Class A Frederick unlocks door to intimacy with game

KEYS TURN A MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT

July 21, 1991|By Mark Hyman | Mark Hyman,Sun Staff Correspondent

Frederick -- Two, three -- in the dead of summer, maybe four -- times a week, Jim Gavin climbs into the driver's seat of his weary Suburu GL10, pulls away from his North Baltimore office and heads off for an evening at the ballpark.

Gavin roots for the Baltimore Orioles. He admires Cal Ripken. He has eaten a hot dog or six at Memorial Stadium.

But these days, relatively few of Gavin's baseball excursions end on 33rd Street. A new team has entered his life and, frankly, he isn't sure how. They are the Frederick Keys of the Class A Carolina League. Gavin is totally and unashamedly hooked.

It is this serious:

Gavin, 48, and a Towson resident, owns a Keys baseball cap and warm-up jacket. He often is in his seat at clean, bright Harry Grove Stadium an hour or so before the game so he can watch Keys players during batting and infield practice.

It is more serious:

Gavin has Keys season tickets. He expects to attend virtually all 68 home games.

Gavin cannot point to a single reason he has chosen to spend his summer with the Keys, but convenience probably isn't one. Frederick is 46 miles from Baltimore.

Still, Gavin says there is something different and, in some ways, preferable about Keys baseball.

First, there is the personal service. Gavin bought his tickets after receiving his Keys jacket as a birthday gift. The size was wrong, so a Keys official delivered a replacement. Gavin became a season customer not long after.

"I was overwhelmed," he said. "When was the last time someone at Memorial Stadium did something like that? Never."

Gavin was moved to buy for other reasons, he said. The intimate feeling of watching a game at 5,200-seat Grove Stadium was one.

"To put in bluntly, you've got a very good chance of being hit with a ball in that ballpark," said Gavin, who meant this in the nicest way.

And don't forget this: Grove Stadium is a friendly place.

"Last Saturday night, I sat next to a guy who had taken his son for the first time," Gavin said. "He got up to take his son to the concession stand. Both had baseball gloves with them. They got up and left them there. I thought, 'Fat chance of that happening anywhere else.' "

Gavin hardly is alone in his devotion to minor-league baseball Frederick-style. The franchise is in only its third year. Yet it already has some fairly impressive credentials. It is, for instance, President Bush's adopted minor-league team. Bush attended a game in Frederick last month, and gave the Keys a national TV plug when he was interviewed during the major-league All-Star Game.

This week, Frederick enters the Class A spotlight when it plays host to the Carolina League's All-Star Game. Tuesday, the Keys put on an unusual ballpark party. The program includes a re-enactment of scenes from the baseball movie, "Field of Dreams," a concert by country singer Eddie Rabbitt and a fireworks display. Wednesday, the All-Stars play and a number of dignitaries, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, are scheduled to watch.

These events are special. But, in some ways, they are no more special than the day-to-day successes of the Keys. Start with attendance. After 46 home dates this year, the team's average home attendance is 4,179, slightly below last year's level but larger crowds than some Class A teams draw in a week. Barring an unexpected dip, the Keys again should rank second this year in attendance among the 26 Class A teams. Last year, they ranked ahead of all Class AA teams and even outdrew nine Class AAA affiliates, including teams from places where a lot more baseball fans live -- Syracuse, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Toledo, Ohio; Tucson, Ariz.; and Phoenix.

Advertisers seem to like the Keys. You know this if you happen to pick up the team's 112-page game program or glance at the outfield wall at Grove Stadium, both of which look surprisingly like the Frederick County Yellow Pages. The wall is a patchwork of slogans and company logos, a minor-league high 119 billboards. Hav-a-Lawn is up there. So are McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Gibbles Potato Chips.

What is turning on fans and advertisers to the Keys?

Peter Kirk has thought about this. He is a Columbia real-estate developer and one of three partners in Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, which owns the Keys and the Class AA Hagerstown Suns.

Kirk is not a full-disclosure owner. He would not discuss what he and his partners paid for their teams. About the finances of the team, he says only, "We are making money, not a lot." But he is willing to talk about the success that he and his partners have created.

When he talks about the star of the show, mostly he is referring to 2-year-old Grove Stadium. It is a single-level concrete grandstand that is decidedly fan friendly. Hard-core baseball fans first notice that they are virtually on top of the field. Parents of small children quickly discover there is no place their children can roam where they are out of sight.

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