BALTIMORE — The crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards was so sparse on a recent weeknight, its murmur so low, that you could hear clear across the field when a fan let out a disappointed wail at first pitch: "Where IS everybody?
Yet Section 334, high above home plate, was humming — large groups of college-age kids, elderly couples, families with small children in Nick Markakis jerseys. And most of them had paid an almost quaint price for their seats: $8.
This is what baseball promotions look like during an economic meltdown: The one in Baltimore was called the Birdland Stimulus Package.
Despite all the talk about the platinum-card seats at Yankee Stadium, the prix-fixe menus, microbrews, martinis and dry-aged beef, the classic ballpark experience is still available for less cash than it takes to see a movie.
You just have to hunt for it.
"They say it costs, what, a hundred bucks, 150, to take your family to the game?" said David Adden, a self-employed graphic designer who snapped up Baltimore's $8 Tuesday night seats for himself and his 7-year-old son.
"But that's with the cotton candy and the jersey for your kid, all that. This is really all you need, this view."
There was plenty of howling about ticket prices in April when the Yankees opened their $1.5 billion palace, featuring top seats priced at $2,625. "We're done talking about seats," Yankees president Randy Levine said — before the televised disaster of empty seats forced the club to cut front-row prices.
Baseball is desperate to keep fans coming out during the longest recession since World War II. So bargains are out there, especially if you're not choosy about which night of the week you head for the park and don't have your heart set on an infield box.
Seats in the Rockpile section at Coors Field in Denver and the Blue Heaven section at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles are $4. Pile four or more people in your car for Monday night Florida Marlins games and get a $25 ticket voucher in a go-green promotion. The Atlanta Braves put up 186 nosebleed seats three hours before game time for $1 a pop.
The Minnesota Twins, adding a twist of dark humor, have tied a Monday ticket price to the first digit of the Dow — the lower it goes, the less you pay.
And there are even ways to go for free. Baltimore is rewarding fans who stuff the ballot box by voting 25 times online for the All-Star team and designating the Orioles their favorite club with a coupon for a free seat to a game in the second half of the season.
Major League Baseball says more than half its 30 clubs are regularly offering seats for $5.50 or less. Still, the average price of a big-league ticket is $26.74, a 5 percent increase from last year, according to the Team Marketing Report. Add in parking, programs, food and sodas for a family of four, plus beer for the parents, and the tab comes to $191.92.
In these times, that's luxury territory. So when the Orioles played the Los Angeles Angels at Camden Yards on a recent Tuesday, Section 334 was full of people who had brought their own snacks. The Ross family of suburban Catonsville, had stuffed Ziploc bags full of peanuts.
"Beats spending five or six bucks here," said the father, Chris Ross. Another man peered at the action through binoculars and worked his way through an orange brought from home.
To be sure, even outside the rarefied Legends Suite section at the gilded new Yankee Stadium, there are plenty of opportunities for a night at the ballpark to swallow your wallet whole.
Take Camden Yards. On just the five-minute walk from the park's Eutaw Street entrance to the seats up behind home, you can stop to buy any of the following: An Orioles giant orange foam finger ($9), a hand-drawn caricature of yourself ($10 to $25), a Markakis bobblehead doll ($25) or a foot-high, Orioles cap-wearing garden gnome ($35, plus the untold psychological damage to your children).
All of which cost more than an actual upper-deck ticket on Stimulus Package night. And all of which have little, if anything, to do with the one thing that hasn't changed as player salaries have swelled and the economy has soured — the simple pleasure of watching the game itself.
Like the staccato Orioles rally in the third, four singles and an infield error strung together for a quick three runs. Or a right-lunging, knees-to-the-dirt stop by the O's' Melvin Mora to save an Angels run in the second.
That, said Adden, who was perched near the top of the stadium, was what he had brought his 7-year-old son to the park to see.
Then he gestured out over the field, the giant scoreboard and the skyline beyond the left-field wall. It was a dry, 80-degree night in Baltimore, one of the first ideal nights of the season.
"That's not bad for eight bucks, right?" Adden said.
A late Orioles rally sputtered, and Baltimore lost 7-5 to the Angels. Adden roused his 7-year-old, who had fallen asleep, tucked his scorecard under his arm — not from a $5 stadium program but part of a shopworn spiral notebook, the kind Little League coaches buy and use for years — and left the park.