Keys games are crowd-pleasers

Baseball: The Frederick Keys might have a losing record, but when it comes to fan turnout, the team is a winner.


July 23, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Only a few steps are taken through the main gate at Harry Grove Stadium when the first reminder greets its visitors.

The standings from the Carolina League are posted on a concourse wall, in print large enough to be seen from the parking lot. To find the Frederick Keys in the first half, it was necessary to scan all the way to the bottom.

Logic says this should be a depressing place for the Orioles' high Single-A affiliate to play its home games. If not for the cicadas earlier this summer, the sound of crickets chirping would have seemed a more appropriate soundtrack.

But the team's mascot isn't a ball of tumbleweed rolling across empty seats - because the stands are often filled with spectators who don't particularly care about the Keys' meager win total.

To appreciate the Keys, it's best to forget the record, a phrase that would have made a good team slogan, if "It's All About the Fans!" hadn't already been chosen.

Make no mistake, the place will be rocking again no matter how quietly the Keys go down to another defeat. The tickets are inexpensive, especially when attached to a myriad of promotions. And the entertainment distracts from the game itself, a nice arrangement with the Keys unable to unlock the door to the division basement during the first half.

"If you leave here and you don't know the score," Keys general manager Joe Pinto said, "then we've accomplished our mission."

Frederick had the worst first-half record in minor league baseball at 20-49, though the second half has brought improvement because of an assortment of roster moves, with the Keys going 11-15.

Not that wins really matter to the people who purchase a ticket. The Keys drew 171,722 fans through 40 home dates, giving them the second-highest attendance among all high Single-A teams. They set a club record for average attendance in April at 5,051, over eight games in the 10,000-seat facility.

Imagine how much better it could have been if the Keys weren't rained out five times, equaling last year's total. Imagine if three of the postponements hadn't come on fireworks nights, always a staple of minor league operations.

"Early in the season when the weather was kind of [bad], there were around 8,000 people here," said pitcher Joe Coppinger, who began the year with the Keys before the Orioles reassigned him to Delmarva. "We notice that and appreciate that."

It's all about the fans.

It sure isn't about the baseball.

"At this level, keeping a 7- to 12-year-old's attention for nine innings isn't easy to do if the team's 40-0, let alone 7-31. You have to have lots of great stuff here," said Frank Miceli, vice president of minor league operations for Comcast Spectacor, which owns the Keys, Baysox and Shorebirds.

"I would venture on any given night, when you have 5,000, 6,000 people here, there isn't 10 percent of the crowd who could name more than four or five players on this team."

The Keys have outdrawn the Montreal Expos twice on Saturday nights this year, and they made similar boasts last summer. No matter how much they lose in any given season, their attendance never is an issue.

"There's a whole group of us who sit together," said Roy Hartman, 61, of Germantown. "We didn't know each other until we started coming here, and now we're all friends."

"Most of us just love the game," said Kenneth Sword, 72, who lives within walking distance of the ballpark. "There's really nothing else to do. I'm retired, and I just like baseball."

The Keys provide Hartman with a folding chair as he waits in line for the gate to open, a comfort that's appreciated most on hot weekend mornings. Sometimes, he'll retrieve it himself. "They watch out for their fans," he said.

Sword found out the hard way. His son, Michael, died at the stadium two years ago after choking on a piece of hot dog. He had been physically impaired since childhood, but accompanied his father to most of the home games.

"The Keys say they're family-oriented. They really are," Sword said. "When my son died, most of the staff showed up at the funeral. And some of the players were there, too."

It's virtually impossible for fans to lose track of the Keys because the organization's in-your-face approach to promotions. Signs are planted along roads, reminding everyone about the next fireworks show. A few players worked the drive-thru at a McDonald's, while others washed windshields. And because of his name recognition, pitching coach Scott McGregor, who recorded the last out for the Orioles in the 1983 World Series, has become the face of the franchise.

"They set up a lot of appearances," third baseman Tripper Johnson said. "We go to high schools and retirement homes, random stuff like that. The fans have been great. They show up even though we're not doing too well. They'll mention, `You guys aren't doing too good this year,' but you've just got to say, `Hey, we're not doing too well but we'd like for you to come out and support the team, and we'll turn things around.' "

Young fans are lured to the stadium through the "Keys For Reading Program," which involves 11 counties and 115,000 students. If kids read four books, they get a ticket to a game. And once they're inside, they can invade a "fun zone" that includes a carousel and boardwalk games.

"We talk to as many people as we can," Pinto said, "and we answer every e-mail - good, bad or indifferent."

The Keys finished 15 games below .500 last year and are 31-64, but winning the league title wouldn't change their approach to marketing the club. They only know one way.

"Would it be nice to have a championship team? Absolutely. It would be a bonus," Pinto said. "But would it mean less fireworks nights? No."

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