Baltimore-area baseball fans are a lucky bunch: Beyond the Orioles, who have made rooting for the home team something of a chore this season, Maryland is home to six minor-league teams, meaning no one in the Free State is ever very far from the sound of bat hitting ball.
From Hagerstown in the west to Salisbury in the east, from Aberdeen in the north to Waldorf in the south, Maryland baseball fans have no excuse for ignoring their passion. The advantages of minor-league baseball are many: You can park, usually for free, and usually within just a few hundred feet of the stadium entrance; your seats will doubtless put you close to the action on the field, since there’s really no such thing as a bad seat in these parks; you’re close to the action, so if your kids aren’t so much into baseball, there are plenty of other distractions to keep them occupied — carousels, mini-parks and play areas, the ubiquitous mascots. And with ticket prices that hover around $10 to $20, seeing a minor-league game won’t break the bank.
Here’s a handy guide to Maryland’s minor-league treasures. See how many you can check out before their seasons wrap-up in early to mid-September.
Stadium: Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium, 21 Stadium Drive, Frederick
Orioles fans may happily shout “O” during the national anthem, but Keys fans have their own distinctive salute to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its author, Frederick lawyer (and team namesake) Francis Scott Key. During the seventh-inning stretch, fans take their keys out of their pockets and enthusiastically jangle them in the air.
You won’t find that fan experience anywhere else.
From the carousel down the right field line to the suites that offer air-conditioning on a sweltering summer day, the Frederick Keys’ home takes pains to attract fans for whom baseball might not be the main draw.
“Minor league baseball, you’re catering to casual fans,” says Geoff Arnold, the Keys’ director of broadcasting and public relations. “When you come to a minor league game, a lot of people don’t know who any of these guys are. They want to come out and have a good time.
“There’s kind of a unique local flavor to this ballpark,” says Arnold, noting the local brews available throughout the park, from Flying Dog Brewery and Brewer’s Alley, as well as the yellow food stand from Frederick’s Roasthouse Pub.
But serious baseball fans are welcome, too, and will find plenty to enjoy. The town’s baseball roots go way back: The stadium is named for an organizer of an early-20th-century semipro team, the Frederick Hustlers.
With the Orioles at a historic nadir this season, watching the youngsters play in Frederick should give fans hope, Arnold says.
“The Orioles have got a lot of talent right now in their lower minor leagues,” he says. “We have some really good young pitchers that you can come and watch.”
They include 2017 draft picks Mike Baumann and Zac Lowther, as well as the reigning O’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the year, starter Alex Wells.
And then there’s the team’s “Guaranteed Win Tuesdays,” where a Keys loss gets you a free ticket to a future Monday-Thursday game (they were 4-2 on Tuesdays through June, including a doubleheader sweep).
Stadium: Municipal Stadium, 274 E. Memorial Blvd., Hagerstown
Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium is a veritable baseball time capsule, an 88-year-old ballpark (which makes it older than all but two major league ballparks) that offers a few modern touches (including a beer garden down the right-field line), but is delightfully — and proudly — steeped in history.
“There’s a lot to take in during the course of a ballgame,” says Sean Murnin, the Suns’ director of media relations and broadcasting.
That time-capsule feel begins the moment you walk into the stadium: The entrance ramp leads up through the grandstand, and you can see the support trusses and other underpinnings of the seating bowl as you walk in, giving the park an old-school feel that’s usually hidden away these days.
Municipal Stadium was the place where Willie Mays played his first professional baseball game outside the Negro Leagues, in 1950. Future Hall-of-Famers Lefty Grove and Hack Wilson played here. Jim Palmer rehabbed here in 1983, when the Suns were an Orioles affiliate (an affiliation that ended after the 1992 season). President George H.W. Bush saw a game here in 1990, the first sitting president to visit a minor-league ballpark. (Plaques memorializing all these events, plus a few others, are scattered throughout the ballpark.)
The stadium even still has a manual scoreboard, which is about as old-school as a ballpark gets.
Besides, Municipal Stadium and the Suns offer an opportunity unique in Maryland: As an affiliate (since 2007) of the Washington Nationals, it’s the only place in the state where you can watch a non-Orioles farm team play.
Stadium: Leidos Field at Ripken Stadium, 873 Long Drive, Aberdeen
Stadium opened: 2002
Affiliation: Baltimore Orioles short-season Class A
Distance from Baltimore: 31 miles
Location: one left and one right turn off Interstate 95 (exit 85), tucked away at the end of a road that seems awfully innocuous (although, if you stay on I-95 beyond exit 85, the stadium dominates your view to the left).
Welcome to Maryland’s closest thing to a baseball city: Ripken Stadium may be the centerpiece, but there’s also Ripken Academy, complete with eight more baseball diamonds as well as pitching and batting practice tunnels. That includes Cal Sr.’s Yard, a 3,000-seat scaled-down version of Oriole Park at Camden Yards that plays host to youth baseball games through Thanksgiving. There’s also an on-site hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott Aberdeen at Ripken Stadium. So be sure to get to the ballpark early and wander the grounds.
Once the game starts, Ripken Stadium has all sorts of amenities, including luxury boxes; the chance to hang out with Ferrous and Ripcord, the team’s mascots (who happily pose for pictures throughout the game); all sorts of on-field promotions between innings, including the crowd-favorite Zorb Balls, where two lucky fans, wrapped in bulky protective outerwear (think hamsters inside a ball), get to run at each other full force and try not to fall down; and $56 all-you-can-eat crab feasts during select games (July 22 and 29, Aug. 5 and 24).
