The Frederick Keys proved last season that a team doesn't have to win a pennant to be a hot item at the box office.
Despite finishing fourth in both halves of the Single-A Carolina League schedule, the Keys packed 318,364 customers into Grove Stadium and outdrew all teams in Double-A and nine in Triple-A baseball.
The quest to top that begins tonight with the home opener against the Winston-Salem Spirits. The Keys started the season on the road, dropping two of three to the Lynchburg Red Sox before yesterday's rain-out.
General manager Keith Lupton said season-ticket sales are "about the same as last year. We're pretty well set for a run at the record."
What the fans will see is a virtual carbon copy of the Kane County Cougars, another Single-A Orioles farm club, which had an amazing turnaround last season -- from seventh in the first half to first in the second half in the Midwest League.
Except for designated hitter Paul Carey, who spent 1991 in Hagerstown, pitcher Chuck Ricci and outfielder Jason Alstead (Frederick) and outfielder Stan Cameron (Port St. Lucie), everyone on the Opening Day roster logged time at Kane County.
"That will help us," said manager Bobby Miscik, the Cougars' manager last season. "We sold out every night there, so I don't think our players will be in awe of the big crowds in Frederick."
Two relatives of major-leaguers, catcher Greg Zaun (Rick Dempsey's nephew) and third baseman Brad Seitzer (Kevin's brother), will be featured in the lineup.
The Keys returned North ready to go after accomplishing "a lot in spring training," said Miscik, a Frederick resident who coached the team in 1990. "We had a lot of close games and won our share of them."
Left-hander Matt Anderson (13-8 with 160 strikeouts at Kane County) will start tonight.
The others in the rotation are Kevin Ryan, Terry Farrar, Tom Taylor and Alan Plaster. Brad Pennington and Joe Borowski will form a left-right closing combination.
There is some power in the lineup, led by Carey, who had 12 homers for the Suns, and first baseman Jose Millares, a 71-RBI man at Kane County.
But Carey may not be around long. He is rehabilitating a sore shoulder that hampers his throwing.
"We [are without] a couple of players who are recovering from injuries," said Miscik. "Doug McConathy and Jim Wawruck are in extended spring training. We won't bring them here until we know they're ready."
The only player on the roster hurting is outfielder Jim Audley (sore shoulder). He and Zaun are the only switch-hitters.
"The trouble in the minors is you can't control the chemistry of a club," said Miscik. "There is a lot of movement throughout the year, and sometimes it just doesn't work.
"But the real reason for being here is player development. In that regard, I think Frederick did well last season [seven Carolina League all-stars]."
The nucleus of the team comes in hot. Kane County won 10 in a row and 16 of 20 at one point in the second half last year.
Keys at a glance
Home park: Grove Stadium
Directions from Baltimore: Take I-70 west toward Frederick, exit at Market Street (stadium on right off I-70)
Game times: Weekdays and Saturdays, 7:05 p.m.; Sundays, 2:05 p.m.; June 6, 2:35 p.m.; July 3 and Aug. 15, 6:05 p.m.
Ticket prices: Box seats, $6; adult general admission, $4; military and students (6-17), $2; senior citizens (over 60), $2; children under 6, free.
Phone: (301) 662-0013
9-12--at Lynchburg; 13-15--Winston-Salem; 16-19--Lynchburg; Winston-Salem; 23-26--at Durham; 27-29--Salem; 30--Peninsula.
1-3--Peninsula; 4-6--at Salem; 7-10--at Prince William; Durham; 14-17-- Kinston; 18-20--at Peninsula; 21-24--at Kinston; 26-28--Prince William; 29-31-- at Lynchburg.
1-4--Winston-Salem; 5-7--Lynchburg; 8-11--at Winston-Salem Durham; 15-17--Salem; 19-21--Peninsula; 22--25--at Salem; 26-28--at Prince William; 29-30--Durham.
1--Durham; 2-4--Kinston; 5-7--at Peninsula; 8-10--at Kinston; Prince William; 15-17--Lynchburg; 18-20--Winston-Salem; 21-22--All-Star Break; 23-25-- at Lynchburg; 26-28--at Winston-Salem; 29-31--at Durham.
1-4--Salem; 5-7--Peninsula; 8-10--at Salem; 11-13--at Prince William; 14-17-- Durham; 19-21--Kinston; 22-25--at Peninsula; 26-28--at Kinston; 29-31--Prince William.