Homeless Baysox see their true fans emerge

June 05, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

Because expectations weren't high, the Bowie Baysox are not disappointed by their meager fan support during forays into four different "homes" this spring.

Bowie will enter its permanent residence, Prince George's County Stadium, on June 16 with a per-game average of less than 600 after wandering through two months of its home schedule at Frederick, Wilmington, Del., Annapolis and College Park.

The Baysox will complete this portion of the season today at Shipley Field with an average nearly 1,000 fans per game lower than the next poorest Eastern League draw.

It has been a tough haul for the players, field management, front-office staff -- and the tiny corps of die-hard Baysox fans that wouldn't miss a game wherever it is.

"This is probably the best Double-A team we've had in 10 years and I enjoy this level. You're able to watch the kids grow," said Denny Garner of Millersville. "I've been all over with them, including Wilmington, Reading and Harrisburg."

Garner sits behind home plate at every game, easily distinguishable by a bright orange T-shirt with black lettering that reads: "BAYSOX No. 1 FAN."

Three of the team's key players, pitcher Armando Benitez, third baseman Scott McClain and outfielder Alex Ochoa, live in Garner's home and, according to him, "just pitch in a little grocery money."

Garner said "it doesn't make sense in a way and repulses me" that the team was poorly backed at Frederick -- where 14 current Baysox played last year -- and believes that "a lot of people were ticked off by the whole thing" when the Baysox were turned into nomads by an unfinished stadium.

Garner, who runs his own landscaping business in Anne Arundel and neighboring counties, attended every Bowie game but two at Memorial Stadium last summer.

"Double-A ball is just fun," he said. "I think people in the area will get hooked on it once they start watching. There is more life in the game. Guys aren't playing for the money. They're trying to make it.

"I go to the Orioles once in a while when they're home, but the Baysox come first, even before my wife."

Ben Koerber of Severna Park is a former Baltimore firefighter who retired in April. He's also a former president of the Hagerstown Suns' booster club.

He was a longtime supporter of this franchise when it was located in Hagerstown, but began doing staff photography for Bowie last season and now is its full-time photographer.

"I've only been to Camden Yards once and that was with a fire engine," said Koerber. "But I'm a minor-league baseball fan 365 days a year. I like the environment, the players and the more relaxed atmosphere."

A former minor-leaguer in the Philadelphia Phillies' system, Gene Melito and his wife, Phyllis, upgraded to a full-season ticket plan from a mini-plan while attending games at Maryland's Shipley Field.

Melito, a Hyattsville resident, recently retired from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where "I made money for a living."

"The best part of this is the Bowie people are so friendly," the Melitos said, almost in unison.

"A foul ball struck right in front of us the other night," added Gene, "and somebody from the Baysox was over checking on whether we were OK as soon as the ball went past us. They didn't have to be that caring.

They make you feel like 'we need people like you.' "

Melito, who was a batboy for the Washington Senators in the 1940s and coaches a girls softball team, said he will sit with "my buddies from the Industrial League" at Bowie. "It'll be close to home and the brand of baseball is great."

Sharon Alfonzo, infielder Edgar's wife, said her husband missed the days at Memorial Stadium when large crowds attended.

"This has been hard because Edgar enjoys playing before a lot of people," she said. "In Venezuela, he'd play in stadiums as big as Memorial and they'd be jam packed. He gets more out of the game then."

Sharon is one of a small group of wives who followed the team to all its homes, with son Giovanni, who isn't walking yet, in hand.

"I've gone on the close road trips, Harrisburg, Reading," she said. "This was hard for me at first, having Gio in a hotel, cooking in a microwave and on a hot stove and driving everywhere.

"Edgar isn't a complainer. He never complained about all the travel, but I could tell he was tired. It was stressful. It's good now to have my own home, to be in one place."

Ditto for the Baysox and their fans. Just being in one place will be heaven.

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