NEW YORK – Baseball’s boom may be over, a golden age of crowded ballparks replaced by a season of uncertainty.

The average salary likely will drop slightly for only the third time in 20 years, the first since 2004, and many teams are fretting over ticket sales.

“People aren’t going out and spending their money right now,” said Johnny Damon, an All-Star used to playing in front of full houses at Yankee Stadium. “They’ve got to think, well, ‘Should we watch it on TV or should we go?’ A lot of people are going, probably, to watch more games on TV.”

But which teams will they be watching?

Last year’s World Series teams, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, must prove they have staying power, and the Yankees have gambled – again! – on pricey free agents.

The Phillies no doubt will have many full houses, starting when they host Atlanta in the major league opener April 5 and hoist a pennant celebrating their first World Series title since 1980, just their second overall.

“I’d like to add to that trophy,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “It would be nice to have a couple sitting beside it.”

It won’t be so easy.

No team has repeated since the Yankees from 1998-2000 or even reached the World Series in consecutive years since the Yankees in 2001.

But hope is the buzz word for this time of year.

That’s why the Dodgers gave Manny Ramirez a $45 million, two-year deal, convincing the perplexing power hitter to linger in Los Angeles and help the team try to win its first title since 1988.

“He’s the L.A. Dodgers’ stimulus package,” his agent, Scott Boras, said.

The only player who makes more than Ramirez this season, Alex Rodriguez, will be missing opening day – and when New York moves into baseball’s Versailles, a $1.5 billion new Yankee Stadium that hosts its first regular-season opener April 16.

It might be a relief for A-Rod to be out of the picture, if only for a moment.

Following a tumultuous offseason in which he admitting using steroids from 2001-03 while playing for Texas, the three-time AL MVP needed surgery to repair a hip injury and will be sidelined until May. He’ll collect $174,863 a day from his $32 million salary while he heals.

If those numbers seem boggling, try a few more from Yankees world.

Fans will pay up to $2,625 for the top seats at the new stadium to watch a team that spent $423.5 million to add pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

Across New York City, the Mets capped prices at a relatively reasonable average of $495 for the best seats at $800 million Citi Field, which opens April 13.

Contrast that with the rest of the majors, where overall two-thirds of teams froze or lowered either some levels of tickets or their average price, according to MLB spokesman Matt Bourne.

That had an impact when teams decided which free agents to pursue.

“Gas is up and so am I,” Manny Ramirez said last October.

Auto fuel actually was down to $1.78 a gallon by then, and had slipped some more by early March, when he accepted a heavily deferred deal from the Dodgers.

“If the economy had been strong, a number of other teams would have been more active in the free-agent market. There would have been more competition,” Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said.

Houston even pulled its $27 million, three-year offer to pitcher Randy Wolf, who wound up accepting a $5 million, one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that allows him to earn $3 million more in bonuses.

“Look at the way the country’s been,” he told California high school students. “Hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs. That’s why I’m lucky to play baseball for the Dodgers.”

Thirteen teams cut payroll led by San Diego, which sliced more than $30 million, and the Chicago White Sox, who chopped more then $25 million.

Even the Yankees lowered spending by about $7 million – they gave up Jason Giambi, Bobby Abreu, Carl Pavano and Ivan Rodriguez, then watched Mike Mussina retire to save up for their new acquisitions. Still, their payroll is $60 million higher than other team’s.

Only the Phillies and Cubs raised spending by more than $20 million.

Many top stars’ salaries crumbled: Garret Anderson went from $12 million last year with the Angels to $2.5 million this year with the Braves; Ken Griffey Jr. dropped from $12.5 million with the Reds and White Sox to $2 million with the Mariners.

“It was kind of a little bit of a running joke with some of my friends there, saying that I was going to pay the Yankees to come back,” said pitcher Andy Pettitte, who took a cut from $16 million to $5.5 million guaranteed to stay with the Yankees.

Others mainstays finished polishing their resumes for Cooperstown and retired, such as Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, leaving younger, less-accomplished pitchers to fill those jobs.

Owners are prepared for some fans to be missing, too.

“We’re in an economic downturn that’s the worst since the Great Depression,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “None of us have ever lived through what’s going on. Any normal person would have to be concerned.”

But much will be the same.

While the New York teams move to new homes, the Minnesota Twins will be at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome for the 28th and final season before returning outdoors to grass in 2010, when they move to Target Field.

Several players will be looking to reach personal milestones.

Randy Johnson, at age 45 starting his first season with the San Francisco Giants, needs five victories to become the 23rd 300-game winner and 211 strikeouts to become the second pitcher with 5,000.

A-Rod, 12th on the career home run list with 553, could move all the way into seventh place if he comes back healthy and hits 40 homers. Gary Sheffield (499) and Carlos Delgado (469) could expand the 500-home run club to 26 members.

Mariano Rivera needs 18 saves to join Trevor Hoffman (554) as the only relievers with 500.

And, at the club level, those dear ol’ Cubbies are back again, still trying to win the World Series for the first time in the lifetime of 99.99 percent of their long-suffering fans. It’s been a century-plus since their last title, back in 1908. That’s a full 15 years before the previous Yankee Stadium opened and was hailed as a Colosseum for the ages.

“You give yourselves enough chances,” manager Lou Piniella said, “sooner or later you break the barn door down and you get it done, and that’s what we have to do.”

For the sake of Cubs’ fans, let’s hope they win one by the time the new Yankee Stadium is replaced.

AP Sports Writers Andrew Bagnato, Rick Gano and Rob Maaddi, and AP freelance writer Mark Didtler contributed to this report.

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