Even if you’re not there for one of the feasts, the seafood stand down the first-base side comes highly recommended, especially the crab soup and hush puppies. The team just spent $400,000 to upgrade the food and beverage services. Among the new offerings: the Oink Cluck Moo, a combination beef hot dog (the moo), chicken fingers (the cluck) and pulled pork (the oink). That’s a serious meal.
On the field, fans get to see prospective Orioles in their earliest incarnations; an 18-year-old Manny Machado debuted with the Ironbirds on Aug. 30, 2010, going 1-for-3 with a single.
“It’s so early in their careers, you don’t want to miss it,” says Ironbirds GM Matt Slatus.
And best of all, perhaps: You never know when you might run into team owner Cal Ripken Jr.
Stadium: Prince George’s Stadium, 4101 Crain Highway, Bowie
Year opened: 1994
Affiliation: Baltimore Orioles Double-A
Distance from Baltimore: 29 miles
Location: Just to the left off U.S. 301 southbound; if you’re expecting a big crowd, you might consider using the auxiliary parking lot north of the stadium; follow the signs off U.S. 301.
The Baysox actually played their first season at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street in 1993, so moving into their own digs could have been seen as something of a comedown.
But Prince George’s Stadium more than holds its own. Over its 25-season history, it’s not only served as a home for the Baysox, but has hosted the annual Congressional Baseball Game (from 1995-2004; Republicans went 8-2), the Eastern League All-Star Game twice and NBA Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson’s charity softball game.
It’s even doubled as a drive-in movie theater on occasion.
In addition, since it’s the nearest O’s affiliate stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, you never know when a major leaguer on a rehab assignment or temporary demotion will appear in the Baysox lineup. Already this season, Jonathan Schoop, Zach Britton and Mark Trumbo have played for the Baysox while coming back from injuries. And that doesn’t even take into account the future stars on their way to the majors.
“Every single night, fans can see some of the up-and-coming stars of the league,” says Robby Veronesi, the team's communications assistant.
Stadium amenities include a Kids’ Park, with carousel, moon bounce and speed pitch; a “Chef’s Express” gourmet food stand, with chicken Caesar wraps ($8.50) and black bean burgers ($8); foul poles that are 309 feet down each base line, the same as they were at Memorial Stadium; banners celebrating successful Baysox alums, including Schoop, Matt Wieters, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman; and a proudly displayed red, white and blue “Eastern League Champions 2015” banner, a reassurance that Orioles’ success may not be too far in the future.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs
Stadium: Regency Furniture Stadium, 11765 St. Linus Drive, Waldorf
Year opened: 2008
Affiliation: None; team plays in the independent Atlantic League
Distance from Baltimore: 62 miles
Location: East of U.S. 301; the location’s kind of off the beaten path, so get directions before you head out.
Designed to look like an old tobacco barn — how very Southern Maryland — the home of the unaffiliated Blue Crabs offers something for all age groups, says Courtney Knichel, the team’s general manager. For youngsters, there’s a full kids’ park, with a rock wall, a jungle gym and inflatables. For teenagers, there’s a basketball court.
And for adults, there’s baseball, played by a team that could include everyone from young guys who maybe got overlooked in the draft to former major leaguers looking to make a comeback.
“It’s good baseball,” says Knichel, comparing it to what you’d see at the AAA level (which would mean going all the way to Norfolk, the O’s AAA affiliate).
Earlier this month, she noted, scheduled starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton had to be yanked at the last minute. He had just signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“All the teams look at these players,” Knichel says. “This is really seen as a breeding ground to get back to the big leagues.”
And the players, she notes, really appreciate their fans, signing autographs before the game and often spending time with them afterward. “It’s really just a great, down-home feeling in that regard,” Knichel says.
Oh, and one last thing: As you might suspect, the menu options include plenty of the team’s namesake crabs: crabcakes, crab soup, crab sandwiches, crab nachos. Such deliciousness.
Stadium: Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, 6400 Hobbs Road, Salisbury
Year opened: 1996
Affiliation: Baltimore Orioles Class A
Distance from Baltimore: 121 miles
Location: Just south of U.S. 50 eastbound, about 25 miles before you get to Ocean City.
No fans do the “Chicken Dance” with more enthusiasm than the Shorebirds’. No wonder: Their stadium is named for the man who founded Perdue Chicken in 1920.
“It absolutely doesn’t get old for our fans, doing the ‘Chicken Dance’ every night,” says Chris Bitters, the Shorebirds’ general manager.
But the delights of Salisbury’s Perdue Stadium extend beyond doing the polka. The Shorebirds have added all sorts of amenities in recent years, including a new and more modern video scoreboard, seats (rather than bleachers) on the second level, and the beginnings of a concourse that, when finished next year, will enable fans to walk the entire circumference of the stadium without stepping outside.
And here’s a difference some of us can really appreciate: Most of the seats are 22 inches wide, more room than even many major-league stadiums offer.
As for the baseball? “You’re going to see guys that are young, talented individuals who are just starting their professional careers,” Bitters says. This season, that includes 2018 first-round draft pick Cadyn Grenier, very likely the O’s shortstop-of-the-future. He made his debut July 5 against the Hagerstown Suns.
Perhaps best of all, Bitters says, visitors get to enjoy a laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere endemic to the Eastern Shore. And that includes a “very friendly, outgoing, welcoming staff,” he assures.