Bowie Baysox fail to hit home run with local fans at Memorial Stadium

September 06, 1993|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Staff Writer

It was a huge theater for a small drama.

And on most nights, even the good nights, the place felt empty.

This was the summer that minor league baseball came to a major league ballpark -- the year the Bowie Baysox called Memorial Stadium home.

In a stadium that holds 54,000 people, the Baysox regularly fell about 50,000 short.

"It was a big thrill," Keith Lupton, the general manager, said. "But I really anticipated seeing more people."

A farm team for the Baltimore Orioles, the Baysox moved to 33rd Street for a single season while their new stadium in Bowie is under construction. With $5 tickets, free parking, and more gimmicks than P. T. Barnum, the Baysox labored to lure locals to the charms of Double A ball.

"It just didn't happen," said Paul Friedenberg, 30, owner of the Stadium Lounge, a landmark sports bar a few blocks from the ballpark. "Some of the Baysox ushers stopped in for a beer after the games, but we didn't get any of their fans."

Before the home opener on April 16, Mr. Lupton said the team needed to draw at least 350,000 fans to break even. The other day he said they'd be lucky to draw 250,000 by tonight's final regular season game.

Maybe it's because the team is headed for a distant third in the Eastern League, some 20 games out of first place, although not quite far enough behind to keep it from the playoffs.

You could blame the weather. The home opener proved to be an inclement omen that led to nine rain-outs, including the night the San Diego Chicken was to appear.

Or maybe one night of live minor league baseball was enough for people who would rather watch the Orioles on television.

Many said they planned all summer to take in a night of cheap fun at the old ballpark, but just never made it.

Larry Benicewicz lives right on 33rd Street and never got around to moseying over to the stadium.

"I wanted to," he said. "It wasn't as spectacular as I thought it was going to be, but it was nice to see whole families walking up to the stadium. That's kind of an antiquated concept with all the money involved in major league sports. It wasn't like the old days with the Orioles, but the neighborhood was a little more vibrant when there was a game."

Those who did show up had a great time.

"I went once, a Sunday afternoon game with my 9-year-old daughter, Emily," said Dwayne A. Isabella, 38, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore. "We sat right on the first base line; they would have been box seats in the old days. They were giving people $5 hair cuts in the stands for some charity, and there was some kind of Twinkies giveaway with baseball cards."

Compared with the frustration of trying to get Oriole tickets, he said, the afternoon with the Baysox was inexpensive, spontaneous and relaxed.

"There were a lot more kids than you see at Camden Yards, a lot of Little League teams and families," Mr. Isabella said. "We went and sat in different spots just to see the game from different angles. Balls were falling everywhere near us."

Where Mr. Isabella spent less than $20 for one afternoon with the Baysox, Denny Garner put out $1,760 for a set of four season tickets.

For that sum he saw major leaguers like Mike Mussina, Mike Devereaux and Fernando Valenzuela work their way out of slumps and injuries before rejoining the Orioles, and he achieved vTC something with several Baysox players unheard of in the major leagues: friendship.

"I got turned off with major league baseball in 1972 when they went on strike -- and ain't nobody worth a million dollars a year," said Mr. Garner, 47, who owns a lawn care company in Millersville.

"I only missed two Baysox games this year, when I was out of town, and I was really disappointed that more people didn't come because they put on a good show," he continued. "The first week of the season, players were thanking me for coming to the games. My wife and I took some of them out to lunch and dinner, we met their families. You appreciate somebody giving something back."

Mr. Lupton said the small crowds made it unlikely that the team will break even financially.

"I thought we'd get 6,000 or 7,000 a game. I was expecting too much," he said.

Overlea Caterers, which operated stadium concessions, faced the same problem until scaling down a couple months into the season. Some nights the crowd was only a few hundred, although on others, like the two nights Mr. Mussina pitched, more than 12,000 showed up.

"Pizza, peanuts, pretzels and our dollar hot dogs did well," said Mark Taubenfeld, an Overlea official. "Specialty ice creams, candy, and imported beer didn't move."

While 5,000 is poor attendance for a major league baseball game, it was the biggest audience for which Greg Lupton, the Baysox organist, ever performed.

He played everything from Gershwin to "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" to keep the fans amused between pitches.

"It sounded real big and full, and when the crowd took my cues and participated I felt justified, they knew I was there," said Greg Lupton, who will use the experience to try for a job with a major league team.

"An umpire turned around from the plate and gave me a thumbs-up once," he said. "That made me feel good. One time a cat came on the field, and I played a combo of 'Alley Cat' and 'Stray Cat Strut' as they ran around trying to catch it."

Said the organist: "Because of all the kids that came out, I'd do things from the Wizard of Oz. You know, when you're playing Double A ball, it's a lot like playing the local Chuck E Cheese on the weekend. But it was something I'll never forget."

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