MIAMI -- As the grounds crew grooms the infield shortly before the game on a balmy weeknight, the ballpark is so empty the rakes smoothing the dirt can be heard from the upper deck.
The ambiance at Florida Marlins games tends toward the funereal: eerie silence interrupted by occasional organ music. Empty seats outnumber fans six to one as the Marlins stumble toward another losing season, which would be the ninth in their 10-year history.
The small crowds are nothing new, but last week the Marlins slipped to last in the major leagues in home attendance, behind even Montreal. While new owner Jeffrey Loria repeatedly has said he expects the Marlins to remain in South Florida for years, sagging ticket sales put them at risk of joining the Expos as contraction targets.
And now baseball is counting down to a strike that would further damage the Florida franchise.
Or would it? Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee chuckled at the question.
''Honestly, I can't see this market getting much worse,'' he said. ''On the other hand, maybe it would just completely kill it.
''This is not a very good market as it is. A strike couldn't do anything to help it, that's for sure.''
Attendance has never been worse. The Marlins drew their second-, third- and fourth-smallest crowds on consecutive nights last week against Colorado, averaging 4,852 for three games.
''I feel like I'm in an Expo uniform again,'' Rockies slugger Larry Walker said after one game. ''I saw every single person in the stadium on the big screen at least twice tonight.
''They've got the same promotion here they had in Montreal: dress up like an empty seat and get in free.''
If attendance in Miami is already a joke, how much would a strike hurt the Marlins?
''Not at all,'' said third baseman Mike Lowell, noting that Loria has projected losses of $20 million this season.
''If a team is crying that they're losing money, you're probably better off if you don't have to pay the players,'' Lowell said. ''So they might want a strike.''
That's not so, according to Marlins management. But team president David Samson said a better labor agreement is vital to the franchise. The Marlins would seem to support the owners' push for more revenue sharing. For most of the past decade Florida has ranked near the bottom of the major leagues in revenue, payroll and victories.
''There are things that need to be done to help the smaller-market clubs,'' said San Francisco Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia, whose team just finished a series in Miami. ''But at the same time you wonder how much.
''What do the Marlins need to help them? If they get revenue sharing and get $20 million more, is it really going to make this club more competitive? Who knows? Are they going to spend it on players or take a profit? Who knows?''
While such questions are debated, the sport risks further alienating fans in Florida and elsewhere.
When the last work stoppage began eight years ago this month, the Marlins were averaging 32,838 fans per home game. They never again reached that level, and this season they've topped 30,000 once.
Florida's average attendance of 10,257 is a 35 percent decrease from last season's 15,765. Crowds are often smaller at Pro Player Stadium than at Elfstrom Stadium, home of the Marlins' Single-A affiliate in Kane County, Ill.
Samson said attendance this year is about what management projected. The change of ownership in February left little time to prepare promotions, he said, and season ticket sales slipped to 4,000.
Management anticipates a substantial increase next season, Samson said -- barring fan backlash from a strike.
''We're on the road to recovery,'' he said. ''Any perceived bump could delay that recovery.''
How low can attendance go? The fans who still buy Marlins tickets haven't been deterred by previous labor disputes or Miami's daily summer showers or subtropical heat or inept ownership or bad baseball.
''It's a stupid thing,'' said Antonio Valcarcel of Miami, watching a game last week. ''But I will come back no matter what.''
Livan Hernandez, a Marlins rookie when he pitched before 67,245 fans in the 1997 World Series, was back in town Monday afternoon. Now with San Francisco, he shut out the Marlins 3-0 before a crowd of 7,100.
''Those are real fans, coming out when it's 90-something degrees,'' Hernandez said. ''They love baseball.''
In Miami, there aren't many of them left.
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