Pennant fever grips Suns, Keys as season starts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's time to play ball in Western Maryland again.

The state's two minor-league affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles launch their seasons this week with pennant fever running high in Hagerstown and Frederick hoping for a repeat.

The Class AA Suns get the jump on the Class A Keys tonight, opening at home against Williamsport with left-hander Arthur Rhodes, one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, on the mound.

Frederick, the defending Carolina League champion, joins the race tomorrow night on the road against the Durham Bulls. The Keys' home opener is April 18.

Both teams are expecting to better attendance records they set last summer, when the Keys moved into new Grove Stadium, and the Suns stayed in the Eastern League chase until the final week.

Frederick ranked 19th nationally in minor-league attendance, with 277,802 customers, outdrawing all Class AA teams and nine Class AAA franchises despite weather troubles.

"We're geared up to break that," said Keys general manager Keith Lupton. "We've booked in a lot of new entertainment, added group sales, and our telemarketing system is in place. Our goal is 327,000."

An additional parking lot for 250 cars has been completed, 12 sky boxes and a dining room are in place on the concourse and 150,000 tickets are expected to be sold by the home opener.

Hagerstown has the core of the Frederick roster that went 74-62, won both halves of the Northern Division in its league, then beat Kinston, 3 games to 2, in a championship series.

Manager Jerry Narron, normally a reserved sort, sounds optimistic about the Suns, who were 67-71 in 1990, finishing 11 1/2 games behind first-place Albany-Colonie and 4 1/2 games out of the playoffs.

"No matter what level you're on, one of the best labels you can have is winner," said Narron. "It definitely can't hurt that we have that in the players up from Frederick. And I'm very pleased with the attitude of this club."

Among those who prepped at Frederick are catcher Mike Lehman, third baseman Tim Holland, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez, first baseman Ken Shamburg, outfielder Tyrone Kingwood and pitchers Rhodes, Mike Oquist, Oswald Peraza, Jeff Bumgarner and bullpen ace Todd Stephan.

The key returnees are catcher Doug Robbins, second baseman Rod Lofton and outfielders Scott Meadows and Jack Voigt, and Narron now has a hungry Bob Milacki in his five-man starting rotation and Kevin Hickey in the bullpen.

"Our defense is strong up the middle. Last year, inconsistency on defense hurt us badly," said Narron. "It seemed we couldn't make routine plays in the late innings."

The Suns had the league batting champ (Luis Mercedes, .334), finished first in hitting and first in earned run average and still missed the playoffs.

Frederick manager Wally Moon will depend on untested pitching and a team that will have to manufacture runs because of a power shortage.

"I feel relatively comfortable with this team," said Moon. "The question is the pitching staff, and we can't play Earl Weaver ball. [Mel] Wearing will hit a few home runs, but we'll have to rely on movement and speed.

"I don't know what we can do to top last year. It was extraordinary, a new stadium, tremendous crowds and a title."

Two pitchers the Keys might have had back, Erik Schullstrom and Pat Leinen, are on the disabled list with fractures, so rehabilitating Andres Constant, holdover Chuck Ricci, John O'Donoghue, Kip Yaughn, Shane Hale and Steve Williams will have to hold up the rotation for a while.

"They'll all get plenty of work early," said Moon. "We didn't have enough time in Florida to get them ready. I doubt if anybody throws more than 70 pitches the first few rounds."

The offense will be geared around Wearing and T. R. Lewis, whose late-season hitting helped the team over the hump, and the speed of Damon Buford and Manny Alexander.

"Buford can fly in center field and on the bases, and Alexander is an exciting shortstop if he curbs a tendency to try to look too fancy," said Moon. "The kid has a great arm."

The recent settlement with the major leagues makes it more difficult for minor franchises to turn a profit.

Suns GM Bob Miller estimates the cost of the 5 percent gross that must be turned over to the majors at "probably about $50,000" over the course of the season.

"What this means is you have to bust your hump for more tickets, more bodies in the stands," he said. "But we have no choice."

"We think we can operate at a profit," added Lupton. "But it's going to be a real problem for some franchises. Like Lynchburg. They've got a fine baseball operation, have had it for years, but drawing a little over 100,000, they're going to wind up in the red."

