Minor-league game looks for success in major-league city

John Steadman

May 07, 1993|By John Steadman

Emergency conditions brought what used to be the Hagerstown Suns to Baltimore. They believed they would be headquartered in Bowie, but since the only place to play was in the median strip along Route 3, they made the best of a situation that will be either good or bad when it comes to assessing profit and loss.

Peter Kirk, owner of the franchise, and Keith Lupton, general manager, were hitting with a 3-2 count when the decision was made to re-open Memorial Stadium, a 40-year-old facility which is showing signs of neglect the same way a house looks when it hasn't been lived in after the longtime residents have vacated.

The Suns, now Baysox, by their presence have given Baltimore another baseball option. The Orioles, who moved to a new downtown home, costing $265 million, a gift of the public, sold out for a record run of games. Not so with the Baysox. But they aren't discouraged.

Start-up fees to operate in Baltimore instead of Bowie were extensive. The electric bill alone is $850 per game, plus $5,500 a month, to illuminate Memorial Stadium. In a minor league city it would be about $6,000 for the entire season.

Kirk and Lupton aren't pleading poverty. To the contrary. But they represent a minor-league entity doing business in a major-league city and the overhead costs are different than what they knew in Hagerstown and Frederick.

"We're not intending to lose money," says Lupton, "which is why we're staying on top of every game and leaving nothing to chance. In August, we don't want to look back and say we wish we would have done this or that."

The crowd count for 14 home games thus far is 32,011 but Lupton projects total attendance is going to reach between 450,000 to 500,000. If that happens, then the total attendance figure for the Baltimore/Bowie Baysox will not only surpass Hagerstown but be about three times as many as the best year in their previous home.

Promotions are the lifeblood of the minor leagues. You dare not open the gates and merely put up a sign that reads: "Game Tonight." It takes imagination and hard work to sell tickets, even if the prices are comparatively inexpensive -- $3, $5 and $7.

With a 14-year background in minor-league baseball, which is like breaking rocks compared to having so much handed to you on a "civic platter" in the major leagues, Lupton has tried his share of bizarre tricks to induce folks to the park.

He once staged a best-looking legs contest; a tag-team mud wrestling match between the touring Chicago Knockers and Hagerstown team manager Mike Hart and announcer Randy Stevens, where the men were thrown for a loss; and the give-away of a used automobile that died on the parking lot.

One of the staples of the minor leagues was "Pony Night," where a pony was awarded to a lucky child. It was an occasion for fun and attracted capacity or close to it in parks all over the land. However, animal protective groups objected and it's not done any more.

Coming up as attention-getters for Baysox games will be appearances by the "Famous Chicken"; Morgana, the kissing bandit; and the best of all pre-game shows as staged by the incomparable Max Patkin, scheduled for July 2.

Lupton is ecstatic over the way the Baltimore business community has greeted the Baysox. It only took two months to sell out the outfield and mezzanine advertising signs and the game program is larger than contemplated at 66 pages.

"I still think we are going to wind up averaging about 10,000 a game," he says. "And I'm confident there will be times we reach our Memorial Stadium capacity of 23,000."

Without the parent club Orioles opening doors for the Baysox, the reception wouldn't have been as exciting for a minor-league team.

"For another affiliation, this wouldn't have worked," comments Lupton. "The Orioles and the city have helped us. The first-month ticket sales have been modest at best but, again, this was expected. We'll do some great business as the nights get warmer and when schools are on summer vacation."

That is not an irrational statement but one which carries the comfortable confidence of a man fully acquainted with the subject -- even if he has never before tried selling tickets to minor-league baseball in a major-league market.

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