NEW YORK — Baseball heads toward the All-Star break with most teams still in contention for a playoff spot and more fans deciding it's just not worth the money to watch the races unfold in person.
The game's top story in 2009 -- at least, so far -- is the economy. It's not a pretty tale.
For all of Major League Baseball, average attendance was down 6.4% through the end of last week, even with many teams offering discounts to battle the recession. An Associated Press-Knowledge Networks poll released this week found 63% of fans think the cost of a game is baseball's biggest problem.
The new Yankee Stadium became Exhibit A for baseball in the downturn, with front-row seats in the plush new park going empty at up to $2,625 each, and only the opener selling out among the first 42 games. Things weren't a lot better across town at the new Citi Field, where tickets topped out at $495 and the Mets sold out only five of their first 42 home games.
Get past the money, and achievements on the field still had trouble turning attention away from another old scourge -- the use of banned substances. Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez became the latest big-name players implicated.
When the focus finally shifted to the diamond, though, there was lots to see.
Randy Johnson (300 wins) and Mariano Rivera (500 saves) achieved major milestones, while only Joe Torre's Dodgers led a division by more than five games.
Baseball officials, of course, have been watching the economy closely. To them, the news isn't all bad.
"I would think we've been very pleased with the reaction of our fans, very pleased with the reactions of our sponsors," MLB Chief Operating Officer Bob DuPuy said. Part of the attendance drop, they note, has been caused by lower seating capacities in both New York stadiums.
Some players had a different take.
"I know the cost of building these megastadiums that we have right now, with all kinds of different forms of entertainment -- steakhouses within the stadiums, museums within the stadiums," Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. said.
"The fans have a choice -- to buy tickets or not buy tickets. With the economy the way it is in general, you're seeing people priced out of certain forms of entertainment."
Attendance drops in some places are trickling down to the field. The Chicago White Sox have seen average attendance fall nearly 9% this season and might not be able to make a trade that adds significant payroll.
"Well, if I'm being completely honest, money is more of the issue now. We expected a little more support than we've gotten," general manager Kenny Williams said. "I think it's a reflection upon the economy."
Meanwhile, aside from money, drugs are still a big issue.
Rodriguez's February admission that he used steroids from 2001-03 and Ramirez's 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy sparked outrage among commentators, but fans -- at least, Yankees and Dodgers fans -- seemed to have little trouble forgiving and moving on.
"I think everybody understands that every profession, whether it's baseball, other sports, medicine, lawyers, has some people who unfortunately will try to cut corners," DuPuy said, "But they also recognize all the commissioner has done to rid the game of illegal drugs, and as a result are willing to focus their attention back on the field."
Only three teams entered the first half's final weekend more than 10 games over .500: the Dodgers in the NL, and the Boston Red Sox and Yankees in the AL.
"If people are talking about wild card before midseason, it's got to be good for baseball," San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson said. "It gets the fans into it. It gives the team something to look forward to, even though maybe you shouldn't be concentrating on certain things like that. It's almost like in a race, if you can keep yourself within the distance of that guy, you're running for something."
Two managers were fired in May for failing to stay close enough: Arizona replaced Bob Melvin with A.J. Hinch, and Colorado jettisoned Clint Hurdle in favor of Jim Tracy. Washington's Manny Acta was under pressure following a 16-46 start that threatened the 1962 New York Mets' modern standard for futility, and his bosses wondered whether they'll be able to sign pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the top pick in last month's amateur draft.
World Series champion Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and Mets all stumbled to subpar records as they dealt with injuries.
Asked this week if he had anyone in sports that he could turn to for spiritual counsel, Mets Manager Jerry Manuel gave a philosophical answer.
"Shoot, I need Gandhi and King," Manuel said. "They went through some stuff."
Among players, Kansas City cheered the first half of Zack Greinke (10-5, 2.12 ERA) and St. Louis headed into the All-Star break lauding Albert Pujols (major league-leading 31 home runs).
Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (11-3) made his first All-Star team in his 17th big league season at age 42.