There’s nothing quite like seeing a city absolutely enthralled by its baseball team. One of the most dramatic cases I’ve witnessed was Cleveland in the mid-1990s. After decades of miserable baseball, the Indians had put together a powerhouse — Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar, et al. It was a remarkable collection of talent. They also had a great new ballpark, Jacobs Field, and the place pulsated with excitement. They packed it night after night, year after year — 3 million-plus for six straight seasons from 1996 to 2001, with 455 consecutive sellouts. This from a team that went 14 years in a row — from 1960 to 1973 — without even drawing a million at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (the Mistake By The Lake).
I bring this up because the Mariners just completed a road trip that ended in Cleveland, after a series in Baltimore — another city that once set standards for its attendance. (Both pictures above are taken from games against the Mariners last week; the first, in Cleveland, was eventually postponed by rain). The Orioles had virtual sellouts from 1992, the year Camden Yards, their jewel of a new stadium, opened, through 2000. But then the Orioles hit hard times, the beginning of which can be pinpointed to when general manager Pat Gillick, looking for a new challenge and also fed up with the meddling of owner Peter Angelos, left Baltimore to run the Mariners. Ever since, they’ve been on a downward spiral marked by unwise spending and poor personnel decisions (sound familiar?). The Orioles have lost 90 or more games in five straight years, and haven’t had a winning season since 1997.
In both places, the love affair eventually faded. The lure of the ballpark lost its power. And the crowds stopped coming. This year, despite having an appealing team with he best record in the major leagues, the Indains rank dead last MLB in attendance with an average of 15,647 per game.. And the Orioles, perhaps on their way to their first winning season since Gillick left, rank 23rd in attendance (20,103 per game). They’ve finished in the mid-20s for several years now.
When the Mariners were in Baltimore last week, they drew crowds of 11,485, 11,561 and 19,082 for three mid-week games at Camden Yards. Having been there when the place was hopping, particularly during a postseason run in 1997 (when they knocked the Mariners out in the division series), it was sad to see the non-electric atmosphere.
In Cleveland last Friday night, they had a nice crowd of 33,774 at Progressive Field (as it is now called), boosted by a walkup of of more than 8,000 – announced as the second-bigest walkup in stadium history. Perhaps that’s a sign that the fan base is finally catching on to the fact they have an appealing, contending team. But they have a long, long way to go to get even close to replicating the charged atmosphere that existed in the glory days.
It doesn’t take a genius to see where I’m going with this. The Mariners once had a team that owned this town. It was a love affair that began in 1995 and peaked in 2001, when the atmosphere at Safeco Field crackled with the same energy that had existed at Camden and Jacobs. But that popularity has been gradually on the wane, shattered by too many losing seasons and too many unappealing Mariner teams. And now, as in Baltimore and Clleveland, the Mariners are playing to half-filled stadioujms (and that’s on a good night) with hum-drum atmospheres. The Mariners rank 24th — right behind the Orioles — with an average of 19,291 fans per night (that’s tickets sold, anyway. It’s pretty clear that butts in the seat are much lower than that).
The problem with losing baseball teams is it can lead into a vicious circle — poor records lead to smaller crowds which lead to decreased revenues which lead to lower payrolls which lead to losing teams. The way to break out, of course, is through player development and an influx of of young players that reverses the spiral and sends the vicious circle rolling in the other direction. The Mariners like to believe they’re on the verge of just that. We’ll find out.
The lesson here, I suppose, is that a team’s hold on its fan base is a fragile, tenuous bond, to be zealously protected and nurtured by the team. Because once it is lost,it is exceedingly difficult to get back. Mariners fans have remained, in recent years, more loyal than their record would seem to warrant, a tribute both to their excellent marketing and the good-will they built up in the good years. But now the Mariners, sadly, are headed down the same dreary path that the Orioles and Indians are still trying to exit.