SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The sun drenched Cactus League ballparks again Friday. A gentle breeze blew in from right field. The fields were well-manicured. The hot dogs warm, the beer cold.
But something was missing. Where were the fans?
Replacement players for the Angels and San Francisco Giants attracted only 2,163 to 10,500-seat Scottsdale Stadium on Friday. It has been the same all around the eight-team Cactus League so far this spring.
A year ago, the league attracted 830,000 fans, an average of 7,000 per game. After a week of no-names, has-beens and never-weres, actual in-house attendance has sagged to an average of about 1,000, according to the league office.
"No question it's radically down," a spokeswoman said. Sometime next week, the league is expected to determine how much the small crowds are affecting the state's billion-dollar tourist industry.
After four home games, the Angels say they are averaging 1,621 tickets soldat Tempe Diablo Stadium. They had announced crowds of 1,347, 776 and 1,261 this week. Reporters' estimates were significantly less. In any case, the Angels are far behind last season's average of 6,136.
"It's disappointing to us," said Kevin Uhlich, Angel vice president of operations. "I think there was a misconception that the guys here were people who left jobs to come here, who were not athletes. There are some good athletes here.
"The first few games were about what we thought (in terms of attendance). The real sign will be the last two weeks of spring training. That's traditionally when we get our biggest crowds."
Uhlich said the Angels surveyed 35 to 40 fans attending their opener last week against San Diego, and the response wasn't all that bad.
"We asked, 'Were you happy with the product?' " he said. "All but one or two said yes. Then we asked, 'Would you come out to see the (replacement) Angels again?' All but one said yes."
The Chicago Cubs, traditionally one of the league's top draws, have averaged 3,350 in four games at 8,963-seat HoHoKam Park. The Giants have averaged a league-leading 3,777 in four games at Scottsdale Stadium. The team hasn't cut ticket prices, but fans receive a $5 coupon, redeemable at concession and merchandise stands.
The Colorado Rockies have averaged 3,273 in 9,500-seat Hi Corbett Field despite charging $1 for some seats.
The Seattle Mariners are averaging 2,188, San Diego Padres 1,643, the Milwaukee Brewers 1,469 and the Oakland Athletics a league-low 1,326.
Major League Baseball has taken notice, putting its spin doctors to work on a full-page advertisement in Phoenix newspapers Friday. The ad features a letter to a local family.
"Sometime in January, when the ice is a foot thick on Lake Michigan, your phone starts to ring," the ad copy begins. "Seems like every Brewer fan you ever knew from your days up in Wisconsin is calling you with the same idea: They all want to get down to Arizona. Get away from the snow. Spend a week in Cactus League country. Soak up the sun and infinite optimism of spring training, when every team can take the pennant and every newcomer's a potential Rookie of the Year."
The letter asks the family to embrace the game like this was any other spring.
So far, Midwestern snowbirds have taken replacement ball for what it has been: a poor substitute for the real thing. Locals have turned their passions to the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, apparently believing the strike will be resolved when their team takes the field for the first time in 1998.
At America West Arena in downtown Phoenix, there was a 45-minute wait just to get into a store selling Diamondback T-shirts.