New ballparks were going to save baseball.
At least that was the thinking a few years ago.
On the final Sunday of the 1995 regular season, Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf sat in a luxury box in the middle of a 4-year-old stadium built for his team by the taxpayers of Illinois. He was staring out at a lot of empty seats. Baseball was closing up shop for the year in all but a handful of playoff towns, and no matter how you looked at the numbers, they seemed to promise trouble.
Attendance was down, pretty much across the board. Six out of 10 people in a poll released earlier that day by The Associated Press said they were decidedly less interested in baseball than they had been the previous August, when the final third of the season and the World Series were canceled so then-interim commissioner Bud Selig and players union boss Donald Fehr could launch competing bids for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was a dazzling late autumn afternoon in Chicago. Frank Thomas had just homered in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. There were only 20,457 people rattling around the cavernous park, but another 24,000 had paid for tickets.
Across town, where the Cubs were wrapping up the season at Wrigley Field, the crowd was announced at 24,340. But there, too, sold seats (38,765) outnumbered filled ones.
"Polls don't mean anything," Reinsdorf said, and from where he sat, they were easy to dismiss. "Polls are nothing more than a snapshot of how people feel at a certain moment."
If that's so, you have to wonder what fans are mad about at the moment.
Crowds at the ballparks that were supposed to dazzle fans and make every new tenant a playoff contender are thin. Across both leagues, average attendance is off 3.5 percent in the first two weeks of the season, to 29,403. Most of the blame is being pinned on lousy weather and losing teams.
But there's something else that should be causing some concern: Eight ballparks have drawn their lowest crowds for a regularly scheduled game. Seven of them were part of the new-ballpark boom. Two of them opened their doors barely a year ago.
The only team among the eight to draw a record-low to an old stadium is the Florida Marlins, who are playing in a reconfigured football stadium and chased away most of their fans by staging a fire sale soon after winning the 1997 World Series.
Fitting, perhaps, Reinsdorf's new stadium turned out to be a white elephant. It was cold, so lacking in charm that the ballpark alienated large numbers of the team's loyal fan base and attracted few new fans. It became an example of what not to build, so much so that few people even consider it part of the boom.
The ballpark built after that, Camden Yards in Baltimore, was the first of the retro-styled parks. Milwaukee's Miller Park was the last to come online. Neither one, though, has been immune from the attendance flu that might be spreading across baseball.
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