Baysox will be more than minor 33rd St. success

Bill Tanton

April 15, 1993|By Bill Tanton

It's going to be big, certainly by minor-league standards. It's going to be successful.

And it starts here tomorrow night, weather permitting.

We're talking the Bowie/Baltimore Baysox, who will play their home opener (7:05 p.m.) at back-from-the-dead Memorial Stadium.

At least nobody will have to ask directions to the ballpark, which is why the Baysox motto is: Come Visit an Old Friend.

Minor-league baseball in a major-league town. Double-A Orioles organization kids who dream of some day making the big club, which also happens to be playing at home tomorrow night.

How big will the Baysox be? How successful?

Nobody knows. There has never been such an experiment in baseball. Attendance estimates at this point are just guesstimates.

At the monthly sports luncheon at J. Patrick's the other day, Baysox general manager Keith Lupton was asked what he thought the club's average crowd would be this season.

"Fifteen thousand," said Lupton, who comes here after a successful experience as GM of the Frederick Keys' Single-A franchise.

Average 15,000? Over 70 home games?

That may not sound like a whole lot in a town where some 45,000 turn out for every game at Camden Yards, but my guess is that the Baysox will average more like 5,000.

Hey, let me tell you something about minor-league baseball attendance, if you didn't already know it. Five thousand per game is quite an accomplishment.

Hagerstown, where the Orioles' Double-A club played last year, averaged 2,000. Frederick, in a lower classification, averaged 4,800.

According to the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, the all-time minor-league attendance record was set by Buffalo, of the International League, two years ago. In a 19,000-seat park built in 1988, the club drew 1.2 million. That's an average of about 16,000.

That's why 15,000 for the Baysox sounds high to me. But, again, this has never been done. Nobody knows.

This week I visited Lupton in his office at the stadium, the same spacious office once occupied by Hank Peters and Roland Hemond. Lupton's attendance estimate was tempered just a bit. His enthusiasm was not, which is a good thing.

"We'll average between 10,000 and 15,000," he said. "Buffalo is the No. 1 drawing club in the minor leagues. They'll do over 1 million. We'll be right behind 'em."

"Sounds a little too optimistic to me," I told him.

"This," said Lupton with a knowing smile, "is something special."

It is, too. In a city where it's hard to buy Orioles tickets, the Baysox offer an attractive alternative.

As the man at the National Association said, "Maybe people are getting a little tired of paying major-league prices."

The Baysox prices are the same as Frederick's. Five bucks general admission. Seven for a box seat. Three bucks for kids (up to 14) and seniors (over 60). Little Leaguers in uniform free. Parking free. Hot dogs $1.25 -- and a kids' stand where the dogs are a buck.

The Baysox will go head-to-head against the parent Orioles 32 times, but Lupton believes baseball-hungry fans here will still want to see our major leaguers of the future.

"Our club this year," said Lupton, "will be like our '89 team in Frederick was. We had Luis Mercedes that year. Arthur Rhodes. David Segui. Some of the players you see at the stadium this season will be Orioles players in three years. We have a strong club."

The marquee name is Jeffrey Hammonds, who figures to be an Oriole much sooner than three years. Stanton Cameron, T.R. Lewis, Gregg Zaun and Rich Krivda are other names to keep an eye on.

And then there's the nostalgia thing. If it was an emotional experience to shut down Memorial Stadium, so is going back to it. The playing field, thanks to the tender, loving care of groundskeeper Jimmy Jergens, looks beautiful.

"I look out on that field," says Fat Jack Boehmer, "and see pieces of my heart out there."

Boehmer, the Baysox director of stadium operations, grew up in Lewisburg, Pa., and made many trips to 33rd Street in the '60s to see the Orioles and the Colts.

"We used to come down to every Colts game here," Boehmer was saying as he scanned the old park. "I still remember the weekend special the Holiday Inn at Loch Raven and Joppa Road used to have. For $29.95 you got dinner Saturday night, a room, Sunday breakfast and a ticket to the game."

That's nostalgia, all right, but not all the memories go back that far. Kevin Hickey, the former Orioles pitcher, is the Baysox community relations director. He looked around the stadium and recalled a different kind of memory.

"I look out there," Hickey said, gazing toward right field, "and see the home runs I gave up here. Most of them were down the line -- 309 feet. When I first came up in '89, Harold Baines hit one off me. A 2-0 grand salami."

Ah, memories. But that's the lesser part of what this Baysox season is about. It's about baseball today and into the future.

"This is a one-year deal, playing in Baltimore," Lupton said. "After that, we have to take the club to Bowie."

The park being built there holds 10,000. The GM's office is small. You get the feeling Keith Lupton would like to stay put in Roland Hemond's old office.

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