WASHINGTON (AP) -Washington Nationals players notice it. Opponents do, too.
Attendance at Nationals home games has dropped by more than a third from Year 1 to Year 3, leaving thousands of empty yellow and burgundy seats night after night at 46,000-capacity RFK Stadium.
Even this past weekend's interleague series against Baltimore, a city about a 45-minute drive away, drew a high of 30,661 fans on Saturday night. Friday night's announced turnout of 22,375 was deemed ``pathetic'' by Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons.
``If we were both in first place, it would be full. A lot of it has to do with winning and teams playing well,'' Gibbons said. ``When teams aren't playing well, people aren't going to come out.''
That's the main factor pointed to by the Nationals, who never have made a secret of the fact that they're undertaking a start-from-scratch overhaul. Payroll was pared from $63 million to $37 million, and some players are getting their first taste of the major leagues in 2007.
So while the Nationals went 7-3 on their just-concluded homestand, they entered Monday's game at the Cincinnati Reds with a 16-28 record, the worst in baseball.
``I can certainly understand it,'' right fielder Austin Kearns said when asked about the smaller crowds. ``It's pretty well known that we're building for the future here.''
Still, the slump in attendance has been dramatic, and doomsayers might wonder whether it reflects a lack of interest in baseball in the nation's capital.
This is, after all, a town that twice lost major league franchises: The original Washington Senators moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season, and the expansion Washington Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season.
``There's not one worry about that from in this clubhouse,'' Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. ``We've had some smaller crowds, but we know they care.''
There certainly was a lot of hoopla accompanying baseball's return to Washington in 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved south and became the Nationals. The team averaged 33,728 spectators for 81 home games at RFK Stadium, with its upper-deck seats painted in Redskins colors.
But a bit of that buzz has dissipated. The average fell to 26,581 last season. And in 2007, it's down to 22,044 - a 35 percent decline from 2005.
Washington ranks 25th of baseball's 30 clubs in home attendance, trailing only Tampa Bay, Florida, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Overall, attendance at major league games around the country averaged 30,346 through Sunday, topped by the 45,521 drawn by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
``The real fans, they show up. The die-hards,'' Nationals left fielder Ryan Church said. ``They're loud enough. When we get 17,000 or 18,000, they're still loud - the ones who are here.''
The team never drew a single announced crowd of under 20,000 in 2005, then had seven such turnouts in 2006. There already have been 11 barely a quarter of the way into 2007, including a Nationals-low of 16,017 for a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the season-opening homestand.
``Customers,'' Nationals president Stan Kasten said, ``are never wrong.''
He acknowledges the less-than-attractive states of his team and its stadium: RFK, which first opened in 1961, will be replaced next season by a 41,000-seat park being built along the Anacostia River.
``I never really think about'' this season's attendance figures, Kasten said, ``because all I think about is getting the product - which means the team and the stadium - where we need it to be. When we get our job done, we'll have great support here. I'm confident of that.''
The new stadium has been used in a carrot-and-stick approach this season. This message flashes on RFK video boards during games: ``2007 season tickets secure priority for the new ballpark in 2008.''
``At that new stadium, the revenue is going to be crazy. And they've already said they're going to expand the payroll and everything,'' Schneider said. ``There are going to be a lot of new people in the near future.''
He could have been talking about people on the roster - and, the team hopes, people in the stands.
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