With the Nationals/Orioles derby kicking off this weekend, even a loyal Moonie employee like the Washington Times’ Tim Lemke can’t ignore the acres of empty seats at Camden Yards and RFK Stadium so far in ’06.

The average Orioles crowd through Sunday has been 25,500 this season, a decline of more than 3,000 at the same point in 2005. The struggling Nationals are averaging about 25,000, down from more than 30,000 last season. In both cities, teams have recorded record-low crowds, even for games against contending clubs.

The Orioles last night opened a three-game series against the division rival Boston Red Sox that could help change that. The Nationals can look for relief to a three-game series against the regional rival Orioles that opens Friday.

Some blame the unusually cool temperatures this month for keeping fans away. Others blame the success of the Wizards in the NBA playoffs. Some even blame the George Mason men’s basketball team and their Final Four run for stealing the attention of sports fans in early April.

There have been increasing complaints about slow and unfriendly concession service at RFK, and many fans continue to rail against the stadium’s play-by-play announcer (above) and sound system. Members of the Lerner family, who recently were named as new owners of the Nationals, said they plan to address these issues and begin marketing the team as soon as they take control next month.

“What it will take is fans coming back and telling their friends, ‘I had a great time,’?” said Ian Koski, who runs Nationalspride.com and admits he has turned down several chances to attend games. “It’s going to take a better experience both on the field and in the stadium. And that’s what the new owner can do — investing money in making the experience better. And I hope they get on this soon because people are not going to wait for the new stadium.”

Meanwhile, nearly half of all Nationals fans find themselves unable to watch the team’s games because of a dispute between Comcast and the Baltimore Orioles that has led Comcast to refuse to carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

“They really need to get this situation with Comcast sorted out,” said Maury Brown, who chairs a committee on the business of baseball for the Society of American Baseball Research. “The whole dispute has left 1.3 million people unable to watch the team.”

ESPN covered the Red Sox/Orioles game last night (one marked by Steve Phillips subbing for the boozy Rick Sutcliffe) and the upper deck in Baltimore seemed mostly vacant, with other portions of the park largely occupied by Red Sox fans.

I don’t think Lemke should discount the possibility that children are reluctant to attend Orioles games for fear of encountering Anna Benson dressed as an elf.  Likewise, persons of all ages might want to steer clear of RFK to avoid the visage of Nick Johnson.