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‘It’s not his fault Phil Castellini is a jackass’: Fans of the Reds, Pirates, Orioles and A’s sound off about their teams’ losing ways

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“Oh, you want to hear about attending A’s games? As anyone who’s been within earshot of me for more than three minutes can attest, I’m happy to talk about not attending A’s games.”

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So opened an email from Danny Willis, a 39-year-old Oakland A’s fan – he says the Bash Brothers were “basically superheroes” – living in Concord, California.

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Attendance matters — that’s why they have the seats and the beer stands and why the 2020 season was so dissonant to watch. Lack of attendance matters, too — a data point in debates about the waning popularity of baseball or something to wonder about when it comes to even successful Florida markets.

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And since baseball, as anyone with a clear-eyed sense of the game is quick to tell you, is a business, buying tickets (or not) is a way for fans to insert themselves into the equation.

Which is why I wanted to hear from fans how they viewed their in-person participation in seasons that are all but lost from the outset. Weighing frustrations against futility against enthusiasm for the teams they love. The low attendance numbers can tell a simple story, and are often cited, about how on-field performance affects a fanbase. But I wanted to hear a little more about why – both from the people who don’t go and those that still do.

I solicited feedback from fans of the: A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. They’re not strictly the worst-attended teams (although, the Pirates and A’s are), but they’re teams in various stages of losing whose behavior has publicly alienated fans.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - APRIL 28: Fans looks on during the game between the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 28, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OHIO – APRIL 28: Fans looks on during the game between the San Diego Padres and the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 28, 2022 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Reds – ‘Ownership should not feel good putting this product on the field’

Probably I wouldn’t even be writing this story if not for Reds president Phil Castellini.

On the day of the team’s home opener, the son of the Reds’ controlling owner Bob Castellini was asked why fans should continue to have faith in the organization that hasn’t won a postseason game in a decade and chose to dump talent following a season in which they finished with a winning record.

“Well, where are you going to go? Let’s start there. I mean, sell the team to who?” he said on the radio. that this game exists? It would be to pick it up and move it somewhere else. And so be careful what you ask for.”

Rather than give fans a reason to believe, he opted to sneer at them for not having better options. And then immediately juxtaposed their own forced fidelity with a barely veiled threat to take the team out of Cincinnati.

“What did the fans do to deserve the kind of sentiment that seems to be coming from the ownership?” wrote Stephen Palluconi, 36, of Westchester, Ohio. (All interviews were conducted over email.)

Once such an avid fan that he says he would watch or listen to 150 Reds games a year, Palluconi has disengaged this season. He rode the rollercoaster of the past 10 years of loyalty before finally hitting a breaking point this offseason. Many Reds fans described a similar tolerance for what they believed to be strategic rebuilds previously.

“This year, however, there’s no such buy-in,” wrote Clay Marshall, a 43-year-old Reds fan living in Los Angeles who is reconsidering his annual trip back to Great American Ballpark.

The past two seasons gave Reds fans hope — in 2020, they made their first October appearance since 2013, and last year’s club would have qualified for the now-expanded postseason field. They seemed to be building towards something.

“When they dumped the majority of the team in the offseason it was just another reminder the front office is clueless,” Palluconi said.

With an explicit no to cutting payrollthe team dealt Jesse Winker, Eugenio Suárez, Tucker Barnhart, Sonny Gray, Amir Garrett, and declined a $10 million option on Wade Miley.

“As a fan, I feel deceived and betrayed,” said Marshall, “and as a result, I have no interest in spending several days of my life and hundreds of dollars to travel cross-country to see games that won’t matter a lick.”

“All I ask is for them to be competitive,” wrote Will Mullins, 23. “I’m not looking for much more than that.”

A month into the season, the Reds are not competitive. By far the worst team in baseball, they’ve gotten off to a historically demoralizing 7-24 start. Their attendance numbers are, comparatively, robust. At an average of 17,286, the crowd size in Cincinnati is only the seventh lowest in MLB. But some of those fans are arriving with bags over their heads and a clear message imploring Castellini to sell the team. (Others have taken that sentiment to the sky.)

