Marauders say sparse crowds no problem

BRADENTON — When the New York Yankees visit Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays see a spike in attendance numbers.

Yet, when the Tampa Yankees made their debut at McKechnie Field last Thursday against the Bradenton Marauders, the fans didn’t quite pack the stands.

However, attendance isn’t the top priority in the Florida State League, where developing players for a shot down the road in the big leagues is the primary concern.

“Most of the teams are owned by the parent club,” Bradenton general manager Dan Wolfert said prior to Thursday’s game, which had an announced attendance of 718. “Whereas in the majority of other leagues, they’re owned by private ownership, and their main goal is to make money and it’s their business. And when a big league buys these, obviously, their first and foremost thing is to get players developed and get them to Pittsburgh.”

Wolfert said Daytona, Charlotte and Fort Myers are all owned privately, so the emphasis differs than the objective of the other FSL clubs.

Wolfert would know. He spent the past five seasons as the Sarasota Reds general manager, prior to that affiliate leaving the Suncoast.

“That was a real struggle down there,” Wolfert said. “And that’s what was a little disappointing, is because in Sarasota, I mean, they didn’t put any effort into it. Cincinnati — they didn’t care what we drew. We didn’t have any staff, there were two of us and interns, so there weren’t any high expectations. ... Here, the staff is a little bigger, higher expectations and a lot more marketing involved.”

The Marauders enter today’s game against the Lakeland Flying Tigers with a 1 1/2-game lead over the Palm Beach Cardinals for first place in the South Division.

But the Marauders also were next-to-last in attendance numbers for the 2010 season through May 26, with an average of 824 fans a game.

Only the Dunedin Blue Jays draw fewer fans in the high Single-A league.

So, how does Wolfert get more people in the stands?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out, because we’ve done a lot of stuff. ... I mean, I’m not sure what else you can do, other than just keep working at it and keep doing it. We have a winning team, and the prices are low — what else can you do?”

However, the fans that do show up to the ballpark come full of energy and support for the Marauders.

A couple Bradenton players said it’s no different at home than on the road.

“I like to say we pull just about as much as anyone else,” said Quincy Latimore, who is near the league leaders for runs batted in.

Utility man James Skelton is in his first year as a Marauder.

“I guess it would be easier (to get up for a game) when there’s a bigger crowd,” Skelton said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s harder when there’s not, just because it’s still baseball. I love to play baseball. I can’t speak for anybody else, but if you love the game of baseball, you’re going to be excited to go out and put the uniform on every day.”

So with a first-place team contending for a playoff spot, there are plenty of seats available at McKechnie to watch the game for an affordable price.

“The Pirates take a lot of pride in putting a good product, and the appearance at least,” Wolfert said. “Whether we have one person or we have 7,000 people here, we want the place to be as clean as possible. And everything going smoothly, and our concessions operational and all that stuff, because you never know when it’s going to be somebody’s first day at the ballpark, and that’s the way we look at it.”