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As Cubs’ season slips away, so do attendance figures at Wrigley Field

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs

Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs

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Updated: October 10, 2013 6:25AM

Tribune Co. was a frequent, convenient target for disgruntled Cubs fans during the 28 years in which the team was a high-profile part of the media conglomerate.

There were 11 winning seasons and six postseason appearances, but the franchise’s pennant drought reached 64 years on Tribune Co.’s watch, and the world-championship famine exceeded a century.

Whether it was Dallas Green, Jim Frey, Larry Himes or Andy MacPhail making the baseball decisions, ownership was derided as a faceless cadre of corporate suits with more interest in the bottom line than results on the field.

The perception stemmed from some economy-minded front-office moves that were downright curious: The great Greg Maddux was allowed to leave as a free agent despite requesting less money than befuddled Todd Hundley later received for becoming a Cub.

The only way things change, the grumbling went, was if fans stopped flocking to Wrigley Field like indiscriminate lemmings, accepting charm and ambience as an alternative to quality baseball.

In 2009, Tribune Co. critics got their wish. The team was sold to a family-based ownership group of committed Cub fans — Tom Ricketts and his siblings. They promptly hired some of the best minds in the business, who embarked on a thorough overhaul of the old Cub Way.

And in Year 2 of a scorched-earth rebuild, fans have stopped flocking to Wrigley Field like indiscriminate lemmings. The Cubs are wrapping up their fourth straight season of declining attendance, with the current homestand featuring some of the smallest crowds of the 21st century.

Home attendance is down more than 2,800 per game from last season, when a string of seven years of 3 million-plus totals ended amid a 101-loss, last-place showing.

The forecast isn’t quite as bleak this year. With 21 games remaining, just seven at home, the Cubs are fives games better than they were at this point last season. But the blind hope that has been a franchise touchstone for decades is no longer enough to fill Wrigley Field.

Only 27,763 fans were on hand Aug. 30 for Ryne Sandberg’s return to the ballpark where he performed with Hall of Fame distinction. Monday’s Labor Day turnout was 26,978. Tuesday’s crowd was announced as 30,024, but the in-house figure was probably about two-thirds of that.

On Wednesday, as the Cubs were beating Miami’s lowly Marlins, the paid crowd was announced as 20,696, the smallest in 11 years. The scene was reminiscent of the bleak early ’60s, when Wrigley’s upper deck was often closed because it wasn’t needed. The few hundred fans scattered throughout the park’s upper reaches would have fit comfortably within the lower bowl, and the rooftops were sparsely populated as well.

Despite competition from televised college football, the crowd of 34,929 on hand for Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Brewers was the second largest of the homestand.

Granted, the schools’ reopening signifies the practical end of summer, and none of the last three Cubs opponents evokes the Big Red Machine. But the presence of so few fans has been a Wrigley Field anomaly since the early days of Sandberg.

The situation is more dire on the South Side. The White Sox will fail to hit 2 million for the second straight season and, barring some inexplicable burst of late popularity, will finish with their lowest total since 2002.

The White Sox also are a last-place club. Their fans fancy themselves as serious baseball types who demand a quality product in return for their investment.

That was never the Cub Way.

With seven home games remaining — Sunday against Milwaukee, followed by six against Atlanta and Pittsburgh — the Cubs need to approach their 28,840 average for this homestand to reach a 2.5 million total. That’s no guarantee.

Moreover, the total represents tickets sold, not fannies in the seats. Empty seats don’t buy beer and hot dogs.

And they don’t fund ballpark renovations.

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