Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.
July 23, 2008 10:52 AM
Posted by Geoff Baker
****see additional note at end of post ***
An early start time today, and I'm told there will be more than 40,000 fans at Safeco Field. So, as the losses pile up, the fans of Seattle keep coming out to watch the Mariners. Is that a good thing? I'm torn. Obviously, a successful business helps any franchise. There is a reason the M's are spending $117 million on their payroll while the Oakland A's will take years to get to that level.
Yes, Safeco Field has a lot to do with that.
But new ballparks don't last forever. The new stadium buzz usually wears off in about five years. I'd say the Mariners have done a pretty good job of getting fans to come out to their ballpark, which turns 10 next season. Safeco still has the appearance of a new park, even though it's getting up there in years. And any team averaging 29,000 fans per game while winning fewer than 40 percent of the schedule has something going for it. Anyhow, I touched on this breifly during last night's game story, printed in our morning edition.
This wasn't meant to be the ultimate attendance story. Simply something else to raise the level of discussion other than simply posting last night's game score. Sure, there were other attendance issues we could have touched on more in-depth. But not in a game story of 800 words. The limits of the newspaper world as opposed to being able to blog on endlessly.
Anyhow, I was looking for a way to show that the Mariners, for all of their losing, still do pretty good attendance-wise. So, I simply took their average game attendance and divided it by the number of wins. Got myself a nice number I could compare to the numbers of other teams. Is it very scientific? Nope. It's a quick and easy snapshot. Meant to give you an idea. Sort of like batting average. You get an idea. Sometimes, when you scratch below the surface, you get a vastly different idea. This usually involves guys like Jose Vidro in 2007, or Yuniesky Betancourt this year. But you get the picture.
Of course, much of a team's attendance is pre-ordained. It is determined before a season even begins. Those attendance counts go off of "tickets sold" and many are sold way ahead of time. Season ticketholders can't get refunds simply because a team loses. Some of the "buyers" don't even show up for games any more but still get counted in the nighly attendance figure put out.
The walk-up crowds at Mariners games -- folks who show up right before the contest to buy a ticket -- are only about 1,000 to 2,000 of those 29,000 or so at the ballpark every night.
Sure, there are folks buying single-game tickets a few days, or weeks, or sometimes months in advance. But season-ticket buyers are where it's at in the baseball business. And that's done in advance of a season. When every team has a shot at the pennant.
That said, being down nearly 4,000 "tickets sold" per game on average over last year can't be great news for the Mariners. Don't forget, the bulk of last year's tickets were sold coming off a last-place 2006 season. There wasn't all that much optimism in the air, despite the fact the team surprised folks and wound up winning 88 games. So, the nearly 33,000 per game last season was built on pretty modest hopes. If the team is now down 4,000 per contest, given all the excess hopes going into 2008, with the Erik Bedard trade and the signing of Carlos Silva generating optimism, along with the Angels losing two key starters, then how does this bode for next year?
Do you think "playing the kids" as a marketing strategy is going to send fans scurrying off to buy season tickets? So, if the M's are feeling a slight pinch now, it stands to reason they could be feeling a full-throat squeeze come next year -- the residual impact of this disastrous season.
An optimist could look at this year and say that, at the very worst, this is how bad things get in Seattle. That the season ticket base will always be there, within a certain range, and that if everything flops on the field, you'll be down around 4,000 per game.
The M's spend a lot of energy and money trying to maintain the consistency of their in-stadium experience for fans, win or lose. They get criticized for it, on this site and others, as being more important than their investment in winning division titles. It's a tricky question, because you need to spend money to win in the major leagues. Forget Billy Beane for a second. And forget that one-year playoff run by the Indians last season. Most teams need to spend money -- spend it wisely, yes -- but spend it, to win.
For all the hoopla the Chicago White Sox basked in when they won the 2005 World Series with a moderate payroll, it has since kept shooting upwards.
So, you need the bucks, or Billy Beane as your GM, to consistently make the playoffs in the American League. Who has consistently made it this decade? The Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. Billy Beane. The Twins under Terry Ryan, who was sort of an underrated Beane. But that's about it. Please, don't talk to me about the Rays, who have yet to win anything. Not to mention the fact they've got a decade's worth of top draft picks as a foundation after finishing last every year. The ones who weren't kept were traded away for the pieces that contributed to this first winning season for them so far.
Money talks in baseball. And if you keep making it, you can keep spending it. So, the business end of things does matter.
The fact that the M's have great baseball fans who show up and support the team, win or lose, should help the franchise in the long run. It's better than being a team with fickle fans, or fans who don't show up.
I agree, though, that it can be a recipe for on-field complacency. The Mariners, as a team, in my short time here since the end of 2006, have never struck me as being hungry for the post-season. They have struck me (and I'm talking about the players, not the ownership) as sort of a comfortable group, who feel very secure about their status in the big leagues and the Seattle community.
It always struck me as a bit odd. From Day One, I've been surprised at how easily the M's could act like a first place team off the field while never actually doing anything to justify that on the field. I don't mean they went out and smashed up bars or anything like that. They're a pretty good club when it comes to that type of behavior -- a handful of incidents notwithstanding.
No, it was more just a feeling I've gotten. That maybe they were a little too cozy out here in the non-spotlight of the West Coast. Maybe it's just me and I'm totally off. But that's the impression I'd gotten long before this season began.
