Smallest Wrigley crowd in 9 years sees Cubs beat D’backs

The newest challenge facing the Cubs isn’t an opposing pitcher or hitter.

It’s trying to return to the days when lousy weather wasn’t a deterrent in filling their ballpark.

Playing in front of their smallest crowd in nine years, the Cubs beat the Diamondbacks 4-1 Monday behind strong pitching by Randy Wells, a pair of RBIs by Alfonso Soriano and some clutch pitching out of the bullpen.

The attendance was announced at 26,292, or about double the number of actual fans at Wrigley Field.

The Cubs confirmed it was the smallest crowd at Wrigley since 20,032 showed up on Sept. 26, 2002, when interim manager Bruce Kimm’s team was playing out the string against the Reds and rookie Carlos Zambrano was on the mound.

“It’s a little strange seeing empty seats,” Kerry Wood said. “It’s our job to change that.”

Wood and Zambrano are the only players from that ’02 team and were part of the reason for the attendance boom that followed. Dusty Baker’s 2003 playoff team ignited the fuse, and near-sellouts became the norm, continuing throughout most of the Lou Piniella era.

But last season’s fifth-place finish, combined with the third-highest average ticket price in the majors, apparently has led to a wait-and-see attitude among fans.

“It surprised me today, but Monday, and cold weather — people don’t want to come out of the house,” Soriano said. “But I think when it (starts) getting warm, people will come to the game.”

The smallest announced crowd the Cubs had in 2010 was 29,538 on Aug. 30 against the Pirates, Mike Quade’s home debut as manager. Before that, they hadn’t fallen under 30,000 since 27,105 came out to watch another Cubs-Pirates game on Sept. 7, 2006.

The sight of so many empty seats at the end of ’06 was “jarring” to former team President John McDonough, who vowed when he took over to end the malaise.

That led to general manager Jim Hendry’s offseason spending spree that netted Soriano and Ted Lilly, among other free agents. Piniella, then at the peak of his popularity, led the ’07 team to the playoffs and helped the Cubs draw a record 3.2 million. The 97-win team in ’08 broke that record with 3.3 million fans.

Attendance dropped in each of the last two seasons, and now the lure of Wrigley Field is no longer enough to convince fans to turn up no matter what the weather is like. The Cubs introduced a 13-game partial-ticket plan over the winter, using marquee series against the Yankees, Cardinals and White Sox to sell tickets to less popular matchups against the likes of the Pirates and Diamondbacks.

But fans didn’t respond to the plan, and there were even empty seats Friday on Opening Day.

Quade said he’s too busy managing to pay attention to the empty seats.

“It was a cool, lousy Monday day (game),” he said, adding that a crowd of 26,000 was “not bad” when considering those factors.

“They’re never dull and they’re never quiet,” he said. “So that’s a good thing no matter how many of them are here.”

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