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Annual hike in Sox ticket prices

The Marlins may be world champions, but no one can touch the Red Sox when it comes to ticket prices.

In a rite that has become as regular as fall foliage, the Sox yesterday hiked the average cost of a seat at Fenway Park for the ninth straight year, this time to an all-time high of $44.37. The increase all but guarantees the Sox will reign for a sixth straight year as purveyors of the costliest average ticket in baseball.

The Sox led the majors in 2003 in ticket revenue, even though Fenway is the smallest park in either league.

"Make no mistake, we are looking to increase our revenue, which is essential to compete with the Empire," president Larry Lucchino said in laying out the team's goals in restructuring its pricing system.

The Sox announced the price jump while they released the 2004 schedule, and they tried to cushion the blow by noting the average increase of 4.8 percent was the smallest in nine years. Nearly half the park's 35,772 seats will cost more next year, while the prices for the rest (about 50.8 percent) will remain the same or go down. The reduced prices will affect 600 bleacher seats, which will drop from $20 to $12, bringing the total number of $12 bleacher seats to 1,000.

Overall, ticket prices will range from $12 to $75, though the Sox have yet to announce the price of the Monster seats, which last year went for $50, and the premium "dugout" seats, which cost $200 to $250. They also plan to add several hundred seats on the right-field roof.

"As we have demonstrated, we commit the revenue to improving the ball club, the ballpark, and the fan experience," Lucchino said. "We have spent record-setting dollars on our scouting and player development systems -- both in the United States and in Latin America -- so we can provide a competitive, entertaining team year in and year out. We want the glorious memories we enjoyed throughout this past season and postseason to be annual occurrences, not a one-time deal."

The new season will begin April 5 in Baltimore, with the home opener scheduled for April 9 against the Blue Jays. The first homestand, a 10-game engagement, will end with a four-game showdown Patriots Day weekend against the archrival Yankees.

The Yankees will play 10 games at Fenway, including weekend series July 23-25 and Sept. 24-26, the last home series of the season. The Sox will play nine games in the Bronx, April 23-25, June 29-July 1, and July 23-25.

As for interleague play, the Padres and Dodgers will make their first-ever visits to Fenway Park, with San Diego in town June 8-10 followed by Los Angeles June 11-13. The Phillies also will come in for three games June 25-27.

The interleague road schedule will take the Sox to Colorado June 15-17, San Francisco June 18-20, and Atlanta July 2-4.

The price hike comes after the Sox set a club attendance record for the fourth straight season, drawing more than 2.74 million customers. The only team in the majors to increase their attendance each of the last six years, the Sox sold out the park 63 times, including their final 62 dates beginning May 15.

The new owners wasted little time announcing next year's prices, perhaps to capitalize on the lingering afterglow of happier times before the fateful collapse in the Bronx.

"We all know the season ended abruptly, a week sooner than we had dreamed, but we also know that some glorious vivid images will remain etched in our minds forever," Lucchino wrote to season ticket-holders. "It was the type of season that inspires families and friends to debate their favorite moments."

Lucchino invited fans to choose a moment.

"Was it Trot's game-winning home run here against Oakland?" he asked. "Was it Johnny Damon's body-be-damned crash into the wall with out-of-town scores tumbling as he sat on the warning track? Was it D-Lo's stunning strikeout in relief to freeze the A's and win the Division Series? Tell me it wasn't J-Lo and Ben (though we're glad they are fans!)."

The largest price jumps will be for right-field roof and right-field box seats, from $37 to $44. Loge boxes and infield roof boxes will rise from $65 to $70, while field boxes increase from $70 to $75. Season ticket-holders can save 8 percent off single-game prices if they pay in full by Dec. 12. Season tickets already are available, while single-game seats will go on sale before Christmas.

In addition to 25-percent price reductions for "Family Bargain Games" in April, May, and September, the Sox plan to establish "The 10th Man Plan," a 10-game season-ticket plan with prices starting at $180. . . .

Left fielder Manny Ramirez and third baseman Bill Mueller were named to the 2003 Silver Slugger team as the top hitters at their positions in the American League. Ramirez captured his sixth Silver Slugger award by hitting .325 with 37 homers and 104 RBIs in a career-high 154 games. Mueller, the AL batting champion with a .326 mark, won his first Silver Slugger award. Mueller and Ramirez became the third pair of Sox hitters to finish 1-2 in the batting race and the first since 1958 . . . The Sox have yet to schedule interviews in their search for a successor to deposed manager Grady Little, and Little had yet to land an interview for the managerial openings in Baltimore and Chicago . . . Righthanders John Burkett and Mike Timlin filed for free agency, joining Todd Walker, Jeff Suppan, David McCarty, and Robert Person. The only other Sox players eligible for free agency, Todd Jones and Bill Haselman, have until Nov. 9 to file.

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