Bowie not just aiming for big-city fans

John Steadman

December 16, 1992|By John Steadman

BOWIE -- Never in baseball history has a minor-league team positioned itself so close to two major cities, which sets up an interesting long-range contrast and experiment.

Does the Washington area covet the game so much it will accept something less than big-league entertainment? And will Baltimore turn away from its century-old preoccupation with the Orioles, first as a minor-league entity and now as an American League staple?

But this, as they say, is mixing oranges and apples. The marketing of a minor-league presentation in Bowie, 12 miles from Washington and 28 miles from Baltimore, is not necessarily predicated on reaction from its more populated metropolitan neighbors.

The prime marketing focus is directed to the public of the Bowie area, where the team is located and for those interested tourist-types who enjoy an occasional look at minor-league baseball -- the laboratory of development, where the process can be viewed close-up from within the intimacy of a small ballpark.

The forthcoming answers will determine the wisdom of the Bowie effort. For now, the team is in temporary limbo because it doesn't have a place ready to play. The harsh reality is the promised facility, known as Bowie Stadium, seating 10,000, is not going to be ready for the opening of the 1993 season.

So this creates a dilemma of immense proportions that needs to be resolved. Three make-do options are open to the Bowie franchise, a Double-A affiliate of the Orioles, in the Eastern League:

* It could utilize Washington's RFK Stadium.

* It could utilize Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.

* It could utilize Shipley Field at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The solution might be that all three places will come into play while the Bowie park is being built. If College Park is to be picked as one of the choices then a lighting system is going to have to be installed. More expense.

The Bowie team owner, Peter Kirk, has operated successful teams in the Orioles' minor-league system at Hagerstown (now a Toronto Blue Jays' farm) and Frederick. He admits from a business standpoint it would have been smarter to have remained in Hagerstown, marking time, so to speak, while Bowie constructed a facility.

"We wanted to be honest with Hagerstown," he said, so he got out at the end of last season, making way for the transfer of the Myrtle Beach club, under the auspices of the Blue Jays, to Hagerstown. This gives Hagerstown a new rooting interest and officials of the club there express fond hopes for the immediate future.

In Bowie, which will soon announce its nickname for a team, out of 3,500 suggestions, elected leaders and civic-minded citizens insist all is eventually going to turn out right. Kirk and general manager Keith Lupton say the same thing.

Kirk goes so far as to predict Bowie will eventually "be in the top five in the nation in attendance" among minor-league clubs in all classifications, right up there in company with Buffalo and Louisville.

"In time we would like to be in Triple-A," he added, which would be a progression Kirk has previously advanced as a possibility. His belief is all of the Orioles' farm outlets could be within the state of Maryland, but this seems remote because the teams would be getting in the way of each other and even be a threat to Orioles' attendance.

As for the present, Bowie, regardless of where it goes for a home field, will be the southernmost point of the Eastern League. Other members are the Albany (N.Y.) Yankees, London (Ont.) Tigers, Binghamton (N.Y.) Mets, New Britain (Conn.) Red Sox, Canton/Akron (Ohio) Indians, Harrisburg (Pa.) Expos and Reading (Pa.) Phils. And, in 1994, the Eastern will add expansion teams in New Haven, Conn., and Portland, Maine.

Artists' renderings of the Bowie stadium, with dimensions of 400 feet to center field and 325 feet down each foul line, are offered for inspection. The park location is ideal, within pop-fly distance of routes 301 and 50 and 12 miles west of Annapolis. The fact Orioles games in Baltimore are drawing capacity crowds should give those shut out at ticket windows another option for baseball if they want to watch the future of the major-league team.

But Bowie's situation, regarding a park, has been delayed to such an extent the team's sales manager, Joe Cohen, says he has six marketing plans prepared for activation. The stadium will be owned by the city of Bowie, and both football and soccer, in addition to baseball, can be accommodated.

In the history of Maryland, the following city and towns have had professional baseball at one time or another: Baltimore, Cambridge, Centreville, Crisfield, Cumberland, Easton, Federalsburg, Frederick, Frostburg, Hagerstown, Lonaconing, Pocomoke City, Salisbury, Westernport and now Bowie.

For right now, regardless of the name the club selects for itself, it is going to be a gypsy-like odyssey. The chance is there will be three places during the initial season, which figures to establish a new chapter in baseball history when it comes to TC minor-league team having a field to call its own.

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