Tides turn to the Orioles

Sun reporters

You'd never know that this time last year fans were embracing the Big Apple and singing "New York, New York" at the end of every game.

Now it's all Charm City, crab races on the video screen and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." They even let loose with an "O" during the national anthem.

Funny things happen in baseball's offseason. For the Triple-A Norfolk Tides last winter, it meant severing a 38-year relationship with the New York Mets and getting hitched to the Orioles.

"You don't really realize where you have the Mets logo until it comes time to take it off," team spokesman Ian Locke says as he walks the wide and breezy concourse of Harbor Park.

Tides management acknowledges the organization exchanged a soured relationship in favor of one with promise. Owner Ken Young was wooed by the Washington Nationals and the Orioles, both looking for a Triple-A affiliation closer to home.

"It was hard to make the decision even before we knew it was the Orioles," says Young, a food service mogul and baseball traditionalist who wears a 2000 Mets National League championship ring on his right hand. "I joked that the hardest part was that I might lose out on some more hardware."

But Young, who also bought the Bowie Baysox and Frederick Keys in the offseason, gave up little in the switch. Season-ticket sales are up slightly, and the team store is selling more Orioles apparel than it did Mets gear. And with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network on the Norfolk cable system, fans can follow their favorite players up to Baltimore.

The Orioles gained, too.

In abandoning fan-less Lynx Stadium in Ottawa in favor of Harbor Park, they gained a 12,000-seat gem along the banks of the Elizabeth River that serves as one of the anchors of a revitalized waterfront. Trains roll by the left-field fence and ships and barges glide by right field. The ballpark, beginning its 15th season, looks a third its age because crews power wash it daily.

But more important, Norfolk is less than four hours away from Baltimore by car as opposed to the bizarre and time-consuming itinerary that forced called-up players to fly through Toronto from Ottawa.

On an early summer evening lighted by a setting sun and freshened by Canadian air, the King Twist All-Stars serenade fans with Dixieland tunes on the concourse while catcher J.R. House signs autographs a short distance away.

The Mets seem a million light-years away, although in truth they set up shop in New Orleans. If there were lingering doubts about the deal, Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon blew them away in his parting news release: "We thank the fans of the Virginia Beach area for their support for the past 38 years."

Bristling Norfolk residents are quick to point out that they - not Virginia Beach - paid for two ballparks over 38 years.

"There were a small number of fans who were upset and threatened to stay away, but they've come back," says Mike Adams, past president of the 300-member booster club.

Harbor Park has a big league feel but still does the between-innings activities that keep kids happy.

The secret, fans say, is the Odd Couple relationship between Young, who has owned the team since 1993, and Dave Rosenfield, the general manager since 1963.

Young will do almost anything to make a fan's experience memorable. The owner fields compliments and gripes as he walks through the stands every evening. He calls out the names of employees and paying customers. On a Beatles tribute night, he delighted the crowd by dancing on a dugout roof with usher Dawn Vollman.

Rosenfield, on the other hand, used to require tickets for toddlers.

"Baseball is enough for me, but it's not enough for women and children," concedes the four-time International League Executive of the Year, continuing, "We don't let any ancillary activities interfere with the game."

But Rosenfield, 76, runs a tight ship, which means clean and well-lighted restrooms, a full-service restaurant down the right-field line and a huge picnic area. It's exactly what you would expect from a man voted the "King of Baseball" at the 2004 baseball winter meetings.

Rosenfield praises the Orioles' minor league brain trust.

"At this level, you have some players on the downturn just hanging on. The Mets last year had six or seven guys in their mid-30s, and they played like it. That's not what the minor leagues are supposed to be about. You're not supposed to be hanging on for a paycheck," Rosenfield says. "The Orioles don't put up with that."

The oldest players on the Tides are Alberto Castillo, 37, who served as backup catcher with the Orioles this season, and pitcher Tim Kester, 35. The rest of the players are 30 or younger.

The Tides and Orioles have a player development contract through the end of the 2010 season. But Young seems confident the Tides are in for the long haul. "We'll start another tradition that'll last 40 years," he says.


Name: Tides

Class: Triple-A

Stadium: Harbor Park (1993)

Adult/youth general admission: $9.50

Jumbo hot dog: $3.75

Mascot: Rip Tide

Web site: www.norfolktides.com

candy.thomson@baltsun.com monica.lopossay@baltsun.com

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