Winning a friend on the way home

John Steadman

July 23, 1993|By John Steadman

Putting a minor-league team in a major-league city was done once before. The results were disastrous.

Then as now, coincidentally, it happened in Baltimore. This time it has been substantially better than in 1914 when the Orioles were forced to sell Babe Ruth and move the entire International League franchise to Richmond, Va., or else go into bankruptcy in face of competition from the Federal League.

The current experiment, born of emergency, has found the Bowie Baysox of the Double-A Eastern League occupying the same city as the Orioles.

Attendance has been good, not great, but, more importantly, the minor-league entity has made nothing but friends in the process of providing optional baseball entertainment at prices the average family can afford.

All Little League players in uniform are admitted free and the promotional presentations have been exceptional. Too bad Max

Patkin, improving with age, couldn't bring his act to Baltimore for every game.

Baysox general manager Keith Lupton says staging minor-league baseball only three miles away from the Orioles "has been an experience like nothing I ever expected." His springtime projection was the Baysox would draw 500,000 spectators.

He admits now the goals were too high, but a man can't be faulted for optimism. The Baysox, when the season closes Sept. 5, probably will have a total count somewhere close to 300,000, which may double the best year the club enjoyed when it was in Hagerstown before moving toward its new and permanent home in Bowie.

For 39 dates (with 23 left to play), the Baysox have attracted 140,692, but the spin of the turnstiles figures to increase. The best laid plans of any general manager can be eradicated by rain -- which has happened to the Baysox on eight occasions.

Lupton and his assistant, Walter "Bud" Freeman, have turned their attention to offering a series of events to accommodate what's left of the team's home schedule.

Morganna, the kissing bandit, will be here next Thursday, followed by a seat cushion giveaway sponsored by Blockbuster Video the next night.

On July 31, the Baysox will offer a salute to the Baltimore Colts, their players and the band.

Two weeks later, on Aug. 14, the Kidney Foundation puts on a card show and a ceremony also will honor Chuck Thompson, who was the sports voice of Memorial Stadium and by then will have been enrolled in the broadcasting wing of the Hall of Fame.

In assessing what evolved with the Baysox, Lupton thanks the media for how it reacted to the team being here. That's rare in itself. Usually, the newspapers, radio and TV are criticized -- regardless of how much space and time they offer a team.

Will the Baysox come close to enjoying a profit?

"If we could break even I'd feel good, but it remains to be seen," Lupton said. "Our club owner, Peter Kirk, would have a better idea. The city of Baltimore, Mayor Kurt Schmoke, and others have been absolutely outstanding in making our stay so pleasant.

"We have Harrisburg and Reading ahead of us in the league attendance race," he went on to say. "But the interesting thing for me was seeing the young players come into a big-league park. You can imagine the pitchers thinking, 'This is where Jim Palmer won all those games' and the third basemen smoothing the dirt at third base and telling themselves it's the exact spot Brooks Robinson handled so superbly."

Bills for lighting, security staff and cleanup far surpass what the Baysox will be spending in Bowie in 1994.

In fact, Lupton says the operation, because it will be housed in a smaller facility, will make for an easier function than Memorial Stadium.

Lupton and the Baysox staff have put in long hours at the stadium. But tomorrow he won't have baseball uppermost in his mind. He'll be taking Ardeen Copeland as his bride.

Lupton is from Yellow Springs, W.Va., and before finding minor-league baseball an appealing way to make a living was a radio announcer.

About Baltimore, and it's not a paid commercial, he says, "As a visitor I liked it; now that I've lived here I love it."

There is a difference and Lupton is positive about what he has found.

The Baysox and Baltimore are in the homestretch of their relationship, brought on by the park in Bowie not being ready.

Baltimore served as a stopping-off place, a temporary home, but the presence of a minor-league team added immeasurably to the pleasures of summer.

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