“Maybe it will put pressure on the majority owner from the other owners if the fanbase is livid,” Palluconi said. “Collectively I’ve never seen Reds fans this upset, and we are very united.”

Except, that is, on the issue of whether to go to games. Nearly everyone acknowledged that frustrated fans face a conundrum: You can withhold your ticket sales to make a point, but then you’re depriving yourself of the experience. And besides, do the people who matter even care?

“On one hand, the Castellini family doesn’t deserve the support,” said John Wilson of Louisville, Kentucky. He said not going wouldn’t necessarily be a statement, bad teams are just less compelling. And so he’ll scale back his attendance this summer, but ultimately, “I will still go to a few games this season to support the workers and players that show up to the stadium. They didn’t choose the budget. They want to win and wish they had the resources to do so.”

“I’m torn because I want to support the young players on the team like [Jonathan] India and [Hunter] Greene and [Tyler] Stephenson,” Palluconi said. “But I feel like empty seats will send a message like, hey, it’s not okay what you’ve done to the roster.

“Ownership should not feel good putting this product on the field with the hopes of fans attending. However, while I like the Reds and root for them, I enjoy watching Major League Baseball,” said Matthew Vale, a schoolteacher who noted that at least the tickets are cheap.

Some fans, like 28-year-old Matt Elliott of Hamilton, Ohio, are threading that needle by attending local minor league games. After all, getting excited about the Triple-A team in Louisville might be fans’ best hope this season.

Unless, of course, they want to see Joey Votto. The career-Red, now 38 and in the final two years of his contract, is a source of particular ambivalence for fans who want to soak up every game the franchise icon has left to play.

“I think what is most frustrating about this whole situation is that we took the greatest player our franchise has seen in 50 years and wouldn’t invest the resources required to give him a fair chance,” Wilson said.

“Joey Votto is Reds baseball for me,” said Tyler Brickey. “Nothing ownership says or does will change that.”

He has no plans to go to fewer games this season. Because of Votto, because it’s the players — not the Castellinis or the front office — on the field, and because, “the financial structure of the sport virtually guarantees the owners get their money.”

Which is, of course, the rub. If you love baseball, you’re always enriching ownership. And so even clear-eyed fans are aware that it’s a Faustian bargain will often make the deal.

Chad Conant is a father to a teenager who loves Mets ace Max Scherzer, despite living in Cincinnati. Although they originally had plans to go to opening day before the lockout delayed the start of the season, Conant won’t go to any games this season — that is, unless the Mets come to town and Scherzer is scheduled to start.

“My kid will get the experience he deserves,” he said. “It’s not his fault Phil Castellini is a jackass.”

The Pittsburgh Pirates, along the third baseline, and the Chicago Cubs stand for the National Anthem before the Pirates'  home opener baseball game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The Pittsburgh Pirates, along the third baseline, and the Chicago Cubs stand for the National Anthem before the Pirates’ home opener baseball game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, April 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pirates – ‘I only go if I don’t have anything better to do’

For a couple of years in the early 2010s, the Pirates snuck into the postseason with a wild-card berth. None of those trips went particularly well. Outside that, they’re working on extending three full decades of disappointment this year with their 13-17 start. The Pirates — with their low payroll, sustained sub-mediocrity, and recent 101-loss season — are what the Reds could be if this most recent teardown was followed without a plan to get back on top. The farm system now ranks highly – with top prospects like Oneil Cruz suspiciously still spending time in the minors – but fans have a clear sense of who is to blame.

four years ago, over 60,000 people signed a petition imploring owner Bob Nutting to sell the team. last year, Pat McAfee lent his voice to the cause. Those were hopeful times.

Their attendance has been in the bottom five since 2017, and this season it’s lower still. With an average crowd size below 12,000 through the first month of the season, attendance in Pittsburgh is down more than 35% from 2019 (the last truly normal season).

Christy McElhinny, a 33-year-old from Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, is a former season ticket holder who loved the Bucs so much she and her husband took their wedding photos at PNC Park.

“Before I would schedule my dinner plans, my workouts, my vacations, etc. all around attending as many games as I could,” she wrote.

That kind of commitment doesn’t just disappear and she doesn’t plan to fully boycott the team this summer. Now, though, she’s just…


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