Baseball in a minor key The action in Frederick from your $6 box seat

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

A COUPLE OF guys in what passes for the visiting-team bullpen -- folding chairs tucked up against the left-field fence -- are furtively munching hamburgers smuggled down to them by a pack of kids. In return, the players quietly hand scuffed-up baseballs across the fence. The kids run away, gleefully clutching their booty.

For moments like these, Tom, Ben and I leave Baltimore one night for Harry Grove Stadium where the Frederick Keys play Class A Ball in the Carolina League. Away from talk-radio land where disgusted Orioles fans speak with 20-20 hindsight of bad trades and better days. Away from a city that has abandoned its neighborhood stadium for a sky-box fantasy. Away from a season to forget.

Back to the Orioles farm where raw talent, local spectacle, tasty $3 cheeseburgers on Texas toast and free parking are the stuff of presidential visits and small-town Hollywood epics.

Ben, a tow-headed 3-year-old, already knows the universal drill. He has his Orioles hat, Orioles helmet, Orioles bat and his father's glove, monstrous in his little south paw. "Mama, will there be any Oriole Birds there?" he asks.

We arrive at Grove in time to watch the pre-game show: Jeff the Frisbee dog and his trainer, playing the field.

Shane Hale, an injured Keys pitcher, takes a turn, stylishly lobbing one to the pooch. Jeff, garbed in a red bandanna, bides his time, and then snatches the disc between third and home. The crowd applauds.

Five minutes before game time, we buy box seats for $6. Third row, right behind the Winston-Salem Spirits dugout -- in front of the family section, where smoking and alcohol are prohibited.

After a recorded rendition of the national anthem, the first lucky number is drawn. Throughout the evening, 14 numbers will be pulled from the Keys souvenir program, entitling winners to prizes such as one month's free storage rental or two free submarine sandwiches from the local deli.

The game gets off to a rocky start. Keys pitcher Rob Blumberg walks the lead-off batter. He quickly steals second, goes to third on a wild pitch and scores on a grounder. One run, no hits.

Mark Smith, the Orioles No. 1 pick in this year's draft, looks big and impressive -- until he bats. He strikes out looking.

The third inning is an Orioles-like nightmare. Third baseman Tony Beasley and prized shortstop prospect Manny Alexander let potential double-play balls go right through them. Five runs march across home plate in the process.

After four innings, it's 9-0. We drove to Frederick for this? We could have seen this kind of blowout in Memorial Stadium.

So much for the epic.

The crowd, thank goodness, remains polite and appreciative. And, luckily, distractions abound. Within the small stadium, you can hear Key outfielder Damon Buford swooping into third on a steal attempt. You can hear the Spirits manager call, "Billy, let's go," summoning a new pitcher into the game. You can hear a baby crying in the stands across the way.

When Key player Jason Alstead steps up to the plate, Ben, echoing the crowd, shouts, "Come on Jason!" A 5-year-old regards him with condescending bemusement.

State Senator John W. Derr, who represents Frederick in the legislature, is entertaining a group of folks in skybox No. 11. The boxes resemble garden apartment balconies that happen to overlook the modest stadium.

Chatter in the box seats veers from the field. "I'll tell you Gaithersburg used to be the boonies. It used to be the boonies. Now it's wall-to-wall people," one old-timer tells a young family.

After receiving a tip, a friendly beer man says to his customers, "Thank you very much, enjoy the game."

Meanwhile, announcer Jay Hemond, son of Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, reels off in perfect baritone deadpan lucky numbers, local ads and reminders to sign up for the Selective Service.

"Come bowl at Terrace Lanes," Hemond says, without a trace of emotion.

Fans can also peruse the Keys program, which includes a glossary that defines, for example, the Sweetheart of the Game: "Every Keys home game, some lucky young lady will receive a corsage . . . This tradition started Opening Day 1989 and has become a very popular tradition at Frederick Keys home games."

Kids play happily on the grassy slopes behind the left and right field foul lines, racing among the parked John Deere tractors. Two little boys run down hill carrying a big plastic bag filled with a yucky, watery concoction they created up near the stands. "Guess what we put in here?" they yell to another friend.

When a foul ball leaves the stadium, the children stampede through the back door to the field beyond, in search of the treasure. A young boy remains behind. The ball is on the roof, he says calmly.

Keys pitcher Dave Riddle is having trouble getting the ball over the plate. On the first base side, an older guy watches Manager Wally Moon discuss balls and strikes with the home-plate umpire. "Tell the blind bum something, Wally," he mutters. It's as close to an unruly remark as we hear all night.

In the sixth inning, Jason Alstead makes a fine catch, running full tilt toward the left field foul line to catch a fly ball, crashing into the fence but holding on. It's as good a play as any in Memorial Stadium this year.

But it is too late to matter. In the middle of the sixth, Alexander trudges up the clubhouse, shaking his head as if to say, "Yeesh, when will this end?" On his way back to the field, he slaps five with a fan.

The seventh inning stretch features a boo-boo. Officials put on "Charlie Brown" by the Coasters, but quickly take it off to play "We're the Frederick Keys." Fans, of course, stand and jingle their keys, in a jangly, tender ritual.

The game drones on for three hours and six minutes. The final score is 13-0. The stadium seats over 5,400 and is usually full, but only about 1,500 fans are here on a cool, cloudy night to witness the team's worst defeat this season.

We go home, Ben chattering all the way. If he ever caught a foul ball, he says, he would give it back to the players so they could use it again.

The Keys will play 16 more home dates: Aug. 7-12, 16-19, 28-31; and Sept. 1-2. Call 301-662-0013 for more information.

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