Teams Try to Woo Families Back Through Turnstiles

'FAMILY FRIENDLY' BASEBALL

AFTER sitting through a rowdy Red Sox-Yankees game in Boston with his young children, Lee Daniels bade farewell to America's pastime for six years.

"Fans threw hot dogs, beer cans, and abuse at each other," says Mr. Daniels, whose Brookline, Mass., home is just one subway stop away from famed Fenway Park.

When he and his son and daughter finally returned to Fenway last season, Daniels saw considerable improvements: Ballpark authorities came down hard on troublemakers, no alcohol was served after the seventh inning, and smoking was allowed only in designated areas.

All across major-league baseball, in fact, teams are taking steps to woo back fans like Daniels. Although the movement "has not taken over in a full-fledged way," says Paul White, editor of Baseball Weekly, "family friendly" initiatives that first began to appear about 10 years ago are spreading. Ball clubs want to lure their traditional supporters, families, back through the turnstiles.

Today, promotions, discounts, and special seating for families abound. A majority of ballparks are already smoke free, limiting smokers to posted areas in concourses. Now such ballparks as Chicago's Wrigley Field, Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, and New York's Yankee Stadium are setting aside alcohol-free sections as well. Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, has put its small family section - 119 seats - right where a home-run ball is most likely to land.

The alcohol-free zones appeal to Ronald Driscoll of Hingham, Mass. He says these areas are also relatively free of the foul language so common to ballparks. He's encouraged enough to take his two young grandsons to a Red Sox game. These sections are a good setting for quality time with his family, he says.

"A ball game is a time for bonding, and it transcends all ages," Mr. Driscoll says. Besides, Fenway is the only place his otherwise-restless grandsons will stay put, he adds.

Family sections are not usually prime seats, Baseball Weekly's White notes. And moves to extend alcohol-free seating will likely draw opposition from beer companies who are big sponsors of baseball, he adds.

But "these sections are excellent if you want to avoid the rowdies that tend to consume too much," says Robert Lewis, editor of the Daily Colorado Rockies Web, a home page on the Internet.

While the improved atmosphere is welcome, the economics of attending a baseball game continues to discourage families.

It costs the six Driscolls $150 to go to a regular-season Red Sox game. That includes parking, tickets, refreshments, and a program. To save money, "I tried to get the family together around the TV for games," Driscoll says, "but it lacked the ballpark feeling." He has to admit, though, a ball game is the least expensive of the major pro sports in Boston. For $150, four Driscolls could barely get tickets to a Patriots football game, a Celtics basketball game, or a Bruins hockey contest. That's not including refreshments or parking - and they have to find a baby-sitter for their restless grandsons.

Baseball teams are addressing the cost issue as well. Every Friday home game at the San Diego Padres is Family Night. A $64 package is offered for $32. Fans get four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas, and a program. The Milwaukee Brewers offer a similar four-seat discount for $21.

For all that family friendliness, White says, remember that the bottom line is the bottom line. "It's the dad who wants to watch the game anyhow," he says, and the approach is "let's do something so he'll bring the kids along."

Besides Kids Glove Nights, Ladies Nights, College Nights, Hat Nights, and other giveaway enticements, ballparks have many other creative promotions. The Cincinnati Reds, for instance, have a Fireworks Night and a Family Night where homemade ice cream is given away. On June 28, Willie Nelson will do a post-game gig.

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