New park in Bowie can fulfill fans' longing for baseball

March 09, 1995|By BILL TANTON

No baseball.

People say that all the time and it's so wrong. No baseball in '95.

People, stunned because the '94 major-league season was terminated in August, can't believe there might be no season at all this year -- even though Opening Day draws near and the owners and players still haven't reached an agreement.

Well, there will be baseball this year no matter how long the labor impasse goes on. There will be baseball played starting April 6, much of it in Maryland.

"Two hundred and eleven games will be played in this state," Bowie Baysox general manager Keith Lufton was pointing out the other day at lunch at Rip's Restaurant on Route 3, a few hundred yards from the new Bowie ballpark. "We'll have 71 games here at Bowie. There'll be 70 at Frederick and 70 at Hagerstown."

Yes, there will be minor-league ball played all over the state in '95 and next year there will be even more. That's when Salisbury gets a team and a new ballpark.

Don't get the idea these games will be played before small crowds, either.

"We could draw 500,000 people at Bowie if we get any breaks at all," said Bob Brown, longtime Orioles public relations man who's now the Baysox's vice president for communications.

"More than 1 million people are going to see minor-league baseball in Maryland this year," Lufton said.

Bob Brown can remember when the Orioles struggled to draw 1 million. Four times in the 1950s, the club drew under 700,000.

It's perfectly realistic to believe little Bowie can draw a half-million people.

"We averaged 7,500 a game last year after we moved into the new ballpark on June 16," Brown said. Simple arithmetic: 7,500 times 71 games equals attendance of 532,500.

"There are 3 million people within a 30-minute drive of this place," said Lufton. The USAir Arena, Brown pointed out, is 10 minutes away.

Minor-league baseball has been booming for years. Attractive new ballparks like Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick and Prince George's County Stadium in Bowie have helped immeasurably.

Before we talked, Kirk and Brown took me on a tour of Prince

George's County Stadium, which is 27 miles from Camden Yards. It's a gem.

So is the park in Frederick, of course. But Prince George's, with 12,000 seats, is twice as big.

Those fans who came to P. G. County Stadium last year were hardy souls. There were no rest rooms. The parking lots, then unpaved, were often muddy.

"The park is 98 percent complete now," Baysox owner Peter Kirk said proudly. "The whole place is geared to fan comfort and convenience."

Kirk is no newcomer to getting new ballparks built. His group -- Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership -- put up the park in Frederick.

Kirk, who made his money in real estate and lives in Annapolis, is the chairman. His partners are Hugh Schindel in Hagerstown, Annapolis lawyer Pete Simmons and chicken magnate Frank Perdue in Salisbury.

"I hope Governor Schaefer can come out and enjoy a ball game," Kirk said. "If it hadn't been for him, we'd never have gotten the park in Frederick and we wouldn't have this place either.

"In August of 1988, we met with Frederick Mayor Ron Young and Governor Schaefer about getting a club and a new park in Frederick. After about 45 minutes, the governor said, 'Are we going to talk or are we going to do it?' Eight months later, the Frederick Keys were playing."

The 12,000-seat, $10 million park in Bowie is being paid for by a three-way agreement. The state is putting up $4.5 million; Prince George's County $3 million; Kirk and his partners $2 million. Since the partners are responsible for cost overruns, they'll wind paying about $3 million.

There's a possibility that Class Triple-A baseball, the minor leagues' highest classification, will be played next year at P. G. County Stadium.

As things now stand, the Orioles' farm club in Rochester may have to look for a new home . Bowie would be perfect.

"Rochester has to get a new ball park to comply with Triple-A standards," Kirk said. "They had the funding for a park in %J downtown Rochester but the new governor [George Pataki] removed the funding from his budget.

"If the Red Wings have to move, P. G. County Stadium would be ideal for them. I know the Orioles would love having all their farm teams so close by."

The Red Wings are in their 67th season in Rochester's Silver Stadium. The club drew 370,050 last year.

"My guess," said Kirk, "is that the governor will wind up restoring the funding and Rochester will get its new park. They've already broken ground for it and spent a lot of money."

If Rochester should move to Bowie, the Baysox, of the Class Double-A Eastern League, probably would move to Frederick. The Class A Frederick Keys, of the Carolina League, would look for a new home. Since Salisbury figures to get a Class A club, it could go to Salisbury.

If all that transpires, Peter Kirk and his partners will have a nice little minor-league empire going in this state.

No matter what happens, the partners expect to have a great year in their new park just off Route 3. And the longer the major-league work stoppage goes on, the busier they're going to be at Bowie and Frederick.

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