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Baysox enthrall Bowie

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOWIE -- Two thousand free souvenir baseball caps went in about an hour that afternoon last August. The crowd kept coming: children and their parents lining up at Rip's Restaurant for a brush with sports celebrity. Not Cal Ripken, not Mike Devereaux or even Jeff Tackett, but members of the Baysox.

That's the Bowie Baysox. As in minor league baseball, Double A, as in a bunch of guys in their early 20s, each making about $1,500 a month to pursue at best a one-in-five shot of making the majors. Still, perhaps 3,000 autograph seekers showed up that afternoon near the ballpark site to welcome players who had not yet made it, members of a team not yet theirs.

"We were overwhelmed," says Kenny Peyton, Baysox ticket sales director. "We did not expect so many people to come out."

Bowie, a city of commuters where it seems everyone is from elsewhere, is getting on the map of professional baseball. And folks appear to be loving it.

"I think this team has already been adopted by this community," says Bowie's part-time mayor, Richard J. Logue. "Of all the projects I've been involved in in 21 years, I have never seen anything like this. The interest level is just fantastic."

"I think people are really eagerly awaiting" the Baysox, says Carroll Thompson, a real estate agent who has lived in Bowie for 26 years. "Lots of people are talking about it. . . . The fact that there's going to be a home-town team is very exciting."

The enthusiasm is reflected in advance ticket sales. By the first week of December, the Baysox had sold 1,000 full-season box-seat plans at $440 each. That's half the number of full-season box-seat plans that will be available for sale at Prince George's County Stadium, where the Baysox season opens April 12.

The total, Mr. Peyton says, "is unbelievable. That's gone way beyond our expectations."

The team already has sold 1,209 full-season plans and 561 22-game plans, said Vice President and General Manager Keith Lupton.

Minor-league fever has appeared in a few small cities, as the leagues continue the shuffle that's been going on since the late 1970s. In the Double-A Eastern League in which the Baysox play, most of the 10 teams have moved since 1979, according to Bob Sparks, spokesman for the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in St. Petersburg, Fla., the organization that runs minor league baseball.

Teams have moved, one has been created by expansion, and cities have been competing to get in on the action in hopes of reaping whatever spiritual or material benefits accrue from minor league baseball.

In Trenton, N.J., some government officials seem to believe the state capital, a city of 98,000 where unemployment stands at about 15 percent, needs a lift that minor league baseball can supply.

'A little bit fun'

"It needs to have something that's a little bit fun, something that makes people feel good about it as a city," Mercer County Executive Robert D. Prunetti has told the Knight-Ridder News Service.

For this psychological tonic, Mercer County is spending $8 million as its share of a $12-million park in Trenton for the Detroit Tigers' Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League.

The city of Portland, Maine, still staggering from New England's recession, will spend up to $1.8 million as its share of the cost of building a new home for the Eastern League affiliate of the expansion Florida Marlins, the Portland Sea Dogs. The team will spend up to $1.5 million.

Portland City Manager Bob Ganley says Sea Dogs merchandise already is "selling like crazy" in local stores, and he senses "tremendous interest" in the advent of minor league baseball. "We feel like we've hooked on to a good team."

The city of Wilmington and the state of Delaware split the cost of a $6.5 million ballpark for the Blue Rocks, the Single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. The 5,600-seat park opened last year and attracted near-capacity crowds every game.

Mr. Logue says his city, populated largely by executives and boasting one of the highest median household incomes in the state, doesn't need a morale booster. But he figures the advent of minor league baseball has got to improve Bowie's image, help attract attention and business.

"These are the type of amenities that corporate bigwigs look at when they think about relocating," says Mr. Logue, noting that the University of Maryland Science and Technology Center, approved for about 5 million square feet of office space, is just down the road from the ballpark site.

City pushed hard

The city pushed hard for the Baysox, pledging $3 million of local money to keep the state's commitment to the stadium alive when negotiations stalled. When the deal was settled, though, the team, the state and the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission split the $9 million cost of the ballpark and the land. Bowie did not spend a dime on the park, which is being built just outside the city line off Route 301.

