It's time to play ball in Western Maryland again.
The state's two minor-league affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles launch their seasons this week with pennant fever running high in Hagerstown and Frederick hoping for a repeat.
The Class AA Suns get the jump on the Class A Keys tonight, opening at home against Williamsport with left-hander Arthur Rhodes, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, on the mound.
Frederick, the defending Carolina League champion, joins the race tomorrow night on the road against the Durham Bulls. The Keys' home opener is April 18.
Both teams are expecting to better attendance records they set last summer, when the Keys moved into new Grove Stadium, and the Suns stayed in the Eastern League chase until the final week.
Frederick ranked 19th nationally in minor-league attendance, with 277,802 customers, outdrawing all Class AA teams and nine Class AAA franchises despite weather troubles.
"We're geared up to break that," said Keys general manager Keith Lupton. "We've booked in a lot of new entertainment, added group sales, and our telemarketing system is in place. Our goal is 327,000."
An additional parking lot for 250 cars has been completed, 12 sky boxes and a dining room are in place on the concourse and 150,000 tickets are expected to be sold by the home opener.
Hagerstown has the core of the Frederick roster that went 74-62, won both halves of the Northern Division in its league, then beat Kinston, 3 games to 2, in a championship series.
Manager Jerry Narron, normally a reserved sort, sounds optimistic about the Suns, who were 67-71 in 1990, finishing 11 1/2 games behind first-place Albany-Colonie and 4 1/2 games out of the playoffs.
"No matter what level you're on, one of the best labels you can have is winner," said Narron. "It definitely can't hurt that we have that in the players up from Frederick. And I'm very pleased with the attitude of this club."
Among those who prepped at Frederick are catcher Mike Lehman, third baseman Tim Holland, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez, first baseman Ken Shamburg, outfielder Tyrone Kingwood and pitchers Rhodes, Mike Oquist, Oswald Peraza, Jeff Bumgarner and bullpen ace Todd Stephan.
The key returnees are catcher Doug Robbins, second baseman Rod Lofton and outfielders Scott Meadows and Jack Voigt, and Narron now has a hungry Bob Milacki in his five-man starting rotation and Kevin Hickey in the bullpen.
"Our defense is strong up the middle. Last year, inconsistency on defense hurt us badly," said Narron. "It seemed we couldn't make routine plays in the late innings."
The Suns had the league batting champ (Luis Mercedes, .334), finished first in hitting and first in earned run average and still missed the playoffs.
Frederick manager Wally Moon will depend on untested pitching and a team that will have to manufacture runs because of a power shortage.
"I feel relatively comfortable with this team," said Moon. "The question is the pitching staff, and we can't play Earl Weaver ball. [Mel] Wearing will hit a few home runs, but we'll have to rely on movement and speed.
"I don't know what we can do to top last year. It was extraordinary, a new stadium, tremendous crowds and a title."
Two pitchers the Keys might have had back, Erik Schullstrom and Pat Leinen, are on the disabled list with fractures, so rehabilitating Andres Constant, holdover Chuck Ricci, John O'Donoghue, Kip Yaughn, Shane Hale and Steve Williams will have to hold up the rotation for a while.
"They'll all get plenty of work early," said Moon. "We didn't have enough time in Florida to get them ready. I doubt if anybody throws more than 70 pitches the first few rounds."
The offense will be geared around Wearing and T. R. Lewis, whose late-season hitting helped the team over the hump, and the speed of Damon Buford and Manny Alexander.
"Buford can fly in center field and on the bases, and Alexander is an exciting shortstop if he curbs a tendency to try to look too fancy," said Moon. "The kid has a great arm."
The recent settlement with the major leagues makes it more difficult for minor franchises to turn a profit.
Suns GM Bob Miller estimates the cost of the 5 percent gross that must be turned over to the majors at "probably about $50,000" over the course of the season.
"What this means is you have to bust your hump for more tickets, more bodies in the stands," he said. "But we have no choice."
"We think we can operate at a profit," added Lupton. "But it's going to be a real problem for some franchises. Like Lynchburg. They've got a fine baseball operation, have had it for years, but drawing a little over 100,000, they're going to wind up in the red."
15 at New Britain
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19 at Albany
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22 at Harrisburg
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May 1 at Reading