Matt Kemp helps Dodgers feel good
Walk-off homer beats Cards, but L.A.'s attendance issues are coming into focus
LOS ANGELES -- Well, if nothing else, Matt Kemp's two-run, walk-off home run, certainly reverberated through the Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse, even if there weren't that many people there to actually see it.
For a team in the midst of a five-game losing streak and in desperate need of a reason to believe in itself, Kemp's blast off St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin took care of both of those issues, at least for the moment, and gave the Dodgers a stirring, 2-1 victory on Sunday at Dodger Stadium.
And in fact, it did elicit a little bit of noise. As much noise as can be made by the 27,439 people who showed up to compose the smallest paid crowd at a regular-season Dodgers home game in seven years. There was at least one mitigating factor, of course: a few miles down the road, and simultaneously, the Los Angeles Lakers were beginning their playoff run. But on the other hand, it isn't as if this has been a one-day issue for the Dodgers.
The four-game series with the Cardinals -- kicking off an eight-game homestand that continues Monday night against the Atlanta Braves -- drew an average crowd of 32,406. The biggest of the four (36,282) was Friday night, when the Dodgers offered the added lure of a postgame fireworks show.
It all came to a head, though, in the finale, when the Dodgers drew their smallest home crowd since Sept. 9, 2004, when they attracted 27,287 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The ones who were here were treated to a gem of a game. Chad Billingsley turned in one of the best performances of his career, shutting out the Cardinals on two hits over eight dominating innings, and striking out 11 batters on an afternoon when the Dodgers didn't figure to do much offensively against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, and they didn't.
The Cardinals did actually take a ninth-inning lead with a two-out rally off Jonathan Broxton, but the Cardinals have issues at the back of their bullpen. Andre Ethier led off the bottom half with a double off Trever Miller, the left-hander Cardinals manager Tony La Russa brought in specifically to face him. La Russa then brought in his embattled closer, Ryan Franklin, and inexplicably let him pitch to the sizzling Kemp with first base open and the horrifically slumping likes of Juan Uribe and James Loney coming up behind him.
This after Kemp -- who is hitting a major league-leading .474 with a ridiculous .545 on-base percentage -- inexplicably asked manager Don Mattingly if he should try to bunt Ethier over to third.
"I was just trying to tie the game up and do whatever it took to help the team at least go into extra innings or help us win the game," Kemp said. "I asked him if I should bunt, but he said just drive in the run. I knew I hit it really, really good, but the wind was kind of blowing the ball every which way. I guess I hit it hard enough to get it over the fence."
With that, the Dodgers (7-9) emptied out of the dugout and greeted Kemp at home plate with a scrum that was as cathartic as it was celebratory. Then, they headed to the clubhouse, content to believe that whatever had been ailing them had been instantly cured.
One look into the stands, though, would have told them that a five-game losing streak in the middle of April is by no means the only issue facing this franchise right now.
Through eight home dates, the Dodgers have drawn 49,602 fewer fans than they drew through their first eight home games last season. That is an average dropoff of 6,200 a game. It leaves them on pace to draw their usual 3 million-plus (3.2 million) but would fall well short of last year's 3.6 million -- an eye-popping decline when you consider owner Frank McCourt's obvious financial problems stemming from his on-going divorce.
The list of possible reasons is long. Following the well-chronicled parking-lot assault on Opening Day, there is a perception that the place isn't safe, something McCourt himself has acknowledged will probably adversely affect attendance for a while. Considering the Dodgers haven't played particularly well this season -- they have scored two runs in each of the last three games and have appeared lifeless at times on this homestand, and they are tied for last place in the National League West -- and the fact the economy is still struggling to rebound, it could be that some fans have less disposable income and others are finding better ways to spend theirs.
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One other possibility: the sagging attendance could represent a local backlash against McCourt, who now appears to have next to zero support among the local fan base.
Ticket sales tend to trend with what a team did the previous year, and the Dodgers missed the playoffs last season for the first time in three years. It is worth mentioning that the last time the Dodgers drew a crowd smaller than the one they drew Sunday, it was in the middle of September in the heat of a division race the Dodgers ultimately would win -- but also one year after a disappointing finish in 2003.
Moreover, fresh from that division title in '04, the Dodgers were awful in '05, finishing 71-91, and yet they never drew a home crowd of less than 30,000 that entire season.
In fairness to the Dodgers, even their current average home attendance of 40,270 ranks them third in the NL and fourth in the majors. But the Dodgers also play in baseball's second-largest market and boast the league's largest ballpark in terms of seating capacity, so they should rank among the league leaders.
One Dodgers employee, while acknowledging the disappointing numbers thus far, pointed to Tuesday night's game with the Braves as the real test. That is fleece blanket giveaway night, traditionally a strong draw, and this year's blanket will bear the likeness of Fernando Valenzuela. But it if turns out not many people really want to cuddle up with Fernando, well, that could be an indication sparse crowds will become commonplace at Chavez Ravine this summer.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.