Divisions aren't won in August. Let's just get that out of the way right off the bat. The Reds could get swept by the Cardinals this week and still win the division by 5 games at the end. So, when I say this is the biggest series ever in Great American Ball Park history, I don't mean this is a make-or-break series.
What I mean is, these three games might be the most impassioned and intense games we have ever seen at GABP. Heck, this may be the most energized series we've seen during the regular season in Cincinnati since the 1990 season. It's hard to find a comparable series in the last 2 decades where the Reds have played with first place on the line in August or September, and with the fans are latching on to that excitement. Here are the closest comps that I can find:
2006 - August 7, 8, 9, 10 - St. Louis comes to town with a 3.5 game lead. The series draws almost 156,000 fans, but the Reds were pulling out all of the stops to try to get fans to the ballpark with promotions like dollar dogs and half-priced tickets. The team came into the series having lost 6 of 8 and few thought that the 57-54 Reds were a legitimate playoff contender. After losing the first game, the Reds took the middle two and cut the Cardinals lead to 2.5 games, but lost the series capper and went back on the road still 3.5 back.
This series was comparable to today in many ways, but I don't really remember many fans believing in that team like they do in the current one. It seemed like the only time the Reds drew fans that year was when they went out of their way with a major promotion. This current series with the Cardinals has nothing but baseball on the docket, and it looks like the remaining ticket counts are dwindling for all 3 games. 2006 was a fun year, in a smoke-and-mirrors kind of way, but I don't think that season matched up to this level of excitement.
1999 - Nothing will compare to the playoff atmosphere of game 163 versus the Mets, but honestly that is more like a playoff game than a regular season game, even if it counts toward the regular season record. The NL Central was a two-team race in '99, with the Reds and Astros tied in the standings as late as October 1. However, the Astros did not come to Cincinnati after July 5th, and that four-game weekend series merely drew 115k+ to the ballpark. The two teams did meet for two games in Houston during the last week of the season and drew 106k for the two games, but since that wasn't in Cincinnati, it doesn't count.
1995 - The Reds led the division by 4 games on August 1st and the lead never shrunk below that the rest of the way, reaching double-digits for most of September. Couple that with the remaining fallout from the 1994 strike and the Reds actually weren't drawing that many fans to the ballpark in August and September that year.
1994 - The strike pretty much made sure that no meaningful games were played. The Reds last 7 games before the strike were home games versus the Braves and Dodgers and they averaged 39k fans a game over that stretch. Would have been nice to have seen how that year played out, don't you think?
1990 - August 10, 11, 12, 13 - The San Francisco Giants came to town down by 4.5 games, but the struggling Reds had just lost 13 of their previous 17 while the Giants had won 10 of their previous 15. The Giants came in cocky and ready to prove something, but the fans were ready, with 173k showing up for the series. The Reds took 3 of 4 in the series and got some more comfortable padding on their rival.
A month later, the Dodgers came town in 2nd place, though this time they were 6.5 back at the start of the series. They drew 113k for the series (remember, Riverfront could hold 52k though), and despite losing 2 of 3, the Reds maintained a 5.5 game lead when the Dodgers left.
Perhaps the closest comp to this series is the series between the Reds and Giants on July 31, August 1, 2 in 1987. The second-place Giants came to town trailing the Reds by 2 games. The Reds were 6 games over when the series started, but it was a young, talented team that was expected to win, so it's not like they were surprising people with their success. The series drew 119k, which would be a fantastic number for the series this year, but that was in a larger park and it was a weekend series.
This was all meant just as a fun exercise to put some perspective on how rare a series like this one with the Cardinals has been for Reds fans over the last two decades. I expect this to be a nerve-wracking, exciting, and hopefully happy experience. Whatever happens, be sure to enjoy the moment. These types of moments have been few and far between for us fans. Don't let it slip by without soaking it in.