Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler

A caller on the radio the other night said he could understand why the Reds didn't draw so well over the weekend because, after all, there were select volleyball tournaments going on and confirmations and proms and whatnot. There were also track meets and high school baseball games and high school softball games and Knothole games and select soccer games and AAU basketball games and tennis matches and choral contests and spring weddings and yards to mow and boats to crank up and what, do you think dinner cooks itself?

Bear in mind, also, that sports and church and dancing and singing and marrying and grass and outdoor recreation are all unique to Cincinnati. They obviously don't have those things in Milwaukee, where the Reds played on an April weekend with nothing in particular at stake and drew an average of 31,589 patrons, and certainly not in St. Louis, where, in the brand newest Busch Stadium, their games were seen by sold-out houses of 40,000 and something.

But ours is an unusually distracted city, which apparently is why the Reds came home to play Houston in a series that would decide first place and only 24,873 were interested enough to show up on Saturday and 22,814 on Sunday. Friday was better, nearly 10,000 sunshiny souls walking up to swell the audience to 32,089. That was the night the home team beat Roy Oswalt for the first time ever and took over the division lead and set up what figured to be a whopping weekend.

There was also the NFL draft on Saturday, and maybe the sports fans who don't have kids playing one thing or another all over town were watching it, Marvin Lewis' team being the rage and all. But the Bengals' first pick didn't come until after the Reds had beaten the Astros again. And what was the excuse for Sunday?

Was it the gray sky? Must we have perfect weather to take in a ballgame around here?

And why were there only 20,900 at Great American Ball Park to watch Bronson Arroyo daub and stroke another compelling canvas Monday night against St. Louis, the regional rival and arch-exposer that came to town tied with the Reds for first place? Tuesday's afternoon crowd of 25,127 was businesslike, as far as that goes, but not of Cardinal proportions - not the type of gathering that should have witnessed a ninth-inning, statement-making, 3-2 victory over the division bully, completing a brief but heady homestand that kept the Reds in first place all by themselves, and with the best record in baseball.

This is not to disparage any Cincinnatian who opted for other pursuits over those five days of big-league drama. Having a life is a fine thing. What's more, it isn't the fans' job to get the stadium; it's the ballclub's to see that they do.

But one can only wonder what more the current Reds can offer their constituency. They just completed the best April in team history. They have underdogged their way to the top of the NL Central. They have put forward a pop star in Arroyo, a sensation in Brandon Phillips and a young stalwart in Edwin Encarnacion. They have hit far, run fast and pitched better. Under owner Bob Castellini, general manager Wayne Krivsky and manager Jerry Narron, they have made the most of the right moves, all the while demonstrating a refreshingly earnest competitiveness.

Is it disapproval over the trade of Sean Casey? Is it the slow reconstruction of a fan base broken down by the insipid seasons under the previous ownership? Is it ordinary Cincinnati skepticism? Is it simply spring?

"You've got to give the fans a chance," Castellini said Tuesday after the two-game sweep of the team he partially owned before he bought the local one. "This is early in the season and people haven't quite gotten into believing yet. We just have to make believers out of everybody.

"These fans have had five straight years of losing seasons, and it's going to take a while to make them have confidence in us. But I just know that if we execute, it will happen. I've lived here all my life, and Cincinnati folks are as loyal as they can be. Once they're tuned in, they're all over it."

Traditionally, the Reds' hometown requires its team to hold its own until school is out. It's curious as to why this is the case here and not in other major-league cities. But it is, and exceptions, apparently, are hard to come by.

The coinciding commentary is that Cincinnati proper is not and never really has been a come-to-the-ballpark kind of town. Since the days of the Big Red Machine, if not before, the Reds have been heavily dependent on highway visitors from about four states and a hundred miles or more away. Those folks plan their journeys in advance, and for stretches when school is not a factor. They also use a lot of gas, the price of which is at present daunting.

In light of all that, this season's modest attendance is not really surprising. It's running nearly 1,000 ahead of last year's average for 13 dates.

But last year, it didn't matter much. By this time, 2005, the Reds had made it clear that they would not be party to the pennant race.

This year, it could matter. The Reds have given early indications that they can compete with the Astros and Cardinals on the field; but can they do it in the stands? Can they do it in the front office? At the trading deadline? It all works together.

Castellini, of course, is quite familiar with the St. Louis front office. He was part of it. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt - whose father was a Reds general manager - lives in Cincinnati and watched Monday night's game in Castellini's private box. Cardinals president Mark Lamping "is maybe the best in the business," in Castellini's opinion. "When we grow up, we want to be like him."

Informed by the St. Louis model, Castellini promptly separated the Reds' business and baseball sides. The standings now show that the baseball side is catching up. But it's not likely to maintain that pace unless business picks up alongside it.

"I get the baseball guys together with John Allen's (business) team," said the new Cincinnati owner, "and I say, 'Look, if you don't make the money, they can't spend the money.' If you can't create the interest and get folks in the ballpark and execute on the field, you're not going to have the money to better the team. Everybody understands that."

Even the fans?