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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 5, 2011 at 9:32 AM

Why the Mariners need to get this rebuilding effort moving along

NOTE: We’ll have Geoff Baker Live! at 6 p.m. PT tonight as your pre-game update direct from FX McRory’s restaurant. Just tune in to the live webcast right here on the blog.
The Mariners took a rare loss last night, only their second in the last eight games. Unfortunately for them, there weren’t a whole lot of fans out at Safeco Field to see it. The official attendance was 13,896, to go along with 12,759 the night before.
That’s after the team went 5-1 on a road trip to Boston and Detroit, then came back home for a showdown with the Rangers only a few games out of first place. Yep, if pennant fever is gripping Seattle, then most fans seem to be treating it by staying home in bed.
Now, I know. You don’t have pennant races in May, even in the Emerald City, where news of a few wins in a row is often greeted with the excitement one sees reserved for mid-September in other places. After so much doom and gloom the past few years, it’s tough not to get over-excited by something positive.
And yes, the M’s did turn their season around on that road trip. Sort of like a rocket that got one engine to fire up again after it had been about to plummet to Earth. That engine may conk out again soon, but the crash and burn has been avoided for now.
Yet still, with Michael Pineda on the mound last night and the M’s two games out of first place, the best the team could summon was 13,000 and change.
And that’s the scariest thing we’ve seen out of this team so far in 2011.
The excuse-makers are already out in force. Yes, they say, it’s because the economy is down. It’s because it was a school night. It’s because it’s too freaking cold to sit at Safeco before July. It’s because the Rangers have never been much of a draw. It’s because, because…because…the dog ate my tickets.
None of that matters.
The M’s play in Seattle, where the weather can be cooler than other parts of the country in May and June. That isn’t changing. They have to play on weeknights like every other team in baseball. They can’t play the Red Sox and Yankees all the time. And their attendance development is a scary sight, no matter how many excuses are used to explain it away.
I went back in time just two years to do a bit of research, with the M’s also coming off a 101-loss season and playing the same Texas Rangers in early May. The Rangers back then were not the defending AL West champs. And though the M’s were a slightly above-.500 team at the time, there really wasn’t reason for fans back then to be any more excited about that Seattle club than they would be about this one — given the standings and recent play.
The attendance on May 4 of that year? A Monday night, to-boot? 16,431.
On the very next day, exactly two years ago? 19,811
That’s a far cry from 12,000 or 13,000 in change. A big drop in just a two-year span. We can quibble over average attendance and stuff, which is really no better but often appears less dramatic because of the major numbers involved — like 2.4 million down to 2.2 million.
But this figure I just showed you spells it out nicely. Two early May nights, two teams, pretty identical circumstances for the M’s, two years apart. And a difference of several thousand fans.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist working on one sputtering engine to realize the M’s are in trouble.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Once you start to lose fans, it can take years to win them back. There are organizations once proud and still proud that have gone years without seeing those fans return.
The Cleveland Indians. Toronto Blue Jays. Kansas City Royals. Oakland Athletics. Baltimore Orioles.
And the list goes on. Some of those teams have won championships in the past 25 years. With the exception of the Royals, all have been to the post-season since 1986 (Royals won it all the year prior). All except Oakland play in stadiums that were tax-subsidized, state-of-the-art facilities or massively-upgraded existing structures created the past quarter century.
And all have experienced massive attendance drops that never righted themselves.
Sure, it’s unrealistic to expect teams to keep drawing three million or four million fans once the shine of a new ballpark starts to wear with age.
But there is also a firm middle ground that, once crossed, is tough to get back on the other side of. The idea that all a team has to do to draw more fans is start winning again is a neat little concept that simply is not borne out by reality.
The first-place Indians just played host to Kansas City — another surprise team — and drew fewer than 10,000 fans per game to all three contests. Attendance picked up over the weekend, surpassing 26,000 on Saturday, but was down to just 14,000 and change on Sunday.
Remember, that franchise came within one game of going to the World Series under Eric Wedge in 2007.
But that came after years of rebuilding from a mid-to-late-1990s juggernaut that played in front of packed houses at a new ballpark. Years in which the Indians saw fans leave and never come back.
We can argue that the Indians never did sustain the success found under Wedge and went back to being losers again after 2007. But there is no guarantee the success that the M’s are seeking to build here will be continued. Remember, there were plenty of pundits, sabermetric and traditionalist, who were prepared to hail the Indians model as the be-all, end-all of the way to build a modern baseball team just a few short years ago.
Nobody can predict the future. We’ve been trying to point that out for years now.
What we can guarantee is that — with the economy the way it’s gone and competition for entertainment dollars coming not only from live events, but also vastly-improved HD television pictures (even in down economies, folks always find cash for TV, it seems) — teams that lose frequently are going to have a hard time drawing the paying customers.
And that means the M’s don’t have this season to play around with like a Mulligan as they figure out who will be part of next year’s squad. They have to get Dustin Ackley up here as soon as he’s ready. Have to make the call on Michael Saunders this year, or else get somebody in here who will be the answer. They had to see where Adam Moore was going and now won’t get that chance.
On the positive side, they appear to have found something in Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak.
But they still don’t know where Franklin Gutierrez fits in the long-term scheme of things.
Tick-tock, tick-tock.
It’s great to see the M’s playing better baseball. And there are fans out there that will be content to see a 85-90 loss team that shows signs of being competitive.
But we should never abandon our sense of urgency. Because this team has to have this thing turned around for real fairly soon.
You don’t get an attendance boost the year you start winning. You get it the following season.
And until you get a boost, it can impact how a team spends and — most importantly — how it competes. It’s a vicious cycle. Even billionaires don’t want to lose money from year to year.
If these M’s lose another 85-90, or 90+ or 100+ this year, you can expect more of the same in terms of crowd support next season. That means, by this time next year, you’d really better have a whole lot more figured out than just a couple of players.
The urgency hasn’t changed because of a 5-1 road trip. The urgency is still an ever-present reality with this ballclub and will stay that way until it turns around more than just a terrible start to a season.



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