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49,383’s A Crowd

In one of the scoops of the winter, Ben Shpigel noted [1] in the Times last week that the Mets want to sell a lot of tickets in 2007. I also hear they’d like to win as many games as possible.

To be fair (even if it’s not as much fun), Shpigel’s angle was the Mets’ push to set new and ridiculous attendance records this year. If you didn’t notice, we wound up contributing to 3,379,535 tickets sold in 2006, by far the best gate in Mets history. On average, we sat 43,327 strong at Shea per every date — 78 of them, thanks to three doubleheaders — of the regular season. Or at least we intended to.

It’s a little misleading to compare attendance figures from before and after 1993, and not just because 1993 [2] marked a presumable increase in Mets fan suicide attempts. That was the year the National League adopted the American League policy of reporting paid attendance based more on the paid — how many seats were sold for the game — than the attendance — how many were filled.

There can be a dramatic difference between the two. In 1984, the Cal Griffith Twins were making googly eyes toward Tampa-St. Pete, hoping to desert one depressing dome for another that was on the drawing board. Minnesota had an escape clause based on paid attendance. If it fell below a certain figure, they could adios the Twin Cities and head for the theoretically more receptive climes of the Bay Area. To preserve the dormant pride of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Metrodome suddenly began selling out, though it wasn’t a surge among the common folk that turned the trick. Business interests, led by that Pohlad fellow who eventually bought the team, snapped up all extant tickets one day to make a statement of support. I can still see the wire-service photo of a nearly empty Metrodome whose announced attendance [3] that afternoon neared 52,000.

We haven’t experienced quite that vivid a dichotomy between ducats and the fannies that account for them, yet there’s almost always some disparity at play. I’ve gotten pretty good at estimating the Shea house over the years and I’ve learned to pad my guess upwards a few thousand over appearances because I know looks are officially deceiving. On the quiet Monday night [4] we set the current record, the paid attendance was 34,027…yeah, only if each Fandini distributed was counted as a person. Still, having sat through some dismal seasons amid some sparse crowds, it’s nice knowing you’re pretty much guaranteed substantial company at Mets games these days. It’s indicative of the overall success of the franchise and the mass response to it. You’ll take a 2006 over a 1993 any day in 81.

How much company does one really need, though? Shpigel’s article said the Mets are targeting 3.5 million in 2007, with the author suggesting 4 million isn’t completely out of the question. It would take 49,383 tickets sold for 81 home dates (no rainouts, no twofers) to reach this previously unreachable star.

Keep your feet on the ground, I say. I don’t want to be part of 4 million. 3,379,535’s good company. Four million is a crowd.

Attendance is going to be a tricky issue for the next few seasons. The Mets will draw in 2007 because of their momentum from 2006. They’ll draw in 2008 because it will be the last year of Shea. They’ll draw in 2009 because it will be the first year of Citi Field and, assuming the place isn’t an artistic disaster and they themselves don’t completely go in the tank, they’ll draw very nicely into the early 2010s.

Without so much as a Post-It to warn us, the days of walk right in, sit right down and put your feet right up are over. Showing up at Shea is no longer synonymous with spreading out and kicking back. The nights when you could lean any which way you chose and chat with your neighbor and have your run of the concessions to say nothing of your choice of Leon Hess Memorial Urinal probably ended in 2005. Unless you’re going to rough it on one of those Arctic April nights when the paid attendance is more a ghost story than a trustworthy statistic, you’re going to be sardining away your remaining days at Shea.

Better to be uncomfortable for a contender than at ease amid ineptitude. We’ve each and every one of us spent far too many years of our lives as the oddball Mets fan in any given situation to not welcome the critical mass we’ve gathered and figure to maintain for a few years. Yet as the Shea calendar prepares its inevitable tearaway from 162 to 0, I’ve been looking forward to at least a few more nights as I remember them. Not 1979/1993 remember them, but just, I dunno, normal. Gimme a humming crowd of 25,000, 30,000 on a weeknight, maybe 40,000 on a Sunday. Gimme people on each level but don’t necessarily cram us in until we figuratively can’t breathe. Gimme a playoff atmosphere fairly often (gimme playoffs for sure) but gimme a mellow afternoon and a slow 7:10 once in a while. And for those who (or whose corporations) buy the good tickets but don’t use ’em, gimme your tickets.

