FREDERICK -- New is the byword for the 1996 Frederick Keys.
A new general manager and field manager. A new video message board. A new carousel for children. And a roster dotted with 18 new faces, many of whom have never played above the rookie-league level.
"Our main strength is going to be youthful exuberance," said first-year manager Tim Blackwell, who guided the Orioles' other Single-A affiliate, High Desert, last season.
"It looks like a pretty good club, but it's still very young. You don't age much playing half a season."
With the untidy situation of two high-A clubs and not enough quality personnel to stock them, Frederick and High Desert suffered in 1995.
The same situation will exist for one more season, but both teams should improve, thanks to an influx of promising players from the lower rungs of the system.
The Keys had the worst overall record in the Carolina League and attendance dropped to 300,968, off almost 44,000. For a franchise that had topped that figure for five straight years -- a mark unequaled by any other Single-A or Double-A team -- it was disappointing.
In his first season, general manager Joe Preseren said his job "is to continue and grow with a good thing. Since I came here in September, I've gotten the sense that people have pride in their Frederick Keys. I don't know that you have that in larger markets."
He said attendance last year was hampered by eight rainouts and "poor weather on a lot of other days the Keys played."
Since the schedule is top-heavy with April and May home dates, Frederick could face similar problems this year.
On the field, Blackwell has the crux of a Bluefield team that was an Appalachian League power, a Double-A veteran in Scott Conner, who will anchor the starting staff, and 11 players the manager is familiar with from High Desert.
The roster includes top-flight prospects such as No. 1 draftee Alvie Shepherd, pitcher Chris Fussell, slick shortstop Eddy Martinez and the new running champion of the Orioles' system, outfielder Eugene Kingsale.
Shepherd signed late and did not play last season, but was impressive in the Hawaiian League this winter. Seen as a closer ultimately, he will be brought along in segments early.
"We plan to get him the ball as often as possible," said pitching coach Jeff Morris. "Depending on how much he throws each time, we want to give him two- to four-inning outings every three days."
Conner, whose problem has been wildness, will open the season tonight against the Durham Bulls. Following, in order, will be Todd Dyess, left-hander Jason Rogers and Fussell, with Julio Moreno the fifth starter.
Morris said "we'll use the committee approach" to close games. Nerio Rodriguez, a converted catcher, eventually might assume the role.
With Kris Gresham getting a full-time trial at Bowie, veteran Jim Foster (56 RBIs with the 1995 Keys) has been bumped back to Frederick, a move Blackwell said "is great for me."
One of the promoted Bluefield players, Denio Gabriel, is recuperating in Florida, so Lincoln Martin launches the season at second base, teaming with Martinez, perhaps best known for an inside-the-park grand slam at Orioles spring training last year.
Kingsale anchors an outfield with good overall speed but little sock except for Tom D'Aquila.
"I think everybody goes through times when you have to try and manufacture runs," said Blackwell. "I'm certainly not going to sit back and wait for three-run homers."
The Keys will be young, so how quickly they mature against better competition will be the telling factor.
But there is a lot of promising talent on hand. By mid-season, this could be a highly competitive team.
Pub Date: 4/05/96
Keys at a glance
Stadium: Harry Grove Stadium.
Directions: From Baltimore, take 1-70 West to Frederick. Take exit 54, Market Street. Turn left at light. Stadium is on left.
League: Carolina, Single-A.
Record last year: 58-79, eighth overall.
Manager: Tim Blackwell, first year.
General manager: Joe Preseren.
Game times: Monday through Saturday, 7: 05 p.m. except April 20, May 27, July 3 and Aug. 15 (6: 35 p.m.), and May 14 (12: 35 p.m.); Sunday, 2: 05 p.m.
Ticket prices: Field boxes, $9; box seats, $7; adult general admission, $5; senior citizens (60 and over), youths (5 to 12) and active military, $3; children under 5, free.
Radio: WQSI (820 AM)