Minor-league baseball teams like Frederick and Bowie keep the fans coming by keeping them entertained before, during and after the game

THE KEYS TO SUCCESS

July 30, 1995|By TIM WARREN

It's about 1:30 on a steamy Sunday afternoon in June, and in 30 minutes, the Frederick Keys are to play the Durham Bulls in Frederick's Harry Grove Memorial Stadium. Larry Martin, as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles' single-A minor league team, is assembling the Different Drummers, a band from Washington, to play the National Anthem. Mr. Martin may be one of the most creative people in minor league ball, but at this particular time he's standing in the hot sunshine, a straw hat covering his head, signaling the saxophone player to get the other Drummers over behind home plate.

A few days earlier, talking about the myriad duties of a minor league general manager, Mr. Miller, a burly, congenial man of 47, had said jokingly, "Sometimes I wonder if Roland Hemond [the Orioles' general manager] would ever do some of the things I do here." Surely, Mr. Hemond wouldn't be standing out at Camden Yards in sweltering weather in golf shirt and shorts, ushering along bands and Little Leaguers and the many other bit players who are part of the minor-league pre-game hoop-la.

Now it's almost time to begin yet another afternoon in the ball yard -- another three hours of small-town folksiness, of carefully orchestrated good times and warm-and-fuzzy. Among the several thousand in attendance today are hundreds of kids wearing their Little League uniforms -- from Frederick, from Montgomery County and Howard County and all around central Maryland and even Northern Virginia.

Youngsters who wear their team uniforms get in free, an important aspect of the Keys' marketing strategy. Kids, after all, bring their parents, and the Keys have led the Carolina League in attendance the past four years -- the last three with Mr. Martin as general manager. Some games, the atmosphere is so kid-oriented that you might think you're at Chuck E. Cheese or the Discovery Zone and not a ball game.

Janice Hamilton, 37, of Columbia has four children in tow for this game -- two of her own, and two friends of her sons. "The kids usually watch a few innings, walk around some, and watch a little more," she says, and then adds with a laugh, "I'm not sure how much baseball they actually see, but they seem to have a pretty good time."

At 1:45, Ron Kitzmiller, the voice of the Frederick Keys, turns on the microphone.

"Welcome to Harry Grove Memorial Stadium," he intones. "Today, our Frederick Keys will play the Durham Bulls."

The last bit of information won't even register with many in the stands. "One of the charms of minor-league ball is that it's a social occasion," Mr. Martin says. "I guarantee you that if you come out to any of the games this week and stand at the front gate and ask 20 people when they're leaving who the Keys played that night, 40 percent couldn't tell you. They might not know the score -- but they probably would know if the team won or lost."

Later this Sunday, the Keys have indeed lost -- 5-4 in 10 innings, after rallying to tie the score with three runs in the eighth. The defeat secures the Keys' hold on last place in the Carolina League's Northern Division. But few in the stands seem to care. For it's Carnival Weekend, one of the team's most popular promotions, and around the stadium there are clowns for the kids, face-painting booths, carnival games and the like.

And there are the standard fan-oriented Keys promotions, such as a putting contest with a portable green atop the visitor's dugout (with Mr. Martin as master of ceremonies), and a race between the foul lines between two Little Leaguers dressed up in horse costumes. You could almost swear the race between two 10-year-olds with horse heads atop their bodies drew more of a reaction than the Keys' late-inning rally.

But that's minor-league ball in the 1990s. Ball players like to talk of the majors as "the Show" -- all minor leaguers dream of "going to the Show." In today's minors, the surrounding show has become as important, if not more important, than the game itself.

What is happening in Frederick is happening in minor-league parks across the country. After decades of poor attendance and struggling franchises in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, baseball's minor-league teams are enjoying a major-league boom.

In 1964, there were 132 teams in the National Association, the organization that encompasses most minor-league clubs, and attendance was about 10 million. By comparison, in 1994, there were 216 teams in the association and attendance had risen to 33 million.

Maryland has three minor-league teams: the single-A Hagerstown Suns (affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays), the Frederick Keys and the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles' double-A franchise. A fourth team, a single-A club, is scheduled to begin play in Salisbury next year.

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