MLB teams playing to empty parks

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Vernon Wells lofted a foul ball that landed way, way deep in the upper deck, and the race to retrieve the souvenir began.

Well, it was hardly a rush down the left-field line at Rogers Centre. A lone man ran through six empty sections and into a seventh, pursuing the prize.

There weren’t too many people sitting downstairs, either — in Toronto, or a few other parks this season.

The Blue Jays, Baltimore and Cleveland already have drawn record-low crowds of barely 10,000 at their ballparks. The New York Mets also saw their smallest crowd, albeit they’re just in their second year at Citi Field.

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“I don’t expect anything,” said Wells, Toronto’s star center fielder. “The better we play and the better this organization gets, the fans will be here.”

“It’s not something that you worry about. We’ve got a job to do and whether there’s a packed house or however many people are there, we’ve still got to do our jobs,” he said.

Blame it on chilly April weather, the lingering effects of the economy, the lure of the NBA and NHL playoffs on television, or fans simply tired of losing. Whatever, the sight of rows upon rows of empty seats is startling.

At Florida, the crowd for Thursday night’s game at Cincinnati was announced at 12,912. In reality, the number in the stands was about one-fifth that many. That said, the Marlins might be on the upswing, as corporate interests begin locking in their seats for the team’s new ballpark opening in 2012.

Plus, there’s this: Major League Baseball attendance is up slightly overall from this point last year.

Wrigley Field, where the Chicago Cubs have the highest-priced regular tickets at $52 apiece, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Citizens Bank Park are still packing ’em in. The new Target Field in Minnesota is a hit, too.

Besides, smallish crowds early in the season are expected. Last year, eight stadiums (excluding new Yankee Stadium and Citi Field) set record lows by late May — Toronto, Cleveland, St. Louis, Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington.

MLB attendance fell 6.7 percent last year to 30,350, down from 32,528 in 2008 and a record 32,785 in 2007. Smaller capacities at the two new ballparks in New York accounted for some of the drop.

The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore drew slightly over 33,000 this week — total, for a three-game series. Only 9,129 fans showed up Monday night, the tiniest crowd in the 19-year history of Camden Yards.

There was so little buzz, in fact, the sound of gloves popping echoed around the park. Not fastballs smacking into the catcher’s mitt, but simply the sound of infielders tossing it around in-between innings.

“I didn’t hear anything — just quiet,” Orioles third baseman Miguel Tejada said Thursday. “It’s weird, because it’s the big leagues, it’s a major league game. I thought people would like to see it and see good players.”

Tejada offered a blunt reason why the Birds are drawing flies.

“Because we’re not winning. Fans come when we’re winning,” he said. “It’s a long season. We’ll bring them back. I keep playing hard. If five people come to see the game, I will play hard for those five people.”

The Orioles haven’t made the playoffs since 1997, which was their last over-.500 season.

The Mets sold out their home opener last week against Florida, then dipped to 25,982 a few nights later. Cleveland lured 10,071 to Progressive Field on Wednesday night to see Texas, the smallest crowd since the ballpark formerly known as Jacobs Field opened in 1994.

Absent from the postseason since Joe Carter’s home run won the 1993 World Series, the Blue Jays also are struggling at the gate. Only 10,610 showed up Wednesday night, the smallest crowd since the ballpark once called SkyDome opened in 1989.

The Blue Jays had competition that evening. The Toronto Raptors were across town fighting for a spot in the NBA playoffs, and it was the first day of the NHL playoffs.

“It’s definitely different. I was here in the glory years, or whatever you want to call it, when it was packed every night. It’s kind of a shame to see it the way it is now,” manager Cito Gaston said.

Toronto outfielder Travis Snider homered during the series against the Chicago White Sox. As he returned to the bench, he slapped hands with a female fan near the dugout.

“It’s weird when you get used to playing in front of big crowds,” he said. “As all of us did in the minor leagues, we played in front of crowds anywhere from 500 people to 10,000 at the big games.”

Leave it to White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for a suggestion on what to do in the NHL-obsessed town.

“Maybe they need a couple of hockey players in the lineup,” he said.

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