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EMPTY FEELING AT THE STADIUM.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

Fans in the stands make more noise, but sometimes empty seats tell you more about the status of a ballclub.

Dodger Stadium had 25,000 empty seats when the Dodgers - trying to hang tough in the National League wild-card race - played Colorado on Tuesday. The park had 27,000 empty seats when the same teams - the hosts still mathematically in the race - played again Wednesday. Although there are mitigating circumstances to consider, the display of apathy on the decisive nights of the season should disappoint the front office.

There's room (especially on the reserved level) for debate over what the announced ticket sales of 30,332 and 28,189 for the past two games indicates about the Dodgers, about baseball or about local fans.

But if you could interview an empty seat, I think it might tell you the following.

Although the Dodgers have correctly declared this year a success even without a playoff trip, all of their progress on and off the field is, after all, merely a step in the right direction.

Only when fans expect to see a pennant-winner will they get charged up for a school-night game against the Rockies that they could as easily watch on television.

Optimism about the seasons ahead is great; it just doesn't sell tonight's tickets.

``With it being a crucial game, we would expect to see more people here,'' conceded Derrick Hall, the Dodgers' vice president for communications, who expected something more than 35,000.

But Hall would prefer not to read anything into this week's modest attendance figures for important games, which come on the heels of last week's far-from-sellout crowds of 35,000 to 43,000 for head-to-head encounters with wild-card-leading San Francisco.

``When you're going to get 3.1 million (in attendance for the season), that's pretty good,'' Hall said. ``I don't think you can overreact to a couple of games. ... I think we've convinced people the organization is back on track.''

It's true, the Dodgers' home tickets-sold count can go over 3 million for a major-league-record 17th time when they open a four-game series against San Diego tonight. It's true that going into Wednesday, the Dodgers ranked third in the major leagues in home attendance. It's true, the Dodgers' attendance is up 5.2 percent from last year while overall baseball attendance is down 6.5 percent compared to 2001 levels. It's true, the playoff teams in Atlanta, Minnesota and Oakland would be thrilled to have been such turnstile bonanzas over the decades that 30,000 is considered a bad night.

And it's true, crowds tend to shrink on weekdays in September, after children go back to school.

``I'm a parent as well as a major-league manager,'' the Dodgers' Jim Tracy said, ``and I know what it's like when you've got children who've got to get up at 6:30 for school - and you're going to come in from a game at midnight? Tuesday's a little tough for everybody.''

But ... if you're trying to measure fans' excitement about the team's pennant chances, you don't look at season-long figures, you look at the big games in the closing weeks.

Tuesday's and Wednesday's crowds are small even compared to recent seasons' final Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Dodger Stadium. Since the Dodgers began recording nightly attendance counts in their media guides after the 1997 season, only the 29,000-plus crowds for Sept. 22-23, 1998, games against San Diego were smaller. And in 1998, the Dodgers were 16 games out of first place by then.

Last season, the Dodgers were on the fringe of the playoff race when they faced San Francisco on Tuesday and Wednesday of their last homestand before finishing the season on the road; those games drew 40,874 and 49,320. The season before, the Dodgers were out of the running when they played the Giants on Tuesday and Wednesday of the final week; they drew 43,909 and 44,232.

There's a difference between playing the Giants and playing the Rockies - but 10,000 fans worth of difference?

Uniformed Dodgers didn't exactly warm to the topic, since anything they said about the small crowds might be read as a slap at the fans.

``I'm disappointed in the way we played,'' catcher Paul Lo Duca said of Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Colorado, which dropped the Dodgers three games behind San Francisco, ``but not in (the attendance).''

Another Dodger noted that although he was surprised only 35,767 tickets were sold for the Giants game on Monday, Sept. 16 - Yom Kippur - the crowd was one of the loudest he has heard at Dodger Stadium.

But whether you see Dodger Stadium as half-full or half-empty, this has been weak. And if there's a problem here, it's not the fans' problem, it's the team's. Dodgersmania is at least a year away.

Sometimes empty seats tell you a lot.

Right before they ask you when Lakers season starts.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Sep 26, 2002
Words:821
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