KEYS TURN A MAJOR ACHIEVEMENT Class A Frederick unlocks door to intimacy with game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Frederick -- Two, three -- in the dead of summer, maybe four -- times a week, Jim Gavin climbs into the driver's seat of his weary Suburu GL10, pulls away from his North Baltimore office and heads off for an evening at the ballpark.

Gavin roots for the Baltimore Orioles. He admires Cal Ripken. He has eaten a hot dog or six at Memorial Stadium.

But these days, relatively few of Gavin's baseball excursions end on 33rd Street. A new team has entered his life and, frankly, he isn't sure how. They are the Frederick Keys of the Class A Carolina League. Gavin is totally and unashamedly hooked.

It is this serious:

Gavin, 48, and a Towson resident, owns a Keys baseball cap and warm-up jacket. He often is in his seat at clean, bright Harry Grove Stadium an hour or so before the game so he can watch Keys players during batting and infield practice.

It is more serious:

Gavin has Keys season tickets. He expects to attend virtually all 68 home games.

Gavin cannot point to a single reason he has chosen to spend his summer with the Keys, but convenience probably isn't one. Frederick is 46 miles from Baltimore.

Still, Gavin says there is something different and, in some ways, preferable about Keys baseball.

First, there is the personal service. Gavin bought his tickets after receiving his Keys jacket as a birthday gift. The size was wrong, so a Keys official delivered a replacement. Gavin became a season customer not long after.

"I was overwhelmed," he said. "When was the last time someone at Memorial Stadium did something like that? Never."

Gavin was moved to buy for other reasons, he said. The intimate feeling of watching a game at 5,200-seat Grove Stadium was one.

"To put in bluntly, you've got a very good chance of being hit with a ball in that ballpark," said Gavin, who meant this in the nicest way.

And don't forget this: Grove Stadium is a friendly place.

"Last Saturday night, I sat next to a guy who had taken his son for the first time," Gavin said. "He got up to take his son to the concession stand. Both had baseball gloves with them. They got up and left them there. I thought, 'Fat chance of that happening anywhere else.' "

Gavin hardly is alone in his devotion to minor-league baseball Frederick-style. The franchise is in only its third year. Yet it already has some fairly impressive credentials. It is, for instance, President Bush's adopted minor-league team. Bush attended a game in Frederick last month, and gave the Keys a national TV plug when he was interviewed during the major-league All-Star Game.

This week, Frederick enters the Class A spotlight when it plays host to the Carolina League's All-Star Game. Tuesday, the Keys put on an unusual ballpark party. The program includes a re-enactment of scenes from the baseball movie, "Field of Dreams," a concert by country singer Eddie Rabbitt and a fireworks display. Wednesday, the All-Stars play and a number of dignitaries, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, are scheduled to watch.

These events are special. But, in some ways, they are no more special than the day-to-day successes of the Keys. Start with attendance. After 46 home dates this year, the team's average home attendance is 4,179, slightly below last year's level but larger crowds than some Class A teams draw in a week. Barring an unexpected dip, the Keys again should rank second this year in attendance among the 26 Class A teams. Last year, they ranked ahead of all Class AA teams and even outdrew nine Class AAA affiliates, including teams from places where a lot more baseball fans live -- Syracuse, N.Y.; Portland, Ore.; Toledo, Ohio; Tucson, Ariz.; and Phoenix.

Advertisers seem to like the Keys. You know this if you happen to pick up the team's 112-page game program or glance at the outfield wall at Grove Stadium, both of which look surprisingly like the Frederick County Yellow Pages. The wall is a patchwork of slogans and company logos, a minor-league high 119 billboards. Hav-a-Lawn is up there. So are McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Gibbles Potato Chips.

What is turning on fans and advertisers to the Keys?

Peter Kirk has thought about this. He is a Columbia real-estate developer and one of three partners in Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, which owns the Keys and the Class AA Hagerstown Suns.

Kirk is not a full-disclosure owner. He would not discuss what he and his partners paid for their teams. About the finances of the team, he says only, "We are making money, not a lot." But he is willing to talk about the success that he and his partners have created.

When he talks about the star of the show, mostly he is referring to 2-year-old Grove Stadium. It is a single-level concrete grandstand that is decidedly fan friendly. Hard-core baseball fans first notice that they are virtually on top of the field. Parents of small children quickly discover there is no place their children can roam where they are out of sight.

