It is the final Thursday in August. The early-evening air in downtown Cincinnati is warm and still. Little groups of people are making their way to the ballpark to watch the Reds, last in the National League Central, play the Florida Marlins, last in the National League East. There is no surge of humanity, no human funnel, the way there is in the Bronx or Atlanta or Cleveland. Just little groups of people—two men in suits, a couple pushing a stroller, some college kids-moseying along, heading for a game that is, to be very generous, inconsequential. Except to the people who are here tonight.
Cinergy Field—Riverfront Stadium in the days of the Big Red Machine—comes into view. Scalpers and peanut hawkers work its periphery and the nearby street corners. Season-ticket holders sell their seats to scalpers for around $5 each, figuring something is better than nothing. The scalpers try to get face value, $14, for the best seats, the blue ones. They'll settle for $10, and even less by the second inning. The peanut hawkers are discounting, too. "Cheaper on the outside—salted and unsalted," a boy says, almost singing. He's like a character out of a novel set in the '50s, a rail-thin city kid with skin as dark as a moonless night and a smile that glistens. Nearby, a homeless man rattles a nearly empty cup. I ask how the season is going for him.
"Eleven games under .500," he says, shaking his head. When the Reds are playing well and drawing well, he can pick up $35 a night. When they're not, he's lucky to get $20.
"What's the problem?" I ask.
"Too much youth, not enough veteran players," he says. His name is Jimmy Stewart, he is 51, did two tours of duty in Vietnam, has a bad liver, a bad kidney, a bad heart. He grew up in Huntsville, Ala., and when he was young, Powel Crosley Jr. owned the Reds, and Crosley's radio superstation, WLW, broadcast their games. "I'm spoiled," says Stewart. "I came up on Vada Pinson, Don Newcombe, Eddie Kasco. Frank Robinson—I remember him as a rookie."
Still, he goes to the home games, buys a $3 seat in the top six rows of the stadium. "You know, some people just love competition—they'd pay money to watch two guys pitch pennies."
I put away my press pass and buy a $3 ticket, too. I'm in section 304, row 23, seat 105. It's a good seat if you're not afraid of heights. From 304 you can draw a straight line through home plate, over the pitcher's mound and second base, right through to the 404-foot sign in dead center. There are 676 seats in this section, and when the game starts at 7:05 p.m., 18 of them are occupied. By 7:30 the section is starting to fill up. O.K., that's an exaggeration—four girls have come in. In the minus column, a couple has left. It's kind of lonely. There are no vendors. There's nobody in my row, nobody in the row in front of me, just one guy in the row behind me. He's a middle-aged man with white hair and pinkish skin, wearing black pants, black socks, black shoes, and he's holding a newspaper in his left hand and a radio in his right. In the bottom of the first, when the Reds' lone marquee player, Barry Larkin, reaches first on a muffed fielder's choice—Florida shortstop Alex Gonzalez makes a bad throw to second baseman Luis Castillo, and Reggie Sanders is safe at second—the man winces. We talk.
"It's the Marlins," he says, cheerfully explaining his disgust. "I like to see good baseball, and they're a bad baseball team. I was expecting that play to happen, hoping that it wouldn't, and then it does."
His name is Tom Tifft, he's 55 years old, and he's a Catholic priest. He has lived in Cleveland all his life but comes to Cincinnati on his vacations to see the Reds, staying at the Super 8 motel off I-75, on the Kentucky side of the river. He goes to movies during the day—that afternoon he saw Snake Eyes, with Nicolas Cage—and baseball at night. "I prefer National League baseball," says Father Tifft. "It's faster than American League baseball. When baseball is played well, it's played fast. But don't tell anybody in Cleveland I like the National League better. I'd be crucified."
We return our attention to the game. The field is a mess. The dirt in the batter's box is dry and dusty. There are footprints and stains all over the outfield, and you can see the faded chalk lines of the Bengals' football field on the outfield turf. Derrek Lee, Florida's rookie cleanup hitter, leads off the second and smacks a 2-and-0 pitch. The ball rises, over the second baseman, over an end zone, over the rightfield wall. Every player and coach on the Marlins' bench stands to greet Lee, to celebrate his 16th homer of the season and their team's 1-0 lead. At that moment, the scoreboard shows the standings in the National League East. The Marlins are 41 games out of first.