It’s a quality-of-life issue, albeit a nuanced one. I don’t want the Mets to slide back so far on the field that empty orange acres dominate the SNY tableau. Mets games seemed filled last year with Mets fans mostly, not cultists for out-of-town one-trick ponies or area victims of front-runneritis. If the Mets are going to continue to be as good as they were in 2006 and make Mets fans happy, then oh yeah, I want us all to share in the good times.

But I’m going to miss the manageable evening out, the row that isn’t filled butt to gut, the late decision to meet and buy something decent in the mezzanine. Regular ol’ single-game tickets have yet to go on sale and the Mets are already implementing postseason-like registration for their platinum affairs, Opening Day and the Subway Series. Register for a chance to buy a ticket. Not a ticket, but a chance.

And this is Shea. Citi Field will be a whole other dealio. Current capacity is more or less 56,000 (seems to narrow and widen at will if you check the agate at the bottom of the boxscores). The future — here sooner than we can imagine [5] — will give us a far smaller playpen in which to fight it out for seats. Mets.com lists Citi’s projected capacity at about 45,000 including standing room.

Standing room? Welcome to the new new New York Mets, indeed. Three years ago, in the largest market in the National League with what was by then the biggest ballpark in the National League, the Mets ranked 11th out of 16 franchises in attendance. Now we’re going to be sold the privilege to stand and deliver. That’s progress.

Of course those gym spots will look pretty good when seated attendance tops out in the 42,000s.

Small is beautiful when it comes to ballparks. That’s been the retro rule since Camden Yards. Nobody liked 65,000-seat monstrosities like the Vet. Almost everybody loves Fenway and Wrigley.

Has anybody bothered to ask, though, why retro parks are called that? They’re throwbacks to the early part of the 20th century when the stadiums were smaller because the crowds were smaller. Attendance records get set these days because more people show up, especially when a club is at the top of its game. In last-place 2003, 42,000 seats available for a Mets game would have meant plenty of good seats were generally still available when the first pitch was thrown. Per-game attendance was 26,757 for a terrible team. Despite every logical instinct to the contrary, that was about the average attendance in 1969 for a great team. (In those days, however, you had “total attendance” and “paid attendance” announced, which would explain everybody’s insistence that there were more than 59,000 on hand for Tom Seaver’s imperfect game yet a shade under 51,000 in the fine print; you also didn’t have the tickets sold factored in, though who the hell would have a ticket for the 1969 Mets and not use it?)

Used to be a million a year was splendid, two million astounding. But now? A million a year gets you practically contracted. Expectations everywhere have ratcheted skyward, especially here. 41,723 X 81 at Shea last year when pennant race suspense was minimal. 43,210 X 81 this year for the 3.5 million projection to be hit (with the Mets squeezing every bit of ticket-package revenue out of their fans before putting the bulk of singles on sale, it will probably be exceeded). We will likely have more than an entire Citi Field’s worth inside Shea every date in ’08 given the goodbye impulse.

Then we shrink. Citi Field will be a veritable boutique at the very moment the Mets have shed their boutique brand equity. It may be ideal aesthetically, especially after one too many Mount McKinley climbs up Shea’s highest deck, but it will be de facto exclusionary. The only way tickets will be readily available is if the Mets are readily terrible. And none of us wants that. We want it to be so crowded that everybody goes there yet not so crowded that we can’t.

One can easily contradict himself in terms of what one wants out of all this. A good team. A jumping joint. A big crowd. But not too big. And don’t jump too much. But don’t suck. And give me a nice ballpark. But give me a place in it. And don’t take away one of the things I took for granted about the old ballpark, its size and general accessibility in terms of admission. Except I always thought it was too big. And all those empty seats were a rather glum sight. But reassuring in their way, for come the day we contend, they’ll be filled. We’ll have a good team. A jumping joint. A big crowd.

And plenty of parking.

Need to warm up on a cold night? If you haven’t seen Wednesday’s Daily News, go to their site and read Christian Red’s dynamite reporting [6] from the Dominican Republic on Pedro Martinez’s rotator cuff rehab. It’s a great and encouraging story on the most charismatic personality this team has ever seen. Shea, Citi, a patch of dirt on a highway median…I’d buy a ticket to watch Pedro pitch anywhere right now, temperature be damned.