It started as a way for the pitchers in the bullpen to pass the time.
"One, two, three, four, five. . . ."
It didn't take long for Wally Ritchie and his Vigilante teammates to count heads in the stands and gather that night's crowd count in Reno. Actually, they didn't kill much time at all.
"When you start counting and come up with 163 people," Ritchie said, "you know it's not a real good night for baseball."
At whatever level of competition, it's the responsibility of a professional athlete to perform no matter who is, or isn't watching.
"We're out here for a reason," said Ritchie, a left-handed pitcher who is hoping to get back into the big leagues. "The fans are nice, but they're not the reason we're out here."
Whether it's in front of more than 43,000 fans at sold-out Edison Field or fewer than 2,000 at Saddleback College, home of the Vigilantes, the bottom line for the players is still performing and winning.
Orange County residents have all sorts of entertainment options. There's a movie theater on nearly every corner, amusement parks, shopping malls, golf courses, tennis courts and, of course, the beach.
"That's why we're not getting the crowds," said P.J. Polowski, who plays for the county's professional soccer team, the Zodiac. "That's the problem with all professional sports in Orange County--there are so many other things to do."
It's less of a problem for the Angels and Mighty Ducks, who enjoy the automatic legitimacy of playing in established leagues. The Angels are averaging 29,116 fans through 43 games at the refurbished Edison Field, and the Ducks averaged 17,068 at the Arrowhead Pond this past season.
On the other hand, the Zodiac is averaging an announced crowd of only 486 at UC Irvine through nine A-League games, which is worst among the league's 28 teams. The Vigilantes play in front of an announced average of 1,910, which ranks third in the eight-team Western Baseball League.
In three home games at the Pond, in-line hockey's Bullfrogs are averaging an announced crowd of 7,393. Anaheim is the attendance leader in Major League Roller Hockey, which is in its first full season and has 14 teams in North American and six in England.
Because clubs count tickets sold, there are often fewer in attendance than the number actually announced at the game.
However, Polowski said he plays the same whether there are 50 people in the stands or 5,000.
"I think [small crowds] affect some athletes' ability to perform," he said. "You want to bring the fans back, so players want to rise and play an attractive game of soccer if there are 7,000 in the stands. If there are 50 people in the stands, you may not emphasize that.
"But regardless of how many people are there, all athletes should perform the same way. Especially at home games--you want to show everyone you're trying to win."
Angel Manager Terry Collins agreed. Crowd size does matter.
"For a lot of the guys, it has a lot of effect," Collins said. "It's just like the difference between a playoff game and a regular-season game--there's more meaning to it.
"I saw it [as a manager] in Houston. We would draw 17,000 but when the Braves would come to town we'd have 45,000, and you saw a different team. The whole approach, by everybody, was different. They wanted to show off their wares."
Charley Kerfeld once pitched on the same Houston Astros team as Nolan Ryan. The team Kerfeld manages, the Grays Harbor Gulls of the Western Baseball League, announced Friday it would cease operations because of financial obligations brought about by lack of sponsorship and season-ticket income and sagging attendance. The league plans to cooperatively fund the team until the July 12-14 all-star break.
With Houston, Kerfeld pitched in playoff games before huge crowds, and also pitched in front of the smallest crowd to ever see a game in the Astrodome.
"It was our last home game of the season before we went on a six-game road trip," Kerfeld recounted in Mission Viejo before a game against the Vigilantes. "We were ahead, 2-0, in the ninth. I got the first guy out and then walked a guy. [Manager] Bob Lillis came to take me out of the game, and it sounded like there were 100 million people booing him, and there were only 1,600 in the stands.
"You could just hear everything, every catcall there was."
That is the downside of playing in front of small crowds. Voices stand out. When some loudmouth yells from the last row, players can actually hear him over the silence. That's in contrast to a large crowd, which provides a buzz, a "white noise."
Angel Darin Erstad knows what it's like to play in front of really large crowds. After all, he played college football at Nebraska, where home games are played in front of 72,700 fans.
"When it's so loud, it's almost like it's quiet," Erstad said. "When there are fewer people, you can hear one voice and that's actually tougher to play in front of."
Players agree that crowd size can create a more exciting environment for them. That, they say, can make a difference.