It was impossible not to notice as the best-in-baseball Nationals took the field at 7:05 p.m. last night to face the Cubs. As the ballpark PA announcer implored the crowd to greet "your Washington Nationals," the ensuing roar might not have been loud enough to wake a sleeping infant.
Huge swaths of the lower deck were empty. You could count the number of fans in many upper deck sections on two hands. A few were completely vacant.
Official paid attendance: 17,648, the fourth-smallest crowd of the season on South Capitol Street and the smallest since May 2.
Where'd everybody go?
Theories immediately were proposed. It had been the first day of school in Northern Virginia, where the majority of Nationals fans live. The muggy weather was a turn-off. Tons of locals had been out of town during the holiday weekend. Tons more had migrated to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention.
All of those likely played a role in the disappointingly small gathering, but it turns out this problem wasn't restricted to Washington.
Did you know there were seven games around Major League Baseball last night that drew smaller crowds? Yep, the Braves (16,686), White Sox (15,698), Blue Jays (13,556), Pirates (12,785), Mariners (12,754), Royals (12,462) and Athletics (11,688) all played in front of fewer fans.
And two other playoff contenders -- the Reds (17,806) and Rays (17,652) -- drew nearly identical crowds as the Nationals.
Average attendance across baseball last night: 21,042. That's down 33 percent from the overall season average.
Apparently the day after Labor Day is a tough sell just about everywhere.
Only five clubs drew significantly more fans than the Nationals did: the Giants (41,038), Dodgers (40,619), Cardinals (34,108), Tigers (27,729) and Marlins (23,403). In all cases, those crowds were below average, with Detroit down 10,000 fans from its season norm.
None of that prevented fans, media and other interested parties around the country from hurling insults the Nationals' way and questioning whether D.C. really will support a winning baseball team. Clearly many of those people haven't been paying attention.
Attendance at Nationals Park remains up 27 percent from this point last season. Only the Marlins (who moved out of an awful football stadium into a new baseball-only park) have enjoyed a larger increase from 2011 to 2012.
With an average attendance just a tick under 30,000, the Nationals rank 14th out of 30 major-league clubs, ahead of the playoff-contending Reds, Braves, Pirates, Orioles, White Sox, Athletics and Rays.
So why was last night's crowd (and several other during this homestand) so small? The answer is simple: The Nationals still have a small season-ticket base.
Team officials don't give out exact numbers, but it's believed the Nationals have sold the equivalent of about 12,000 full-season ticket packages. We know for certain that number is no greater than 14,520 (the smallest crowd of the season to date).
When your base is that small, you've got to sell roughly 30,000 single-game seats every single night to fill the place up. That may happen a handful of times over the course of a season -- on summer weekends and against high-drawing opponents -- but on the day after Labor Day? Not likely.
Baseball is a slow-moving sport in so many ways, and attendance leads the list. Teams usually see a huge spike in crowds the year after they reach the playoffs. Why? Because they sell a whole lot more season-ticket packages over the winter.
There's every reason to believe the Nationals will experience such a spike in 2013 and will surpass their 2012 total attendance (even if they don't win as many games).
Until then, they'll just have to hope the crowds start to pick up again as the regular-season draws to a close. When the time comes for them to clinch the city's first postseason berth in 79 years, the place should be full.
When they actually do host October baseball for the first time in three generations, the place will be full. (If nothing else, Washington has proven itself to be a big "event" town, and there will be no bigger event in town come October than playoff baseball.)
That doesn't make last night's paltry crowd any less disappointing. But perhaps it will help convince the doubters out there about D.C.'s ability to support a winning ballclub.