Fans go to bat for ballplayers

Team: Supporters of the Class A Shorebirds offer the young big-league hopefuls home-cooked meals, and sometimes a spare room.

May 02, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- Three years ago, Joyce Dunn didn't know baseball from backgammon. She couldn't tell a line drive in the gap from a routine pop-up to center field, a cutoff throw from a drag bunt.

That was before the Shorebirds came to town, before the Wicomico County elementary school principal volunteered to become a combination housemother, booster and Section 115, right-behind-the-dugout, season-ticket zealot for a couple dozen ballplayers she calls "the boys."

Yes, "the boys" all dream that the grueling 15,000-mile season of bus rides to bush-league parks in six states will eventually pay off with a shot at baseball's big time. Yes, they're focused, hard-working and talented.

But this is Class A ball, the low minor leagues where green-as-grass players must prove themselves before moving up in the Orioles' farm system. Probably only four or five from this team will ever appear in a major league lineup -- or draw a big-league paycheck.

For now, what they really are is young, 18 to 24 -- so young that Dunn and 100 or so members of the Delmarva Shorebirds Fan Club have opened their homes, organized team get-togethers and put home-cooked meals on the table. Some of them even lend players a spare bedroom.

"Everybody thinks professional athletes have a glamorous life, but a lot of them have hardly even been away from home," Dunn says. "One thing we can do is to give them a little of a homelike atmosphere."

Lately, Joyce and her husband, Gil, the club's president, have manned a sign-up table just inside the ticket turnstiles at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, trolling for new members and trying to drum up interest in chartering a bus so they can cheer the team on a few road trips.

Club members are also raising money to buy a fancy stereo system so the boys can play their tunes in the clubhouse. "The good thing, though, is we won't have to listen to that stuff they play," Gil says.

Player Craig Daedelow, a 23-year-old from Huntington Beach, Calif., is spending his second summer with the Shorebirds and living in a spare bedroom at the Dunns' Salisbury home. These are the good times in the five years he's spent bouncing around the Orioles' system.

"This is the best place I've ever played. It's been great," says Daedelow, a converted second-baseman who's now the Shorebirds' starting catcher and leading hitter.

"I'm sure it sounds corny, but the best part is coming home after a game and there's somebody there who's not a ballplayer," he says. "It's not a hotel, you've got somebody you can talk to about something other than baseball. They even think of little things like making sure there are snacks for us on the bus."

Daedelow is one of the few players making a return trip to Delmarva as he learns a new position he hopes will improve his chances for landing a spot with a major league club. He's happy to be back for a second year, and he says his friendship with the Dunn family is making the experience even better.

After the Dunns met Daedelow during his stint with the Shorebirds in 1997, they took advantage of a business trip to California to visit his parents last year. The Daedelows treated the Dunns to a Orioles-Angels game in Anaheim.

"It's unusual, but I think it's obvious that the best part of this kind of life is the people you meet," Daedelow says.

There are other benefits for players who make $900 to $1,200 a month for the six months they're in uniform and who often scrimp to get by on the $20 a day in meal money the club provides each player on road trips.

Another convenient reality for a transient lifestyle is that if you're living in a fan club member's spare room and get traded, promoted or cut, you won't be left holding a lease agreement that most landlords require.

Family concern

For every first-round draft pick deemed worthy of a six- or seven-figure signing bonus (the team had two last year, one this year), there is a roster full of players like catcher Tom McGee, who signed with the Orioles as an undrafted free agent.

The 24-year-old San Diego native's 6-month-old son Zachary was born in Salisbury. Fan club members say that it was in planning a surprise baby shower for McGee and his wife, Sonya, that the group came up with the idea of extending its reach to help place players with host families.

"We like it here, other than being on the opposite coast from both our families," McGee said. "But it would really be hard without the people we've met. Over the off-season, I worked at the Boys & Girls Club in Seaford, Del. Basically, we knew the Dunns and that was about it."

Fans' hobby

The Dunns are the first to admit that this whole fan thing sounds wacky. They confess to planning their vacations around the team's schedule, including trips to Florida for the final week of spring training. In the three years he's had season tickets, Gil figures he's missed maybe 15 Shorebird home games.

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