Baysox enthrall Bowie

February 06, 1994|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff Writer

BOWIE -- Two thousand free souvenir baseball caps went in about an hour that afternoon last August. The crowd kept coming: children and their parents lining up at Rip's Restaurant for a brush with sports celebrity. Not Cal Ripken, not Mike Devereaux or even Jeff Tackett, but members of the Baysox.

That's the Bowie Baysox. As in minor league baseball, Double A, as in a bunch of guys in their early 20s, each making about $1,500 a month to pursue at best a one-in-five shot of making the majors. Still, perhaps 3,000 autograph seekers showed up that afternoon near the ballpark site to welcome players who had not yet made it, members of a team not yet theirs.

"We were overwhelmed," says Kenny Peyton, Baysox ticket sales director. "We did not expect so many people to come out."

Bowie, a city of commuters where it seems everyone is from elsewhere, is getting on the map of professional baseball. And folks appear to be loving it.

"I think this team has already been adopted by this community," says Bowie's part-time mayor, Richard J. Logue. "Of all the projects I've been involved in in 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. The interest level is just fantastic."

"I think people are really eagerly awaiting" the Baysox, says Carroll Thompson, a real estate agent who has lived in Bowie for 26 years. "Lots of people are talking about it. . . . The fact that there's going to be a home-town team is very exciting."

The enthusiasm is reflected in advance ticket sales. By the first week of December, the Baysox had sold 1,000 full-season box-seat plans at $440 each. That's half the number of full-season box-seat plans that will be available for sale at Prince George's County Stadium, where the Baysox season opens April 12.

The total, Mr. Peyton says, "is unbelievable. That's gone way beyond our expectations."

The team already has sold 1,209 full-season plans and 561 22-game plans, said Vice President and General Manager Keith Lupton.

Minor-league fever has appeared in a few small cities, as the leagues continue the shuffle that's been going on since the late 1970s. In the Double-A Eastern League in which the Baysox play, most of the 10 teams have moved since 1979, according to Bob Sparks, spokesman for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in St. Petersburg, Fla., the organization that runs minor league baseball.

Teams have moved, one has been created by expansion, and cities have been competing to get in on the action in hopes of reaping whatever spiritual or material benefits accrue from minor league baseball.

In Trenton, N.J., some government officials seem to believe the state capital, a city of 98,000 where unemployment stands at about 15 percent, needs a lift that minor league baseball can supply.

'A little bit fun'

"It needs to have something that's a little bit fun, something that makes people feel good about it as a city," Mercer County Executive Robert D. Prunetti has told the Knight-Ridder News Service.

For this psychological tonic, Mercer County is spending $8 million as its share of a $12-million park in Trenton for the Detroit Tigers' Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League.

The city of Portland, Maine, still staggering from New England's recession, will spend up to $1.8 million as its share of the cost of building a new home for the Eastern League affiliate of the expansion Florida Marlins, the Portland Sea Dogs. The team will spend up to $1.5 million.

Portland City Manager Bob Ganley says Sea Dogs merchandise already is "selling like crazy" in local stores, and he senses "tremendous interest" in the advent of minor league baseball. "We feel like we've hooked on to a good team."

The city of Wilmington and the state of Delaware split the cost of a $6.5 million ballpark for the Blue Rocks, the Single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The 5,600-seat park opened last year and attracted near-capacity crowds every game.

Mr. Logue says his city, populated largely by executives and boasting one of the highest median household incomes in the state, doesn't need a morale booster. But he figures the advent of minor league baseball has got to improve Bowie's image, help attract attention and business.

"These are the type of amenities that corporate bigwigs look at when they think about relocating," says Mr. Logue, noting that the University of Maryland Science and Technology Center, approved for about 5 million square feet of office space, is just down the road from the ballpark site.

City pushed hard

The city pushed hard for the Baysox, pledging $3 million of local money to keep the state's commitment to the stadium alive when negotiations stalled. When the deal was settled, though, the team, the state and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission split the $9 million cost of the ballpark and the land. Bowie did not spend a dime on the park, which is being built just outside the city line off Route 301.

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