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Baseball’s Back, But Fans Aren’t

March 9, 1996

DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) _ Tamara Helms can tell baseball is still in trouble by looking at her empty tables.

As the owner of Iris’ Family Restaurant, she knows her regular lunch customers used to stay away on game days, rather than fight through the crowds that came to see the Toronto Blue Jays play right across the street.

``We would pack ’em in,″ she said, slicing up a fresh peanut butter pie. ``The line would go out the door.″

These days, though, there’s plenty of room for all. She’s even posted a sign.

``Due To The Decline In Ticket Sales, We Are Serving Lunch as Usual,″ it reads. ``There Will Be No Problem With Parking Or Seating.″

Instead, the problem seems to belong to baseball.

Because, despite claims by owners and players that enthusiasm for the sport is back, the fans are not. A year after major league attendance dropped almost 20 percent, the first week of spring training became another round of welcome to the no-shows.

The Chicago Cubs, perhaps the most popular team each spring, did not come close to selling out HoHoKam Park for Ryne Sandberg’s return in Mesa, Ariz. The World Series champion Atlanta Braves were far short of capacity in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the runner-up Cleveland Indians announced that plenty of tickets were available for exhibitions in Winter Haven, Fla.

The Blue Jays, a virtual sellout at Dunedin Stadium for five years before strikes skewed the last two seasons, were only half-full, at best. Friday’s game against St. Louis _ played in chillier-than-usual conditions, attracted 1,710 to the 6,218-seat park.

``The numbers would tell you that the fans are not here yet,″ Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash said.

``But I think there are reasons for that. Spring training started a week earlier than usual this year. Is it that we’re not as star studded as in the past? Is it the exchange rate, or that people aren’t traveling as much? It’s hard to say.″

Outside Dunedin Stadium, Steve House, 39, offered a simpler explanation.

``I boycotted baseball last year,″ said House, trying to sell four $9 box seats. ``I used to go to these games, but I don’t really feel like going in today.″

``I think it’s going to take a while to get the people back to the park,″ he said. ``They may never.″

Not every team is suffering at the gate. The New York Yankees are drawing capacity crowds of 10,000 to their new Legends Field in Tampa, Fla. The San Francisco Giants pulled more than 9,000 to Friday’s game in Scottsdale, Ariz.

But for every clubs that’s doing well, three or four are struggling.

The usually popular Los Angeles Dodgers drew fewer than 4,000 fans to Vero Beach, Fla. The New York Mets, Texas Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers each had crowds under 1,800.

The Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies, who both set team marks for exhibition attendance in 1994, are averaging half those record amounts. Attendance totals might be up from last year’s replacement spring, but not by much.

``I think generally people feel good about baseball, but I don’t think we’ll be back to the level it was in 1994 for at least a year,″ Phillies owner Bill Giles said. ``It’s going to be spotty.″

Ozzie Smith believes the interest will build, all in due time. Meanwhile, in the first week of spring games, St. Louis averaged 3,167 at 7,227-seat Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Fla.

``I think the strike last year gave people an excuse not to come, to stay away,″ the longtime Cardinals star said. ``It became a fad. It was cool to say, `Oh, I don’t follow baseball anymore.′

``I’ve been through most of the strikes,″ he said. ``It takes a while.″

Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick said it will take something else, too.

``I think the fans are waiting to see if the owners and players’ association are legitimate about getting a new deal,″ he said. ``They want to know the game won’t be taken away from them again.″

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