By Candus Thomson
May 1, 2008
Tomorrow night, the former player and broadcaster will experience the first pitch from a different point of view: as owner of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, Maryland's newest professional baseball team, and leader of "Crustacean Nation."
"It's fun. It's exciting. It really is," the Orioles Hall of Famer says.
Everything about the team is new, from 4,100-seat Regency Furniture Stadium with the hand-operated scoreboard to the soft blue and vibrant red uniforms to "Pinch," the fuzzy mascot who resembles a blue crab only after a couple of Natty Bohs.
The Blue Crabs are the sixth minor league franchise to call Maryland home. But unlike the others, the team is not affiliated with a major league club. Team officials say that allows them to field the best team possible rather than take the players handed down by the parent club.
Blue Crabs manager Butch Hobson, a former Boston Red Sox player and manager, has boldly predicted his players will win the eight-team Atlantic League, a pronouncement Robinson doesn't dispute.
"I tell people we'll have Double-A pitching and Triple-A hitting. It'll be better than Aberdeen. Better than Frederick. Better than Bowie," Robinson says, naming some of the Orioles' minor league clubs.
Robinson is a member of the ownership group, Opening Day Partners, whose chairman, Peter Kirk, is a veteran of minor league baseball. Kirk has owned the Hagerstown Suns, Frederick Keys, Bowie Baysox and Delmarva Shorebirds. In addition to the Blue Crabs, he oversees the Lancaster (Pa.) Barnstormers, the Camden (N.J.) Riversharks and the York (Pa.) Revolution, which played its first game Tuesday night before 6,000 fans.
The Atlantic League, like other independents, provides a home for "those players who got caught up in the numbers game or whatever and lost a place to play in affiliated baseball. ... These are players who don't need development; they need a place to play," Kirk says.
That means fans get to see players such as pitcher Jason Simontacchi, who won six games for the Washington Nationals last year, and major leaguers making the transition to managing and coaching, such as former Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles and former New York Yankees pitcher Tommy John.
It also means fairly fluid rosters, as major league teams buy the contracts of good players. In the Atlantic League's first 10 years, 400 players were signed by major league organizations, with 42 players making it to the top.
Having Robinson on board with the Blue Crabs is more than just a promotional tool.
"Signing players is competitive," Kirk says. "If I call a player, he'll be polite. If Brooks calls a player, he listens."
Kirk says Southern Maryland "was not on our radar screen" until Charles County economic development officials courted him. A feasibility study showed the region to be the state's fastest-growing with residents seeking family-oriented activities. In addition, the $25.6 million project received money from the state and county.
"But there are no giveaways here," Kirk says. "We all write checks for our parts of the project. We've invested $8 million. There's no question that we're leaving. We're not going anywhere."
Minor league baseball is a big business. Nationally, attendance has risen from 12.3 million in 1980 to more than 43 million last season. A 2007 study of the economic impact of North Carolina's 10 teams showed more than 2.3 million fans spent nearly $60 million.
Maryland economic officials estimate the Blue Crabs will create at least 230 jobs and generate $27 million in spending annually for Charles County.
But the Blue Crabs owners aren't taking any chances.
"We're in the entertainment business and, oh, by the way, there's a baseball game going on," says Mark Viniard, the team's general manager.
So there are the corny promotions - "Prom Gone Wrong Night," a bobblehead giveaway or two and lots of post-game fireworks.
Offsetting the old-fashioned scoreboard (which is set into a Green Monster-style right-field wall) is the largest high-definition video screen in the minors. Beyond the outfield is a 2,500-square-foot bumper boat pond.
In addition to 70 home games, the stadium can be used for community and private events. The '70s rock group REO Speedwagon has signed to play a concert at Regency Furniture Stadium on Aug. 11.
"Nothing will replace the Orioles, when they play well and they're winning," Robinson says. "But this league has a lot of credibility. People are looking for something to do, and our price is right."
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