This season has reinforced that feeling for me. That these players might have been a little too cozy. Not hungry enough to win when it was expected of them.
Perhaps that trickles down from the top. Perhaps there was never any great urgency placed on the team to be anything but mediocre. That's the kind of stuff that can happen when fans come out every night, filling the ballpark and treating you like superstars, like kings of the city, when, in comparison with players in other towns, you really haven't done all that much to deserve it.
So, good on the Seattle fans. Now, it's time for this team, and the players receiving the nightly hero worship, to start giving some of that back. To start acting like a contending team on the field. Deserving of the crowds and the hype.
Below, I'll show you my list, that I compiled in order to write last night's game story, of how teams compare in drawing home fans, vis-a-vis their number of wins. Once again, I've taken their average per game home attednance and divided it by the number of wins a team has. The higher the number, the better. In the American League, only the Yankees and Tigers are better. The Yanks sell out just about every game, while Tigers fans -- with an AL pennant less than two years ago and high hopes this year -- have also packed the ballpark for a team not-yet-elimnated.
So, scientific or not, I'd say this list shows the M's doing quite well compared to how poorly they've done on the field. We'll see if that continues in years to come. Please note, the M's average attendance was updated as of last night's total. For the other teams, it was as of Monday night's games. Not much difference in the final results, only miniscule.
Remember, this list shows the average number of fans each team is drawing, per game, per on-field win recorded. Not attempting to show correalation between wins and attendance. Only that, in some cities, poor performance on the field still means relatively plenty of fans in the stands.
Red Sox 647
Blue Jays 573
White Sox 532
ADDITIONAL NOTE (12:18 p.m.): For ConcentrationGuy, in the comments thread, you've just named three of the Rays' starting eight position players (excluding pitchers) as coming from first or second round picks. A fourth, Jason Bartlett, was acquired, along with starting pitcher Matt Garza, in a trade for another of Tampa's top picks.
So, that's half the Rays' everyday players. If that's not a foundation, I'm not sure what you consider one to be. We can pretend the Rays didn't get into a position to acquire those guys by finishing last every year except for 2004. But why would we? Is there an agenda here I'm not aware of? If it's to promote Andrew Friedman as a smart GM, well, he appears to be just that. But most of the key remaining pieces to the Rays (the ones not gained via high draft picks, obviously) were acquired by his predecessor. You know, that Chuck LaMar dude who kept "getting it wrong" before the Rays started doing things "the right way". Including Scott Kazmir. James Shields. Andy Sonnanstine. LaMar was terrible in the long run, albeit hamstrung by a bad owner, but he did a few things right.
On to the backups, Gabe Gross. Know him well from Toronto days. He was acquired via the trading of a second-round Tampa pitching prospect. So, another high rounder.
Even catcher Dionner Navarro was acquired because the Rays had so much coming up the pipe in terms of pitching that Mark Hendrickson (ERA+ of 121 when dealt) was expendable. But we won't count him. We'll just assume that the indirect benefits of drafting high every year don't matter and focus only on direct homegrowns or acquisitions from the first or second round. In terms of that, we're looking at half the starting lineup. And a part-time outfielder in Gross who's got as many big hits as anyone on that team.
I count one homegrown first or second rounder in the M's starting lineup, Jeff Clement. A relief pitcher in Brandon Morrow who may or may not become a starting pitcher. Hardly a comparison there.
I'm not going to diss the work done by GM Friedman, who has found plenty of complimentary pieces and made some shrewd deals. Yes, the Carlos Pena acquisition was a good one. Ditto on Eric Hinske. Friedman is a good GM. But let's not pretend he didn't have a pretty good base to work off of. Or, you can keep pretending. Whatever suits you. Hope that answers your rather loaded question.
If not, tell me what you consider a foundation to be. Beyond half a team's everyday lineup, potentially its best backup player and one of its starting pitchers. Or, just keep "calling me out" and I'll keep answering after you run out of the room.
For Nick in pdx, yes they are playing the Red Sox and crowds go up. And they go up for the Yankees. But they also apparently go up for the Indians, so how do we explain that? And for other teams because of who knows what? Every team gets a Bosox-Yanks attendance boost. But the M's are doing relatively well regardless.
1:46 p.m.: For ConcentrationGuy, the DH is not a position, last I checked. And I suppose you're going to discount Bartlett's defense? Last I heard, proponents of Tampa's defense were crediting it with vastly improving the results of pitchers. As a shortstop, he'd be right in the thick of that improved D, wouldn't he? But maybe you're right and it doesn't matter. Maybe Crawford's defense also doesn't matter. Even though he's rated one of the top fielding left fielders in baseball. Maybe it is all stick? If so, you're right, both guys have underperformed offensively. Though Crawford does have the second-most hits on the team. Counts for something, but I'd agree, his power is lacking this year.
So, what is it? Does defense matter or it doesn't? I keep hearing about how underrated it is. About how it's the hidden secret behind Tampa's success. Either it is, or it isn't. If you say it is, then Bartlett becomes a key piece of the Rays and your argument kind of goes limp, doesn't it?
Pretty much has already. I'll stick to my claim: that half the guys on the field each and every game constitutes a foundation for a team. Even before you throw Garza and Gross into that mix.
But keep on trying.