Created on Saturday, 14 September 2013 Written by TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — The standings show the Indians are in the middle of a wild playoff race. The stands in Progressive Fields seem to say otherwise.
Once one of baseball's top attractions, the Indians, who sold out 455 consecutive games from 1995-2001 during a golden era for the franchise, have been playing in front of many more empty seats than filled ones.
Lagging attendance is nothing new in Cleveland, where Indians fans have shown their skepticism about this year's team and others along with mistrust for ownership by staying away. But what makes this different is that October is nearing, and the Indians are contending. That should be reason enough for support in a city that hasn't had one of its three pro sports teams win a title in 49 years.
After playing in front of the two smallest September crowds (9,794 and 9,962) in the ballpark's history, Indians center fielder Michael Bourn appealed to Cleveland fans.
"Come on out and watch us play," Bourn said. "That's all we want."
Bourn wasn't begging, but he was the first Indian to publicly state what has been discussed privately inside the team's clubhouse: Where are our fans? It's a question that colorful All-Star closer Chris Perez posed last season and for which he was harshly criticized.
Though they're flawed, these Indians are an exciting team that with a little luck just might be able to make some postseason noise. First-year manager Terry Francona has professed a nose-to-the-grindstone approach, and players have bought in. It's just taken fans a little longer to come aboard.
"We're just mentally drained. Years of mental abuse," joked Kevin Muche, a 61-year-old fan from Cleveland and one of 12,085 at Wednesday's matinee against Kansas City. "I don't know what the deal is, maybe they just don't have the money or something to come down. I came to more games this year than I did last year. I'm not a fair-weather fan.
"I root for the Tribe no matter what."
The Indians aren't the only contending team with attendance issues.
While the Baltimore Orioles, one of six teams vying for the American League's two wild-card spots, have seen a 15-percent overall increase in attendance at Camden Yards this season, a recent four-game series against the New York Yankees drew an average of fewer than 22,000 fans per game in the 45,000-seat ballpark.
And the Tampa Bay Rays, who began play Friday with a lead on Cleveland and Baltimore in the wild-card race, were last in the majors with an 18,746 attendance average through 73 home games.
Last year, Tampa Bay also finished last (19,255), just behind Cleveland (19,797).
It's not that the Indians haven't done all they can. The team prides itself on having the lowest season-ticket prices in baseball. But a declining population, sluggish economy, games on television and a lingering backlash against the Dolan Family for not re-signing Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee are among the factors that have contributed to the turnstiles not spinning as they once did.
Also, the Indians' institution of a "dynamic pricing" structure — ticket price varies on when it's bought, the opponent, day and month — has not caught on. Some fans grumble about not being able to walk up and buy a $10 bleacher seat, but the Indians are trying to reward fans for purchasing in advance as they try to rebuild a season-ticket base that dropped 25,000 at its peak to just over 7,000 today.
It would be understandable that fans might be late to the party if the Indians weren't in contention. But the abundance of half-filled sections — the Indians have had only more than 30,000 fans for six of 74 home dates — is enough to put a frown on the face of the club's smiling Chief Wahoo mascot.
"I'm embarrassed for my own town," said 22-year-old Eric O'Callaghan of Cleveland Heights as he sat in the left-field bleachers Wednesday. "We've always had a chip on our shoulder as far as being fans of the downtrodden collection of teams. We have this reputation where we're supposed to be this group of people that are super loyal to every single team in this city.
"And obviously that's not true."
As hard as the Indians have tried to sell Cleveland as a "Tribe Town" in an ad campaign, football rules the hearts of this region. That was never more evident than last Sunday, when the Browns drew 71,513 to their opener while the Indians had 13,317 for a day game.
What's also hurt attendance is that every time the Indians have had a chance to prove their legitimacy, they've failed. Last month, they were swept in four games by AL Central-leading Detroit.
Still, the Indians feel they deserve more backing.
"I don't see any reason why they shouldn't believe in us," said Bourn, who signed a four-year $48 million deal in February. "I think we deserve that chance until the last day of the season is over."
Designated hitter Jason Giambi remembers coming here with Oakland in the late '90s and being intimidated by the crowds.
"As a visiting player you would say, 'God, just don't let them get a baserunner on.' It was deafening," he said. "You could feel the excitement and when the ball would get rolling, you couldn't stop them."
Giambi has been telling the team's young players that the city has their backs, and if they get to October, Cleveland rocks.
There won't be an empty seat in sight.
"I know," he said, "if we get a little further in this, they'll be there."
AP freelancers Steve DiMatteo and Steve Herrick in Cleveland and AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg in Baltimore contributed to this report.