Spring training | Pirates buck downward trend in attendance

HERALD STAFF, WIRE REPORTSMarch 14, 2013 

Fresh from pitching against solid Atlanta hitters, Jake Westbrook faced a far trickier test: Guess how much fans paid for box seats to watch the exhibition game in Kissimmee.

"Hmmm, I have no idea," the St. Louis starter ventured. "Twenty bucks?"

Gotcha! $54 for top tickets sold Tuesday at the Braves' ballpark at Walt Disney World Resort.

"Wow," Westbrook said.

All over Florida and Arizona, teams are paying the price. Spring training attendance is off and several things are to blame, aside from pricey tickets -- early start, cold weather and lineups depleted by injured stars and players dispatched to the World Baseball Classic.

The dip is nearly 14 percent lower than it was on this date last year, STATS said.

In Bradenton, the Pittsburgh Pirates are bucking that trend, but not by as much as you might expect considered the play their home games in a newly renovated McKechnie Field that has drawn rave reviews from fans.

Thanks to the season's first sell-out on Wednesday, the Pirates have drawn 57,313 fans, an average of 5,731 per game, or a 4 percent increase over last year's spring average of 5,493.

With an expected sell-out March 17 against the New York Yankees and a March 18 home game against the Boston Red Sox, the totals should rise.

Games started about a week earlier this season because players wanted to get in shape for the World Baseball Classic. That meant games were scheduled before many fans arrived for vacation and spring break. By the end of February, several teams had already played for a week.

"I think we started about eight or nine days too early. That means a whole lot," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said.

The weather hasn't been ideal, either -- a freak winter storm out West and a cold snap down South.

Normally a big draw wherever they go, the Yankees played to a crowd of 3,213 when they visited the Houston Astros. Then again, the glitziest name in New York's split-squad lineup that day was Matt Diaz.

The Orioles often sold out home games versus the likes of the Yankees, Boston and Philadelphia. Not this year in Sarasota.

"With the WBC and a whole different start, people plan spring training according to spring break. People have other things going on in their life," Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said.

Big league exhibitions began on Feb. 22 and averaged 5,789 fans through March 12. They started on March 2 last year and averaged 6,703 by that same date, with several teams on their way to setting attendance records.

Major League Baseball drew 30,895 per game during the regular season last year, its best mark since 2008.

Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin noticed the empty seats in Phoenix.

"It seems like it's down some," he said last weekend. "The schedule seems more spread out this year. A lot of people come to games with certain dates in mind."

Better be ready to spend money, too.

It costs more than $25 for a good seat at most spring parks. Several teams vary their prices depending on the opponent or the day -- a ticket behind the third base dugout to see the World Series champion Giants host Colorado this Sunday sold for $68.75 on San Francisco's online site.

The Cardinals are among the most popular teams every spring. Like other clubs, they expect bigger crowds throughout March.

"I think in general we were kind of chalking it up to, it's kind of cool, we started so early. You are not going to get a whole lot of people showing up in February," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said.

The Cardinals share Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter with the Miami Marlins. Mike Bauer, who runs the ballpark, said the attendance pattern is predictable.

"Anytime we start in February, we start off a little slower than usual," said Bauer, the stadium's general manager.

"If you compare this year to last year, it's going to be a decrease because they had the World Series championship on the Cardinals side and a new facility on the Marlins side. But it's been right about where we expected," he said.

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