June 19, 2005
BASEBALL: KEEPING SCORE; When the Stars Come Out, Do the Fans Follow?
By ALAN SCHWARZ
For once, the cheers drowned out the airplanes. As Pedro Martínez stared down another strikeout from atop the Shea Stadium mound this month against the Astros, Fran Healy, the Mets television announcer, beheld the growing cacophony.
''You put Pedro on the mound, he's one of those pitchers who will draw people to the ballpark,'' Healy raved, seconds before the third strike led to even greater bedlam. ''That's what gets people out to the ballpark!''
Sure enough, Martínez has put a heartbeat back into Flushing this season, with the evidence right there in the attendance column: The average Shea Stadium crowd for Martínez's eight home starts (39,054) has been almost 5,500 fans larger than for games without him (33,579).
He is one of the biggest pitching draws in the majors, along with the Houston Astros' Roger Clemens, who since joining his home-state club has drawn an average of about 2,300 extra fans.
It is common belief -- and not necessarily false -- that charismatic pitchers like Martínez and Clemens increase their employers' attendance figures. But evidence suggests that the phenomenon may be considerably weaker than most people think.
From 1980 through last season, the pitchers whose attendance figures outpaced their clubs' averages the most during their careers -- among pitchers with at least 75 home starts -- were, in fact, attractive draws: Tom Seaver (3,295 more fans, primarily for the Reds and the White Sox); Mario Soto (3,088 with the Reds); and Dwight Gooden (3,038, primarily for the Mets and the Yankees).
Lower down the top 10 sit Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan and Fernando Valenzuela.
So everything looks normal. Then again, the Nos. 4 and 5 draws were the nondescript journeymen Larry McWilliams and Bruce Ruffin, whose starts attracted about 2,800 more than their teams' averages. Either those pitchers left a lot of tickets at will-call, or the group is not quite what it seems.
The top 10 list of more recent pitchers, those from 1999 to 2004, similarly finds Randy Johnson sharing territory with the underwhelming Jamie Moyer and Rick Helling. Martínez, a hugely popular player in Boston during that time, would probably have made the list, but the Red Sox sold out almost every game anyway.
The president of the Astros, Tal Smith, is skeptical about any real influence pitchers have on attendance. Smith not only has Clemens now, but he also employed Ryan during his homecoming in the early 1980's. Smith said he believed that a top pitcher redistributed attendance more than lifted it.
''Fernando Valenzuela had a dramatic effect with the Dodgers during Fernandomania,'' Smith said. ''But otherwise, I'm of the opinion that fans are saying, 'Let's go to the ballgame this week,' and then they'll check to see who's pitching, and go that day.
''But would they have come the previous night or the next night? They might come one day instead of the other.''
Indeed, Clemens does not appear to help Houston's attendance on days when it draws well anyway. In his weekend starts, his average crowd (38,481) was actually smaller than those for such games without him (39,385).
He seems to have heightened interest only during the week, particularly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when most teams draw relatively poorly. On those days, he has drawn about an additional 4,000 fans on Tuesday and 5,000 on Wednesday.
Smith said Clemens received a bonus of about $1.5 million last year based on how he affected attendance, and such clauses are nothing new.
According to the author Mark Lamster, the star pitcher Albert Spalding was promised 55 percent of the profits of the Chicago White Stockings to jump to the new National League in 1876. (Then again, Spalding did pitch every game.) Throughout the 1940's, Bob Feller had a significant percentage of his salary tied to the Indians' attendance.
Few pitchers ever drew quite like Mark Fidrych, the Detroit Tigers' quirky right-hander known as the Bird. He captivated baseball during the summer of 1976, attracting almost 20,000 extra fans during his 18 home starts.