BRIAN RICHESSON | Scrappers Reality equals emptier seats
NILES -- Mahoning Valley Scrappers fans are getting a glimpse into the hard reality of minor league baseball.
Two straight Pinckney-Stedler Division crowns have been followed by a 2001 season in which the Scrappers have struggled to dig themselves out of a last-place hole.
Entering Saturday's game, they had a 14-36 record.
Although the sudden change at Mahoning Valley is new to fans, it's not for Scrappers general manager Andy Milovich, who is in his 10th season in minor league baseball.
"Look at Williamsport. They're the class of the league right now," Milovich said of the Pinckney-Stedler's first-place team. "But if you look almost two years ago, they were in the same situation we are."
Happens all over: Hudson Valley experienced the drop, as well. After winning the New York-Penn League title in 1999 against the Scrappers, the Renegades sunk to the bottom of the McNamara Division in 2000.
"It's not the manager or the farm director," Milovich said. "It depends on the draft and the maturation of some guys. Some guys come along faster than others."
Milovich knows the transition can be tough on fans, especially when they're used to seeing a team win in consecutive seasons.
At times this season, Mahoning Valley fans have rained boos at players and coaches. Don't think manager Dave Turgeon hasn't noticed.
"The toughest thing from a players and coaching-staff standpoint is the fans are so into the team that they're almost critical," Milovich said.
"So when the kids make a mistake on the field [and hear the boos], they tense up and are afraid to play a little bit."
The normal fan reaction to losing: Blame the manager.
"If Ted Kubiak had been the manager of this team, would the record have been different? You don't know that," Milovich said. "You go through cycles."
Milovich recognizes that fans are free to react in whatever way they choose. He just hopes they keep coming to Cafaro Field.
With the Scrappers' dramatic drop in the standings, it's natural to inquire about attendance figures, which topped 200,000 in each of the last two seasons at Cafaro Field.
Seacond best at gate: Going into weekend play, Mahoning Valley had the second-best per-game average (5,220) in the 14-team league, behind Brooklyn (7,705), which has benefited from the popularity of a new stadium and a winning team.
The Scrappers stood fourth in total attendance (109,628), behind Brooklyn (192, 615), Lowell (120,000) and Hudson Valley (116,616).
Judging from the empty seats, the figures are based on tickets sold, not the actual turnstile count.
"Despite the poor start, we were ahead attendance-wise [of past years] until seven or eight games ago," said Milovich, who added they have fallen about 6,500 fans off their pace.
"Since then, rain has affected us four times, and we've had 95-degree heat and high humidity every day. It's not something [fans] want to sit in for a few hours."
Advance sales have been good this season, Milovich said, but the walk-up crowd has been slow. With the intense heat recently, that dropoff is not a big surprise, he said.
"It's just tough getting people to come out and sit in the weather we've had," he said. "Just like the Indians, you see fewer people using their seats when the weather is poor."
When Mahoning Valley fielded a team in '99, fans had the option of purchasing one- or three-year season ticket packages. The three-year pacts expire after this season.
Could next year be a critical time for the Scrappers? Yes, Milovich said, but they look at every offseason as being critical in luring fans to Cafaro Field.
"There's new challenges every year," he said.
So far, Milovich and his staff have conquered those challenges with a professional, knowledgeable approach.
The depth of their mastery will come into focus next year.