke bombs in The Bailey at FC Cincinnati games, the wire-to-wire 1990 Reds are ancient history. The Big Red Machine is something Grandpa rambles on about during holiday dinners. For the younger fans baseball needs to engage in order to grow, the Reds are just that team down by the river that’s suffered through losing seasons in 17 of the last 22 years.
All of a sudden, this seems like a pivotal moment for the team that’s defined this city for so many decades and that will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first Redlegs squad next year. It has generally been assumed that winning would cure everything and, to an extent, that’s true. Though they clearly aren’t coming out for the craft beer or the new food options, fans will likely return to GABP to watch a winner. Certainly I will be there, because I’m a hopeless romantic about Cincinnati Reds baseball.
But I have never seen this fan base as apathetic as it is now, because that’s the fan base the Reds have cultivated by being mostly awful for an entire generation. If the Reds don’t put a winner on the field—and soon—there may not be quite as many fans left and, before you know it, we’ll be describing downtown celebrations in blue and orange terms (or orange and black, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
For half a decade, the Reds have been attempting to rebuild the team on the field. Rebuilding the fractured relationship with their fan base may be a much taller order.
Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, and the founder of Redleg Nation. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available now in bookstores and online.