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On the Astros: A point about fans, baseball and running a franchise

Posnanski did it again. I attempt to fade his brilliance into a point about the Astros.

Bob Levey

In case you missed it, Royals manager Ned Yost hasn't had a good week. After the Royals' comeback victory Tuesday, Yost ripped the city's fans for not attending the game. This is problematic on a number of levels, only some of which the KC Star's excellent Sam Mellinger took him to task.

Following along from afar, the Royals story is very compelling. A once-great team fell on hard times for decades and maybe, sorta, kinda is rising from the ashes. They have smart, erudite fans sprinkled throughout the baseball cognoscenti, who occasionally write about Kansas City and pull in those who never really rooted for the Royals.

Joe Posnanski is one of those writers. I've made no secret about my undying affection for his writing. It's wordy, it's offbeat and it may not be for everyone. But, he can spin a heck of a tale. When he wrote about Ned Yost, I made sure to read it for many reasons.

The one that stuck out as I started was his lesson about sportswriting, about being young and dumb and writing something you regret.

Some years ago, guess it's been almost 20 years by now, I wrote one of those columns that I suspect just about every young columnist writes ... and later regrets. I've written many of those kinds of columns, of course - I believe that comes with the territory of always trying to be as honest as you can. This particular column happened in Cincinnati back in 1995. The Reds had reached the postseason. And those October games were not sold out. There were thousands of empty seats.

So, I ripped the fans.

But, the more Posnanski went on, the more he talked about what he really missed back in Cincinnati. What he missed was what game attendance is all about.

The fans have no responsibility here - the fans are the whole point of the game. You want more fans, try lowering ticket prices. You want more fans, try being a bit more active in the community. You want more fans, try getting into first place more once once or twice every quarter century. You want more fans, go get a job in a bigger market. You want more fans, make the game more interesting or don't play on Tuesday nights or show Guardians of the Galaxy between innings. These things might work, they might not, but the point is that to think of fans as anything other than the defining purpose of all this is to misunderstand the game. How many people you draw to a game is not a reflection on the people. It's a reflection, entirely, on you.

Why is this relevant? Take this tweet from Astros beat writer Evan Drellich.

A once proud Houston franchise has fallen on hard times. Fans have run away in droves. Attendance is now at Astrodome levels. Yet, the Astros ask for fan patience as the team rebuilds. It markets shirts for the "#Process" and hopes smart fans will enjoy watching George Springer, Jon Singleton and Mike Foltynewicz be young and exciting before the team actually wins games.

Maybe there are fans who have this mindset. For those still blacked out from watching the team, maybe it's different. Maybe it's easier to ignore the losses over the past four years and focus on the future. following MiLB TV and the major league box scores.

How often has owner Jim Crane promised Astros fans that the team will be on TV very soon? I've lost count.

If there's one failing of the Crane administration, it's that they have failed the fan experience time and again. We label these "business-side" issues. Things like the HWAC scandal, the dynamic ticket pricing fiasco, the uniform leaks, the Twitter gaffes, the lack of social media presence after losing Alyson Footer have all snowballed to send some fans into hibernation.

They don't care about the team as much as they did, and it's not because of the play on the field. That's part of it, but alienating fans is a bigger job than that. Look at Boston, who's heading toward two terrible finishes in the last three years (sandwiched around a World Series). Their fans still show up in waves, wearing pink hats and the latest Tom Brady jersey (probably).

Attendance woes in Houston are not new. In 1986, Houston only drew 20,000 to a Sunday game. In September. As the team closed on a postseason berth. That season, they were seventh in the National League in attendance. In 1994, Houston finished 10th out of 14 teams and in 1995, the Astros average 18,000 fans per game for the entire season.

Attendance has risen slightly this season, but it's still low. The halcyon days of MMP being new and the Astros contending for the World Series are long gone. In its wake, attendance has dipped back to those Dome days.

Houston has tried to fix its issues. They've hired the excellent Amanda Rykoff to head up the social media department. She's created an engaging presence online, restarting a behind-the-scenes blog and kindling cool experiences like #SocialMediaNight. MMP has become more game-day friendly, allowing fans to bring in food and drink (as long as it's in pre-packaged water bottles or sealed ziptop bags).

Still, the Astros announced they're raising ticket prices next season. They still traded away a young, local pitcher this season. They still failed to sign the No. 1 overall pick. They told fans to "quiet down." Bad news follows them around. Why should fans flock back to the game?

The plan for that seems to be a long-term one. Go figure. If the team starts winning, the fans will come back. At least, that's the logic behind the plan.

In the meantime, what can Houston do? They should take a less on from Poz and Ned Yost. They should remember that attending games is all about the fan. As for me, I'll stop writing about how fans should be patient, that the plan is working.

It's not about the process or the baseball. it's about the fans. It always has been. More than fixing the baseball team, they need to fix this before they have their own Royals situation to deal with in 2017.