None of this is an accident, Kirk said. Team officials had to get special permission from minor-league officials to place the grandstand 45 feet from the foul lines. (The minimum requirement is 60 feet). A guiding philosophy was to create areas where people could talk about baseball or discuss the latest episode of "All My Children."

"We built a big concourse area intentionally," he said. "It is a big social meeting about what is going on around town. Some are talking business. Some are comparing recipes. Parents let their kids run around freely. There is no place for them to hide."

The Keys also have tailored their ticket prices to youngsters. Any child who shows up wearing a Little League uniform is admitted free. (Kirk estimated that roughly 20,000 Little Leaguers took the team up on the offer last year). New baseball fans, 5 years old and under, don't pay, either.

A few fans pay big bucks to follow the Keys. Above home plate is a row of 12 luxury boxes, each with an eight-seat balcony and rent of $10,000. Fans who want to live the lush life for a night also have an option: buffet dinner in the private Keys Club and a seat on luxury-box row for $20.

For most, a night at Grove Stadium is cheaper. Adults pay $6 for a box seat, $4 for one in a grandstand. A pizza slice is $1.75. A Keys pennant is $2.50. Parking is free.

The Orioles offer a different level of play and a different price scale. A comparable box seat is $11, if you can buy one. Parking is $4. And, good luck trying to get off the lot after the game.

Kirk says his team is able to keep prices low by leaning heavily on advertisers. Billboard ads, for instance, range in price from $3,000 for the smallest message to $15,000 for First National Bank's prestige spot attached to the scoreboard. In selling the boards, Keys official use an interesting sales pitch. They tell businesses not to expect to get their money's worth.

Rather, Kirk said: "We say, 'Come out and buy these signs. Be a part of this. Pay your $3,000, even though you're not going to get $3,000 in advertising. In return, we'll be able to have a $4 general admission seat and Little Leaguers will get in free.' In a real sense, that makes this a community-owned baseball team."

To say advertisers have responded isn't saying enough. There are jewels to be found on the team's upcoming promotions schedule. If you're free Friday, maybe you'll consider dropping in for "Funny Nose and Glasses Night." Arrive early. Only the first 1,500 fans collect free eye/nose wear.

Southern States, a retailer of fuel oil and farm supplies, is sponsoring "Funny Nose and Glasses Night." Bob Roberson, the company's manager, acknowledged the promotion is unusual and perhaps a little risky.

"I'd hate to go down in history as the guy who brought funny noses and glasses to Frederick," he said.

Jim Gavin will be at Grove Stadium on that historic night. He may even pick up a free false nose. Even if he doesn't, he won't think the ride from Baltimore was wasted.

"You want to hear something strange? The ride up, it seems to take forever. It's the anticipation of the game, I guess," Gavin said. "Coming home, I swear is five minutes."

Minor leagues, major crowds

A rundown of the top 20 minor-league teams by attendance in 1990:

.$Team.. .. .. .. ..Level.. ..Attend

1. Buffalo.. .. ..AAA.. ..1.16 mil.

2. Louisville.. ..AAA.. .. 616,687

3. Columbus.. .. .AAA.. .. 584,010

4. Nashville.. .. AAA.. .. 556,250

5. Scranton-W.B.. AAA.. .. 545,844

6. Denver.. .. .. AAA.. .. 433,880

7. Richmond.. .. .AAA.. .. 427,552

8. Omaha.. .. .. .AAA.. .. 341,129

9. Rochester.. .. AAA.. .. 331,927

10. Albuqeurque.. AAA.. .. 324,046

11.Indianapolis.. AAA.. .. 314,264

12. Las Vegas.. ..AAA.. .. 312,522

13. Calgary.. .. .AAA.. .. 312,416

14. Tacoma.. .. ..AAA.. .. 309,210

15. Durham.. .. ..A.. .. ..300,499

16. Pawtucket.. ..AAA.. .. 290,953

17. Oklahoma.. .. AAA.. .. 282,773

18. Vancouver.. ..AAA.. .. 281,540

19. Frederick.. ..A.. .. ..277,802

20. Charlotte.. ..AA.. .. .271,302

Keys attendance surpassed 25 of 26 Class A teams, all 26 Class AA teams and nine of 26 Class AAA teams.

Source: Keys game program.

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