FREDERICK — FREDERICK -- So my friend Mike calls expecting a payback.
This is the guy who wined and dined me at Comiskey Park in Chicago a few weeks ago, showing me what the new stadium in Camden Yards is probably going to be like.
"Hey, I'm coming to Baltimore," Mike said. "And, I thought maybe, you know, you'd like to get together."
Absolutely, I said. We can go to the Leutonian Festival down at Festival Hall. You haven't tasted Spam rolls until you've tasted them made the Leutonian way.
"Gee, I was thinking maybe we could go to an O's game," Mike said. "There's this rookie pitcher named Alvarez throwing on Sunday and . . ."
Lemme say two words that might change your mind, I said. Folk. Dancing.
"I wanna go see the O's and you're just trying to get outta buying the tickets!" Mike shouted.
It has nothing to do with that, I said. It has everything to do with the two teams that are playing.
"The White Sox and the Orioles?" he said. "But that's a great match-up!"
Exactly, I said. But it is also the team of my childhood playing the team of my current adulthood. It is too great a conflict for me. I once rooted for the White Sox and now I root for the Orioles. But when they play each other, who do I root for?
"So this is a metaphysical matter?" Mike said. "And it has nothing to do with the fact that box seats at Memorial Stadium would set you back 22 smackers while the Leutonian Festival is probably free?"
Forget the Leutonian Festival! I said, the idea hitting my skull like a side of beef slamming into a brick wall. We'll go to Frederick and see the Keys play!
"Minor league ball?" Mike said. "I take you to the Stadium Club at Comiskey Park and you pay me back with minor league ball?"
But the Keys have one of the great stadiums in the minors, I said. The grandstand is only 45 feet from the foul lines. They had to get special permission to build it that close. You get so many foul balls hit at you, you think you're in a batting cage!
Mike immediately calmed down. Like all adults, the thought of actually catching a ball at a baseball game had turned him into a kid again.
So we drove out to Grove Stadium in Frederick. It is very near where I-70 hits I-270 and is so easy to get to, not even a Baltimore driver could get lost. The parking is free, the box seats cost $6 and the stadium, only 2 years old, is clean and comfortable. It even has a celebrity at every game, and I am not talking about George Bush, who likes to drop in on short notice.
I am talking about Keys Manager Wally Moon, formerly of the Los Angeles Dodgers, All-Star, and creator of the famous "Moon Shot," a bloop home run he used to hit over the L.A. Coliseum's left field fence, which was only 276 feet from home plate. (The Keys' left field fence, by comparison, is 325 feet away.)
The Keys are named for Francis Scott Key, who is buried just across the street from the stadium in Mount Olivet Cemetery. (If a ball lands on his grave, the batter gets a free six-pack.)
This is Class A ball, which, except for the Rookie League, is the lowest level of professional baseball. But if you do well here, you move up to Hagerstown (Class AA) or Rochester (Class AAA) and then, you should be so lucky, the Orioles.
It works the other way, too, of course. Major leaguers can descend through the minors at the end of their careers. (Fortunately, there is no such system for columnists. When a columnist has lost all his talent, when he can no longer write, create or reason, he is made an editor.)
Every now and then there are magic moments for these minor league players, however, such as recently when Bill Ripken, who had injured his rib cage, played a game with the Keys, then went to Hagerstown and now is back with the O's. But imagine the thrill the Keys players got sharing a locker room with a Ripken, even if it was only for a day.
As we entered the stadium, Mike said: "You can take me to my sky box now."
He thought he was being funny, but I fooled him. The Keys actually have sky boxes and I had used my vast influence (I told them I was Governor Schaefer's illegitimate son) with the local law firm of Miles & Stockbridge to gain entry to theirs.
(They did not ask anything in return, but if I lived in Frederick and was planning on croaking soon, I'd sure want them to do my will.)
Since the stadium is only one story high, the sky boxes are only about 15 feet off the ground. But that's good. That way, if you get drunk and fall out, you not only don't get hurt very badly, you barely notice.
Our sky box had very nice industrial strength carpeting and a wet bar of green Formica that was indistinguishable from actual marble unless you touched it or looked at it too closely.
Mike and I went in and sat down and the first thing we noticed about the field was the old-fashioned outfield wall, which was made up of scores of colorful billboards. The billboards advertise everything from "The Trump Shuttle" to "The Gun Center", though I thought the nicest billboard was for The Sun. (If a home run hits it, the batter gets a free six pack with Laura Charles.)
There are two grassy areas down each foul line reserved for kids, who scramble after foul balls like crazy throughout the game. During the game, four foul balls landed within three feet of Mike and me and we didn't catch a single one, which tells you why we ended up in journalism and not baseball.
The game was a real heart-breaker, the Keys getting edged by the Peninsula Pilots, 14-7. But it had some unique moments.
"I don't think I have ever seen a base runner advance from first to third on a dropped third strike before," Mike said. "And I'm still not sure I believe it."
At that moment, the announcer seemed to say something about a White Sox pitcher named Alvarez throwing a no-hitter in Baltimore, but I convinced Mike he must have heard wrong.
I think this was a very important game for both of us, I said to him as we walked back to the car. The minor leagues are a metaphor for life. You crawl before you can walk. You start at the bottom and you work up. You keep your nose to the grindstone and your shoulder to the wheel. You sweat, you bleed, you struggle. And )) some day, some day, if you're very, very, very lucky . . ."
"Yes?" Mike said. "Yes?"
"Some day, if you're very, very, very lucky, you, too, can shower with Billy Ripken!" I shouted.
Mike turned down my invitation to go back to Baltimore and watch the Leutonian fireworks display. In fact, he decided to rent car and drive back to Chicago. Said he didn't want to wait for a plane.
7+ Some guys just don't know how to party.