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Originally published April 13, 2013 at 5:13 PM | Page modified April 13, 2013 at 6:07 PM

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Paltry crowds at Safeco will continue until the team starts winning

The cold, hard fact is that Seattle's days as one of the reliably rabid baseball towns are long past.

Times baseball reporter

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Anyone shocked by the Mariners' paltry attendance figures in the Houston series hasn't been paying attention.

Be prepared for small crowds throughout the cold early months of the season, until the Mariners' play on the field determines if the fan base will grow throughout the summer.

The cold, hard fact is that Seattle's days as one of the reliably rabid baseball towns are long past. Actually, I firmly believe it's still a good baseball town; it's merely dormant, because the product for the past decade has been so off-putting.

Crowds at Safeco Field have been on a steady, precipitous drop ever since the 2002 peak of 3,540,482, tops in the major leagues and just short of a full-season sellout.

Coming off the 116-win joy ride (until Sept. 11, anyway) of 2001, they drew 43,710 fans a game in 2002. By last season, however, the per-game average had been more than halved to 21,275, as the season's total dropped to 1,723,301.

The Mariners ranked 26th in the majors in average attendance (down from 23rd in 2011), ahead of only MLB's problem children, Oakland and Tampa Bay, as well as the 107-loss Astros and an Indians team whose fall from a once-jammed stadium mirrors Seattle's.

What we learned after the season is that Mariners' season tickets had dropped to between 8,000 and 8,500, the lowest since Safeco Field opened, down from a high of about 22,000 in 2002. And, not surprisingly, it hasn't gotten any better this season.

The Mariners will continue to sell season-ticket packages until mid-May, but what I'm hearing is that the final numbers are expected to be slightly down from 2012. So they're working from an attendance base in the 8,000s, reliant on walk-up sales for the rest. And April is never — at least not in this new Mariners world of seven last-place finishes in nine years — a great walk-up month.

The 12 smallest crowds in Safeco history have all come since 2011, and eight of those have been in April — including the two lowest (for now) on Tuesday and Wednesday last week against the Astros (10,745 and 10,493).

Two others on that list were last September, which can be a dreary month in a playing-out-the-string season. One was in May, the other in June.

It appeared that a bit of a buzz was building for the ballclub in spring training, when the Mariners banged out 58 homers in 33 games, won at a .667 clip, and just oozed camaraderie and fellowship. But after winning the first two games of the season in Oakland (still the only games the A's have lost this year, heading into Saturday's action), it's been a perfect buzz-kill storm.

They lost seven of their next nine before beating Texas on Friday, including the ultimate indignity, dropping two out of three to the Astros. In those losses, they were 3 for 41 (.073) with runners in scoring position. Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley, the young core that generated so much spring optimism, were all under .200 as the Mariners dropped to their customary spot in last place in team batting average in the American League. Their Cactus League rookie phenom, Brandon Maurer, has a 16.20 ERA after two starts, and they already felt the need to shake up their rotation with a trade.

Oh, yeah: It's been bitterly cold, too. As if all that wasn't enough, two of their top hitters, Michael Saunders and Michael Morse, are hurt. Saunders went on the disabled list with a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder, while Morse avoided the DL but is sidelined with a fractured finger.

The result is that a "here we go again" vibe is settling in, one that was transmitted at warp speed during the two lopsided losses to an Astros team widely regarded as the worst in baseball.

It's an awful lot to overcome for an organization that has already alienated many fans by cutting payroll, clumsily raising some season-ticket prices last offseason, and coming out in opposition to the proposed new SoDo basketball arena — all while the Seahawks and Sounders have soared in popularity. There is a widespread lack of confidence in, and antagonism toward, the management team of CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong.

The only long-term solution to the attendance problem is crystal clear, of course. They need to start winning, and contending, which has a miraculous way of assuaging all the negativity. It's way too early to determine if this year's team is the one that's going to start that process. But it's not too early to conclude that fans aren't yet convinced.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists


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