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No home run at gate for G-Braves
Team ranks 8th in 14-team IL for attendance

LAWRENCEVILLE - There will be a large crowd tonight at Gwinnett Stadium, where future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine is scheduled to make the first of his two rehab starts for the minor league team.

The Gwinnett Braves have drawn well on the weekends all season, though. It has been the other games that have been the issue.

Despite a new state-of-the-art stadium, the G-Braves ranked eighth in the 14-team International League in attendance with an average of 5,873 per game going into Friday.

Worse, they have only come remotely close to that figure for a weekday game once, and that was with the added draw of native son Brian McCann making a rehab homecoming from Atlanta.

Gwinnett has certainly not struck out in its first season of Class AAA baseball. But the G-Braves have so far just managed an early single or double when it comes to attendance rather than hitting a first-inning home run.

Lehigh Valley, based in Allentown, Pa., averaged 8,419 last year in its first season after a move from Ottawa. The G-Braves, which relocated from Richmond, are drawing much better than in Virginia the last couple of seasons, but about the same as the team did in the decade before that.

Gwinnett attendance during the week should pick up now that school is out, as it will all around the International League. But the G-Braves are averaging more than 3,000 attendees fewer than league-leader Columbus, which has the other new ballpark in the IL this season.

Gwinnett general manager Bruce Baldwin is careful never to make a projection on what the team would draw this year.

"I don't believe in setting attendance benchmarks," he has said numerous times.

Baldwin, a veteran minor league executive, has also always believed that the way to build a franchise is slow and steady. Honeymoon periods, he knows, last only so long.

"We try to create consistency," he said. "This is a model facility and we will have a successful franchise. But this is a new market and there will be a building process."

The recession has certainly affected the G-Braves, as it has everyone. Attendance, however, is not expected to be hurt as much in the minors - where ticket prices aren't high - as in the majors. Some big league teams have had sharp drops, including Atlanta.

The downturn in the economy definitely has had a major impact on Gwinnett Stadium itself. Because of the recession, naming rights to the ballpark haven't been sold, affecting the stadium's financial situation.

The development of the land in front of the ballpark along Buford Drive also has not started. A restaurant behind left field was originally expected to be open this season.

On the G-Braves themselves, the biggest impact of the economic slump was felt in suite sales. Originally, almost all of them were spoken for, but only six of the 21 available ended up being sold for the whole season. The remaining ones were made available in five- or 10-game packages and can now be rented for individual games.

"There was definitely an impact there," Baldwin said of suite sales. "But we have done well with everything else."

The G-Braves, owned by the Atlanta Braves, sold out the club seats behind home plate - which are unique for the minors. There are nearly 300 and all were sold as season tickets.

All told, the team sold about 3,000 season and partial-season tickets. That is a good start, and no-shows haven't stood out. Counting the berm seating behind the outfield, Gwinnett Stadium officially holds 10,427.

The ballpark opener on April 17 has been the only sellout so far, but the G-Braves have drawn two other crowds of more than 10,000 and another of over 9,000. Unfortunately, Gwinnett has lost all four of those games.

Winning isn't the key to minor league attendance, however. In the minors, the ballpark experience is the attraction, with plenty to do for everyone in the family.

"Our job is to make coming to the ballpark an enjoyable experience," Baldwin said. "I think we are doing that.

"Baseball is a numbers game. I know that. But I don't look at drawing 400,000 or 500,000, whatever the figure is, as the determination of success. I look as the response from the fans. That is what is more important to me. And I think the response as been favorable."