A Major Attraction

August 25, 1994|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

WILMINGTON, Del. -- Pat Tedesco never had a baseball glove as a kid. He went to his last professional baseball game more than 30 years ago.

"He's not a sports fan," said his wife, Dottie.

Last week, Tedesco took his family to a doubleheader between the Wilmington Blue Rocks and the Frederick Keys at Frawley Stadium. The 49-year-old financial estimator liked what he saw.

"They go out of their way to entertain the fans," Tedesco said. "They make it interesting."

Interesting enough to attract a standing-room-only crowd of 6,379 on an overcast night. The strike undoubtedly has contributed to a short-term rise in minor-league attendance. But the Single-A Carolina League, in which Wilmington and Frederick play, hardly needs the help. The league has broken its overall attendance record each of the past four seasons.

The minor leagues have achieved long-term success by appealing to nonsports fans like Tedesco. The games combine affordable family entertainment with an outdoor atmosphere reminiscent of a county fair. The result is not just a baseball game but a community social event.

"People look at this as where their neighbors are," said Ken Shepard, the Blue Rocks' vice president for baseball administration. "It's a big social thing. And it hasn't really let up."

Minor-league baseball returned to Wilmington last year after a 40-year hiatus. The town has embraced the Blue Rocks, a Kansas City Royals farm team, like long-lost relatives. The team is winning -- it captured the Northern Division title last season and the first-half race this season; and the people are coming -- through Tuesday, the Blue Rocks (290,023) were edging the Keys (289,909) in league-wide attendance.

In Wilmington, minor-league baseball has filled a void in people's lives. Everyone has gotten something different out of it.

Bob and Terri Satterfield needed someone to take care of. They are in their second marriage. They both have two grown children. So they joined the Blue Rocks booster club, a group that houses a lot of the players and helps them adjust to life away from home.

The Satterfields took in catcher Andy Stewart. Stewart was called up to Double-A Memphis last week. Terri Satterfield hasn't been the same since.

"He called me at work. I was a basket case. I just couldn't talk to him," she said. "He was so psyched you couldn't help but be happy. The selfish part of me was boo-hooing, but we're happy for him."

April Rolfe needed a support system. Her son, Michael, has a mild case of cerebral palsy. They both found joy at the ballpark. "I've met so many people," said Rolfe. "People who knew us last year said they've seen a big improvement in his cognitive, and his walking is so much better because he's so open. He just talks to everybody."

Michael knows all the players on a first-name basis. He looks forward to the seventh inning when a man known as Mr. Trash comes by to pick up their garbage. "He will say, 'Here comes Mr. Trash, let's get our trash ready,' " Rolfe said.

Jim Bowen needed a job. So the 29-year-old Wilmington native applied to be the team's mascot, a blue moose known as Rocky Bluewinkle. Management told him the position already had been filled but asked him to be Mr. Trash.

For $25 a game, Bowen walks around the ballpark in a tuxedo shirt and pants and collects people's refuse. He banters with everybody and even has earned a degree of local celebrity. "I don't want to downgrade Rocky Bluewinkle or anything, but they take more to me than they do to the moose," Bowen said. "I'm not only entertaining, but I'm doing a job at the same time."

Along the way these people have discovered they also like baseball. Bowen is at every game. So are the Satterfields. Rolfe has only missed six games this season.

The Tedescos are returning to the park on Monday. This time they are making sure that their neighbors will be there. They persuaded 46 of them to come along.

"That's how much we like this place," said Tedesco, who lives in Glen Mills, Pa. "Here's a guy that doesn't know much about baseball, and I really enjoy the game."

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