GOING TO THE MINORS Offering nine innings of cheap entertainment not at Camden Yards

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's a hot day leading up to a glorious warm summer evening -- a perfect night to catch a ballgame.

If you were fortunate enough to get Orioles tickets months ago, you'll head on down to the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But otherwise, you're likely locked out -- Orioles games have been sold out for the past month and a half (26 straight games through Thursday night), and getting tickets should remain an almost unobtainable goal the rest of the year. The serendipitous days of suggesting a trip to the stadium on the spur of the moment now seem so distant, so unimaginable.

Unless, that is, you go to Frederick, or Hagerstown, or Harrisburg, Pa. -- or any other place that happens to offer minor league baseball. Those three franchises are located within a reasonable drive of Baltimore and offer good baseball at a much cheaper price than major league ball -- and often an evening that's just as enjoyable.

I've been going to minor league games for 10 years now, and their appeal continues to grow. If you haven't been to one, don't underestimate the appeal: Minor league ball may not have the marquee names and best-in-the-world level of play, but it has much more:

*Minor league baseball is dozens of signs plastered on the outfield wall, lauding the services of, say, Manny's Mesquite Bar-B-Q or Dixie Do-Right Dumpsters ("We're in the Haul of Fame"). The outfield fence at Harry Grove Stadium, the Frederick Keys' park, features no fewer than 110 signs between the foul poles, a crazy-quilt configuration of ads placed next to each other every which way.

*It's pre-game milking contests and other cornball promotions that major league baseball usually disdains as uncool, but seem just right for a minor league game.

*It's 19-year-old players making a thou sand bucks a month who display all the cool-as-ice mannerisms and insouciance of their better-known major league brethren -- that is, until the game starts and the mistakes mount, and it's very clear that the lads are, indeed, but a year or two out of high school.

Mike Blake wrote in his 1991 book, "The Minor Leagues: A Celebration of the Little Show," that the minors are "bus rides, dust, and signs in the outfield that say, 'Hit Me and Win a $10 Suit.' " He probed a little deeper and found something else to say about minor league baseball:

"It is a link to a naive, young, easily excited and entertained, if a bit unsophisticated, America that knew how to have a good time without all the trappings and hype of the 1990s."

That's minor league baseball exactly -- unassuming and touchingly innocent.

Now, given the scarcity of Orioles tickets, minor league baseball becomes even more attractive.

"We get a tremendous amount of [ticket] requests from people who say, 'I can't get Orioles tickets -- what can you folks give me?' " says Keith Lupton, general manager of the Frederick Keys, the Orioles' single-A minor league team.

"When people tell us they can't get tickets to Orioles games, we tell them we can put them in the first row," says Mike Oravec, assistant general manager of the Hagerstown Suns, the Orioles' double-A team.

Actually, being in the first row isn't necessary at a minor league game. Since most stadiums are pretty small -- capacity between and 10,000 -- you can get a cheap seat and be right on top of the action.

And getting a cheap seat is one of the prime attractions. Minor league teams promote heavily the notion that, as Mr. Oravec says, "we provide G-rated entertainment. It's something in which Mom, Dad and the two kids can come here, have a good time and still leave with money in their pockets."

For example, the top price of a Suns or Keys ticket is $6 for a box seat. General admission tickets -- still quite close to the field -- are $4 for adults and $2 for children 6-17 (5 and under are free). A family of four can get tickets at Harry Grove Stadium or Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium for less than the price of one $13 box seat at Camden Yards. As an added inducement, parking is free and concessions are significantly cheaper.

The Harrisburg Senators, the double-A farm team for the Montreal Expos, have a similar price range: $6 for a box seat, $5 for reserved grandstand, $4 for adult general admission ($2 for children 12 and under). The Senators, like the Keys and Suns, believe in keeping it all in the family -- "clean, family-oriented entertainment" is how Harrisburg general manager Todd Vander Woude describes a night at the 5,200-seat RiverSide Stadium.

In keeping with the family atmosphere, the Keys' Harry Grove Stadium features a no-smoking, no-alcohol section and a kids-only concessions stand that sells hot dogs for a dollar and Kool-Aid for 79 cents. Another nice touch is the grassy, hilly area near each foul pole. Children can run the area freely, chasing foul balls or each other, while their parents watch the game without worrying about the mischief the kids might discover.

A most endearing feature of minor league ball is the promotional gimmick to get fans into the park. Often cornball, occasionally inspired, promotions have been a staple of minor league baseball for decades. Joe Engel, the legendary owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts, set the standard. In one game in 1936, he gave away a house. Another time, he auctioned off the team's radio announcer. Still another time, he had a female softball player pitch against the New York Yankees in an exhibition game. She struck out both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

These days, promotions remain important but have become more sophisticated. The Hagerstown Suns, for instance, still will schedule a promotion such as last night's Dairy Day, but that's in keeping with local character -- the surrounding area is dotted with dairy farms. For the most part, teams have turned to giveaways -- bat night, ball night and so forth.

"I don't mind a promotion as long as it's pre-game, but not something like the Dash for Cash between innings," says Mr. Lupton. "I've seen teams have to hold the game up just to pull those deals off."

"Our basic philosophy is to give away good quality promotion and stay away from the wacky ideas," agrees Mr. Vander Woude of Harrisburg. "We're trying also not to interfere with the game at all, so we really cut down on the pre-game events as much as possible. We feel that a lot of that stuff may not bring people in, but good-quality items may do that."

Still, you can go to a Keys game and, if you're lucky, be named Sweetheart of the Game, a nightly promotion that brings the prize of a corsage from a local florist. Or there's the Bleacher Creature, who wins not only four tickets to a future Keys game but also potato chips for everyone in his or her row.

Still, after all the promotion and the trappings, the game remains. Admittedly, for those used to near-perfection at the major league level, it can be disconcerting to attend a minor league game and see egregious gaffes and mental mistakes on a regular basis. Outfielders misplay routine foul balls; infielders make errors that would get them placed on the bench for good in the majors.

But that's the appeal as well -- the feeling that anything could happen, that sometime during the game something astonishing might occur. It could be a guy hitting four home runs, or someone committing four errors (it could even be the same player). And every so often, fans can see a player and know right away he is destined for greater things, as was the case of the Orioles' young pitcher, Arthur Rhodes, when he was playing for Hagerstown and Frederick.

"I think double-A is where it's at," says Mr. Vander Woude. "A lot of players are on the way up. You see some good young players who are hungry to get to the majors."

Minor-league play

The minor league season lasts until Sept. 1, after which the league playoffs begin. All the franchises offer various discounts and promotions; call the ticket offices for more information.

Frederick Keys: Harry Grove Stadium is located about an hour from downtown Baltimore at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Route 355. Call: (301) 662-0013.

Hagerstown Suns: Municipal Stadium is located about 20 minutes farther west on I-70, off Exit 32B. Call: (301) 791-6266.

Harrisburg Senators: Take Interstate 83 north to Harrisburg, turning off at the Second Street exit. Take a left at the third traffic light and continue to Market Street. Watch for signs for RiverSide Stadium. Call: (717) 231-4444.

Remember that although you can still buy a ticket on game day, these franchises do well: The Keys set a Carolina League attendance record in 1991 and usually play before about 98 percent capacity at 5,400-seat Harry Grove Stadium. In most cases, getting to the park a half-hour before the game should suffice.

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