A series of new stadium agreements will bring minor-league baseball to fans in Bowie and Wilmington, Del., next year.
Peter Kirk, chairman of the Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, owner of the Hagerstown Suns and Frederick Keys, said he has reached an agreement in principle to move the Suns into a $9 million stadium to be built near Bowie.
The stadium will be built to Triple-A standards in hopes that the Orioles will bring their team's farm club from Rochester, N.Y., in three years, the next opportunity for baseball to realign its farm system. In that case, the Suns would have to move again.
A separate agreement signed Monday and announced yesterday between the Maryland partnership and the Delaware Stadium Corp. clears the way for a new stadium near Wilmington to open to start next season.
The Maryland partnership is obligated under the agreement to provide a team for the new stadium, along with providing development and management services.
Kirk said he is near an agreement to bring a team from out of state to play in Delaware. Strict rules governing the movement of minor-league teams prevent him from naming the team or solidifying the agreement before August, he said.
If he fails, one of his teams -- probably the Suns -- could be playing next season in Wilmington, something that has been rumored for months. Kirk already has announced that this is the last season in Hagerstown for the Suns, but he says he would like to bring another team into Hagerstown, possibly one of two expansion teams in the Single-A South Atlantic League.
Brad Hopkins, executive assistant to the director of the Delaware Development Office, that state's economic development agency, said Kirk's agreement requires him to produce a team of Single-A class or better.
"If he can't bring any other team here, he will have to bring one of those teams [Hagerstown or Frederick] or be in default of his lease," Hopkins said.
He said the Delaware Stadium Corp., a joint city-state group formed to develop the stadium in Wilmington, views the baseball team as the engine that will drive development of a $7 million, 5,000-seat stadium capable of staging baseball, soccer, concerts and other events.
Kirk said it is "theoretically possible it will be one of our teams, but, realistically, it won't be."
He said he has agreements in place to keep the Keys -- an extraordinarily successful franchise -- in Frederick and to move the Suns to Bowie.
"We've crossed the bridge of whether the Suns are going to Bowie, but we've still got to work out some of the details," he said. Plans are nearly complete for Bowie, the state and his group jointly to finance and construct an 8,000-seat stadium at routes 50 and 301, he said.
Construction could begin as soon as September. The stadium will be built to stricter, and more expensive, Triple-A standards in hopes of eventually persuading the Orioles to shift the team now in Rochester to Bowie, he said. If he succeeds, the Suns will have to be moved out of Bowie.
"We'll shuffle the whole deck again," he said.
Eventually, Kirk said, he would like to see Orioles farm teams playing in Bowie, Hagerstown, Frederick and on the Eastern Shore -- an unprecedented, single-state arrangement of a team's farm clubs.
All major-league teams have until Aug. 20 to file their farm system plans with the baseball commissioner, and the Orioles have the option of re-signing with Rochester or being assigned to a new city. Tampering rules prevent the club from even discussing a move with a new city until August, when there might not be enough time to solidify an agreement for next year.
Doug Melvin, Orioles director of player personnel, would not say what the Orioles plan to do, but one source familiar with the team's plans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the Orioles probably will re-sign for the minimum commitment -- two years -- while pursuing the Bowie plan.
"We've made no secret that our priority would be to have a Triple-A team in the Baltimore area," Melvin said.
Since 1961, the Rochester Red Wings have been the last stop of Orioles on their way to the majors.
"Peter Kirk. We've heard his name 1,000 times," said Red Wings president Elliot Curwin. "I don't think they have a stadium yet."
After years of bickering, community leaders in Rochester appear to be taking seriously the threat of losing the Orioles affiliation and are moving toward building a new, publicly owned stadium to replace the outdated facility the team owns.
"If we have a new stadium and we are a viable franchise, let them want us. If Baltimore doesn't want us, that's their decision. Someone else will," Curwin said, adding, "We enjoy Baltimore and the relationship."