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As A's win, interest wanes

There is an American League team that plays in a renovated stadium in a football-mad town by a beautiful bay that is having attendance problems.

And it's not your Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

The Oakland A's might be the best team you've never heard of. Worse, they might be the best team the fans in northern California don't care about.

"It's kinda depressing," designated hitter Matt Stairs said.

The A's, unlike the Rays, are good. They're young, they're exciting to watch, they pitch well, they hit home runs and they win.

The A's were in first place Monday night when they drew an announced crowd _ and we use that word judiciously _ of 6,836 to a game against Kansas City.

Not only are the A's being buried by the cross-bay Giants, who have an awful team but an awesome new ballpark and are averaging 40,930 fans, but they were outdrawn Monday by their own Triple-A affiliate in Sacramento, where the River Cats attracted 14,111 for their construction-delayed home opener. (Equally concerning: The River Cats have a season-ticket base of 7,300; the A's about 5,000.)

"Man, I'd never have thought that," rookie outfielder Terrence Long said.

Overall, the A's went into play Saturday averaging 14,412 fans, ranking ahead of just troubled Montreal and Minnesota among the 30 big-league teams. Once again, there is talk of relocating the franchise, with Santa Clara and San Jose considered the leading candidates.

Lost in all the talk about who isn't coming to the ballpark is that the team on the field is pretty good.

The A's, who open a three-game series at the Trop on Tuesday, have some excellent young arms, led by rookie sensation Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. They have exciting young offensive players under age 25, such as third baseman Eric Chavez, leftfielder Ben Grieve and shortstop Miguel Tejada. They have a group of bashers, including Jason and Jeremy Giambi and Stairs. They have a creative and aggressive general manager, Billy Beane, who gets the most out of a limited budget. Their payroll this season is about $33-million (a little more than half of what the Rays are spending).

A nifty advertising campaign aimed at the Giants _ "While they were building a ballpark, we were building a team." _ apparently didn't get much response, but the A's will keep at it.

"We'll just continue to market the team, and put out a good product," team president Mike Crowley said. "What else can we do? This is a first-place team."

LISTEN TO THE SHERIFF: Forget that his players committed the cardinal sin of leaving the bullpen and going into the stands or that they seemed unrepentant about it. Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone, who has his own ideas about how the game should be run anyway, says the core issue in the ugly Wrigley Field incident last week was beer. "Let's get to the real issue; it's public intoxication," Malone said. "If (the fans) weren't drunk, this wouldn't have happened. It's not a Cubs problem. It's not a Wrigley Field problem. It's an industrywide problem." The Cubs' next homestand, by the way, starts May 29 and features none other than crowd favorite John Rocker.

VLAD TO SEE YOU: Trying to capitalize on Vladimir Guerrero's star quality (before they dump him for financial reasons, no doubt), Expos management supposedly sought to have a tutor travel with Guerrero to improve his English. Manager Felipe Alou trashed the idea. "Let the other boys speak English," Alou said, "and let him carry the team the way he has."

BIG HEARTS: San Diego players Carlos Hernandez and Kory DeHaan and trainer Todd Hutcheson spent their Monday off day conducting a clinic for 5,000 youngsters in Caracas, Venezuela. Hernandez has raised $100,000 for flood victims in his native land and plans to solicit other Venezuelan big-leaguers to build a youth ballpark there. "It really opens your eyes to see how good we have it here and how spoiled we are in the United States," DeHaan said. "Carlos is quite the hero down there."

ROCKED: Most of the attention Rocker gets is due to the stuff that comes out of his mouth. That actually might be good, since his pitching has been terrible. His ERA (5.27) is nearly twice his first two seasons (2.37), half of his batters (26 of the first 52) have reached base, he walked 16 in his first 15 appearances and five times in his past 11 games he has allowed the potential tying run to reach scoring position.

NUMBERS GAME: The Rockies batted around 13 times in their first 16 home games and scored 10 or more runs 10 times. Randy Johnson's past two losses have been to the Expos: Aug. 31 and May 16. Detroit's Hideo Nomo had a 2.54 ERA in six April starts, 12.86 in three May outings. The Marlins drew a record-low 6,955 on Wednesday. Cleveland's Paul Shuey has allowed two homers, to Toronto's Alex Gonzalez and Detroit's Juan Gonzalez.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.