Schedules

HAGERSTOWN SUNS

April

10 Williamsport

11 Williamsport

12 London

13 London

14 London

15 at New Britain

16 at New Britain

17 at New Britain

18 at New Britain

19 at Albany

20 at Albany

21 at Albany

22 at Harrisburg

23 at Harrisburg

24 at Harrisburg

26 Harrisburg

27 Harrisburg

28 Harrisburg

29 at Reading

30 at Reading

May 1 at Reading

2 Canton-Akron

3 Canton-Akron

4 Canton-Akron

5 Canton-Akron

6 Reading

7 Reading

8 Reading

9 at Canton-Akron

10 at Canton-Akron

11 at Canton-Akron

12 at Canton-Akron

13 at Williamsport

14 at Williamsport

15 at Williamsport

16 at Williamsport

17 at London

18 at London

19 at London

20 at London

21 Albany

22 Albany

23 Albany

24 at New Britain25 at New Britain

26 at New Britain

27 at Williamsport

28 at Williamsport

29 Williamsport

30 Williamsport

31 London

June 1 London

2 London

4 New Britain

5 New Britain

7 at Albany

8 at Albany

9 at Albany

10 at Harrisburg

11 at Harrisburg

12 at Harrisburg

13 at Harrisburg

14 at Reading

15 at Reading

16 at Reading

17 Harrisburg

18 Harrisburg

19 Harrisburg

20 Harrisburg

21 Canton-Akron

22 Canton-Akron

23 Canton-Akron

24 Reading

25 Reading

26 Reading

27 at Canton-Akron

28 at Canton-Akron

29 at Canton-Akron

30 at Canton-Akron

July 1 Williamsport

2 Williamsport

3 Williamsport

4 London

5 London

6 London

7 London

11 Albany

12 Albany

13 Albany

14 Albany

15 at New Britain

16 at New Britain

17 at New Britain

18 at Williamsport

19 at Williamsport

20 at Williamsport

21 at Williamsport

22 at London

23 at London

24 at London

25 New Britain

26 New Britain

27 New Britain

28 New Britain

29 at Albany

30 at Albany

31 at Albany

August 1 at Albany

2 at Harrisburg

3 at Harrisburg

4 at Harrisburg

5 at Reading

6 at Reading

7 at Reading

8 at Reading

9 Harrisburg

10 Harrisburg

11 Harrisburg

12 Canton-Akron

13 Canton-Akron

14 Canton-Akron

15 Reading

16 Reading

17 Reading

18 Reading

19 at Canton-Akron

20 at Canton-Akron

21 Williamsport

22 Williamsport

23 Williamsport

24 at London

25 at London

26 at London

27 Albany

28 Albany

29 Albany

30 New Britain

31 New Britain

September 1 New Britain

2 New Britain

FREDERICK KEYS

April

11 at Durham

13 at Durham

14 at Durham

15 at Winston-Salem

16 at Winston-Salem

17 at Winston-Salem

18 Durham

19 Durham

20 Durham

21 Durham

22 Winston-Salem

23 Winston-Salem

24 Winston-Salem

25 at Kinston

26 at Kinston

27 at Kinston

28 at Kinston

29 at Peninsula

30 at Peninsula

May 1 at Peninsula

2 Salem

3 Salem4 Salem

5 Salem

6 Peninsula

7 Peninsula

8 Peninsula

9 at Prince William

10 at Prince William

11 at Prince William

12 at Prince William

13 Kinston

14 Kinston

15 Kinston

16 at Lynchburg

17 at Lynchburg

18 at Lynchburg

19 at Lynchburg

20 at Salem

21 at Salem

22 at Salem

23 Lynchburg

24 Lynchburg

25 Lynchburg

26 Lynchburg

27 Prince William

28 Prince William

29 Prince William

30 Prince William

31 at Durham

June 1 at Durham

2 at Durham

3 at Winston-Salem

4 at Winston-Salem

5 at Winston-Salem

6 at Winston-Salem

7 Durham

8 Durham

9 Durham

10 Winston-Salem

11 Winston-Salem

12 Winston-Salem

13 Winston-Salem

14 at Kinston

15 at Kinston

16 at Kinston

17 at Peninsula

18 at Peninsula

19 at Peninsula

21 Salem

22 Salem

23 Salem

24 Peninsula

25 Peninsula

26 Peninsula

27 Peninsula

28 at Prince William

29 at Prince William

30 at Prince William

July 1 Kinston

2 Kinston

3 Kinston

4 at Lynchburg

5 at Lynchburg

6 at Salem

7 at Salem

8 at Salem

10 Lynchburg

11 Lynchburg

12 Lynchburg

13 Prince William

14 Prince William

15 Prince William

17 at Durham

18 at Durham

19 at Durham

20 at Winston-Salem

21 at Winston-Salem

22 at Winston-Salem

25 Durham

26 Durham

27 Durham

28 Winston-Salem

29 Winston-Salem

30 Winston-Salem

31 at Kinston

August 1 at Kinston

2 at Kinston

3 at Peninsula

4 at Peninsula

5 at Peninsula

6 at Peninsula

7 Salem

8 Salem

9 Salem

10 Peninsula

11 Peninsula

12 Peninsula

13 at Prince William

14 at Prince William

15 at Prince William

16 Kinston

17 Kinston

18 Kinston

19 Kinston

20 at Lynchburg

21 at Lynchburg

22 at Lynchburg

23 at Lynchburg

24 at Salem

25 at Salem

26 at Salem

27 at Salem

28 Lynchburg

29 Lynchburg

30 Lynchburg

31 Prince William

September 1 Prince William

2 Prince William

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