Bowie's best guess based on state studies is that the Baysox in their first year there will pump about $20 million into the state economy. That includes about $7 million in direct spending on food, restaurants, hotels and tickets, plus the sums put in the pockets of wholesale suppliers and money spent by employees of all the companies involved.

Then there are the intangibles: a community banner to wave, the community name in the sports pages, the benefit of relatively low-cost family entertainment.

"It's a tremendous morale booster," says Ron Young, who during his tenure as mayor of Frederick pushed to get a stadium built for the Keys, the Single-A Orioles affiliate owned by the same group that owns the Baysox. The advent of minor league baseball didn't do much for Mr. Young's political career. He figures his support for construction of Harry Grove Stadium helped contribute to his 1989 defeat, his first municipal election loss in 20 years, but he has no regrets.

"I feel real good about it from the standpoint of what it's done in community pride," says Mr. Young, now deputy director of the Maryland Office of Planning.

Last year, the Keys set an all-time Carolina League attendance record, drawing 351,000 fans to a park that seats about 5,800.

Peter Kirk, a partner in Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership, which owns the Keys and the Baysox, sees the potential for this sort of success in Bowie. The group considered Wilmington and Trenton, but Bowie "was always our first choice."

The city of 38,000 has no downtown, no "center" to speak of. It has shopping centers, acres of tract housing, nice parks and Bowie State University. Mostly it has what it has always had: location. About 15 miles to the west and east are Washington and Annapolis; about 35 miles north is Baltimore.

"It's really a natural for what we're trying to do," says Mr. Kirk, "Our thought, our dream going back five, six years has been to see if we could put together the entire Baltimore Oriole minor-league system in the state."

The Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., is owned by a group up there. Is there talk of moving that team to Maryland?

"There's always talk," says Mr. Kirk, noting that Prince George's County Stadium is being built to Triple-A specifications. Mr. Kirk declines to elaborate.

He's focusing lately on a more immediate goal: opening day, April 12, when the Baysox play Trenton. A few things remain to be done by then: sell more season tickets and ticket package deals, arrange all the concessions. And build the ballpark.

After starting work in late summer, construction just about came to a halt when severe cold hit in January. "Just about all we could do was burn stumps," said Mr. Lupton, guessing that the crew lost 30 days of work.

Finishing the ballpark

He said the crew will concentrate on finishing the field and the 8,000-seat grandstand, which includes 3,000 box seats and 5,000 general admission. The Baysox office can wait until after the park opens, he said, as can the restaurant and the 18 luxury sky boxes.

Yes, luxury sky boxes. Such is minor league baseball in the 1990s, where the marketing team also seems to be vying to make the "show."

"Twenty years ago most of our clubs were Mom and Pop," says Mr. Sparks. Since then, he says, "a new type of ownership has appeared, more sophisticated about marketing. You won't see a night at the ballpark where it's not a promotion."

The Bowie Baysox have been pushing ticket sales with telemarketing, direct mail and newspaper advertising that will continue until the spring, offering about 2,000 seats in a full-season plan of all 71 home games, plus five smaller season packages, just like the majors.

During the Christmas season, they open the Baysox Christmas Store in the Market Place shopping center in Bowie, featuring T-shirts, caps, key rings, even Baysox trading cards. The store offers gratis slick promotional brochures about advertising plans and season-ticket packages. Just like the big leagues.

Unlike the majors, however, the Baysox will let youngsters into the ballpark for free if they're wearing a Little League uniform. And the team plans to set aside one home game to continue the Hagerstown Suns' practice of holding a cow-milking contest at home plate featuring players from each team.

They're sophisticated, but not that sophisticated. It's still the minors, where there are no stars to promote, where the players are hungry and the parking is free. Where they don't lose sight of the simple pitch, says Mr. Peyton: "family entertainment at good prices."

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