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Paul Hagen: Sellouts and success hard to maintain for MLB teams

At some point, usually around the seventh inning, the official paid attendance for that game is announced in the press box. For the Phillies lately, that's followed by a brief addendum.

Charlie Manuel and the Phillies are currently tied with the Mets for second place in the NL East. (Steven M. Falk / Staff file photo)
Charlie Manuel and the Phillies are currently tied with the Mets for second place in the NL East. (Steven M. Falk / Staff file photo)Read more

At some point, usually around the seventh inning, the official paid attendance for that game is announced in the press box. For the Phillies lately, that's followed by a brief addendum.

Last night, for example, it would have been something like: "That's the 71st consecutive sellout at Citizens Bank Park."

And isn't that what all pro sports franchises aspire to? It's a good thing, right?

Well, mostly. But, believe it or not, there can be some drawbacks to being so wildly popular that every game plays to a full house. Consider the Boston Red Sox. When the Phillies open a weekend series in Fenway Park tonight, it will be the incredible 583rd straight game that this baseball time capsule has been full.

The most obvious potential pitfall is that the easiest way for teams to increase their revenue is to sell more tickets. Empty seats are unused inventory. They're just sitting there waiting to be converted into cash, not only for the space itself but for parking and concessions.

Once that source of income is maxed out, the options become more complicated. Raising ticket prices and advertising rates are the two most common answers, but those increases are never popular with the fans or sponsors.

The other potential pitfall is that sellouts become addictive for management. The more they have, the more they want. At a certain point, if they're not careful, they no longer just want them. They NEED them.

And the only way to try to assure that is to continue putting a winning team on the field. That generally involves spending more money on players, which increases the pressure to continue selling as many tickets as possible.

That can easily become a vicious circle, no matter how artfully the budget is managed.

Give a Red Sox executive a shot of truth serum, and he'll probably admit that it would be nice to be able to take a step back and rebuild every so often. Move out some aging veterans. Give some kids a shot. Instead, the pressure is always on to continue feeding the (green) monster.

Since fans become attached to their favorite players, the natural impulse is to keep the customers happy by hanging onto the older stars. That usually involves giving those players more money for more years than might otherwise be considered prudent.

That's one reason the Red Sox find themselves in the awkward position of having Jason Varitek, the captain, now in the backup catcher role. Of having third baseman Mike Lowell openly unhappy about his lack of playing time. Of going through what has become an annual April angst over whether David Ortiz is through or not.

The Red Sox, because of their stake in the cable channel NESN, can support a payroll that helps paper over these problems with dollar bills. Few teams are that fortunate.

The Indians built a streak of 455 consecutive sellouts that ended in 2001. They won their sixth division title in 7 years that season. That was followed by three straight losing seasons. After drawing 3.175 million in 2001, the Tribe sold just 1.73 million tickets only 2 years later. The payroll was slashed accordingly. Cleveland has been to the playoffs just once since then and presently has the second-worst record in baseball.

On balance, the fact that the Phillies are now in the habit of selling out every game is a good thing. It helps pay for the roster that has been to the World Series each of the last 2 years. But beware. There really can be too much of a good thing.


-- Obligatory Strasburg note: Thom Loverro, of ESPN-980 in Washington, said on the air Wednesday morning that the real impact of Stephen Strasburg's major league debut didn't really hit him until he saw a man at the outfield rail holding up his 1-year-old son so that he could someday say he had seen Strasburg's first pitch.

-- Add Strasburg: CNBC says that the electric righthander is already well on his way to paying off his 4-year, $15.1 million contract. Darren Rovell calculated that the team made an extra $1.5 million when Strasburg started on Tuesday alone.

-- Clip of the week: Dan Bickley, of the Arizona Republic, on the state of the Diamondbacks: "Vultures seem to be circling the ballpark. On some nights, Copper Square is a ghost town, with homeless people asleep on the curb of Chase Field. Inside the building, the mood is toxic. Something has to give."

-- Where have all the (NL) hitters gone?: Going into play yesterday, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano led the majors in hitting . . . and the next seven leaders were all American Leaguers. The National League isn't represented until the ninth spot, when Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd appears, batting .321.

-- Market watch: The fan who caught Giants catcher Buster Posey's first home run quickly agreed to give up the momento in return for an autographed baseball. Posey was appreciative. "Most of the time they want the key to your car," he said. "I don't think he realized how much leverage he had."

-- Another one bites the dust: The Cubs have gotten a thumbs up from the Chicago City Council to construct a 360-square-foot, illuminated Toyota advertising sign that will loom over the leftfield bleachers of historic Wrigley Field. Sigh.

Medium: The Los Angeles Times reports that, for the last 5 years, the Dodgers have paid a 71-year-old Russian physicist named Vladimir Shpunt to direct positive energy waves at the team. This was kept secret from even top-level club officials, but came out as part of the acrimonious divorce proceedings between owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. Shpunt attended just one game at Dodger Stadium and normally worked while watching games on television from 3,000 miles away. We couldn't make this stuff up.

-- It's on: White Sox general manager Kenny Williams admitted this week that, because of the team's poor performance, veterans who are unsigned beyond this season are now available. "I have to listen. It's not that I want to, but I'm not blind," he said.


-- Suggestion box: The Phillies should arrange for a meeting between Phillippe Aumont and Randy Johnson. Here's why: While there are some obvious differences between the two - Aumont throws right, Johnson left - there are some striking similarities as well. Both are big, power pitchers. The 21-year-old Aumont has struggled early in his career, having recently been demoted from Double A Reading, where he was 1-6, 7.43, to Class A Clearwater. That came after he was traded last winter. He has to be a little down.

Johnson could relate his own experiences. He, too, was traded when he was young. He, too, took a long time to find himself. He was a combined 7-13, 4.82 for the Expos and Mariners in 1989. He was 25. It wasn't until the following season that he had a full solid season and not until 1993, at age 29, that he had his breakout season. It could only help Aumont to hear about that directly from a guy who went on to win 303 games.

-- Suggestion box II: The Cira Centre is a beautiful building that can do amazing things with its matrix of lights. Sometimes after a night game at Citizens Bank Park, the facade displays a Phillies "P" that is visible from Citizens Bank Park. But there seems to be no logic to when that's displayed. Wouldn't it be neat if it was illuminated after every Phillies win, much like the Cubs fly a white flag with a blue "W" high above the bleachers after each home victory? That could turn into a nice tradition.

-- Class of 1987: The 1987 Phillies weren't one of the more distinguished teams in franchise history. Manager John Felske was fired in June. They finished tied for fourth with a losing record.

But several players who passed through the Vet that summer are still relevant in baseball. John Russell (Pittsburgh) and Juan Samuel (Baltimore) are big-league managers. Von Hayes is managing the Camden Riversharks in the independent Atlantic League. Milt Thompson, Ron Roenicke and Mike Maddux are major league coaches. And Steve Bedrosian's son Cam and Bruce Ruffin's son Chance were both first-day draft choices this week. Thanks to WFAN's Sweeney Murti for pointing this out.

-- Did you know? That going into play yesterday, the first and second basemen for the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks (Adam LaRoche, Kelly Johnson) had combined for as many home runs as Ryan Howard and Chase Utley? Both duos had hit 20.