BOWIE -- At last, they are home.
After a year of temporary residence at Memorial Stadium and half a season of a nomadic existence at five different home sites, the Bowie Baysox are in place.
Prince George's County Stadium -- a makeshift operation last year for a portion of June, July, August and early September -- is completed and one sellout after another is anticipated for the new Eastern League season.
Season plans already have accounted for 260,000 tickets sold before the gates are opened. That is only 33,000 fewer fans than the Baysox attracted all of last season in their second year as the Orioles' Double-A affiliate.
"We're expecting a lot of people, but we expected that even if the strike hadn't been settled," said owner Peter Kirk. "It's wonderful to finally be home after bouncing around so much."
The biggest changes last year's fans will notice are the upper-level sky boxes, the restaurants (eliminating the unwieldy concessions coupon system of 1994), completion of the parking lots, a picnic area on the third-base side and a playground area on the first-base side.
General manager Keith Lupton said "advertising revenue" for signs on the outfield fences "has increased significantly" and that he hopes the team can approach 600,000 admissions for its 71-game home schedule.
"I think the [major-league] strike helped us sell some tickets, but not many," said Lupton. "We sold out all our games during the strike last year."
Kirk said "a few surprises" are planned for pre-game festivities on Opening Day tomorrow. "But we'll try to keep it pretty short." Fireworks will be included, weather-permitting.
Right-hander Garrett Stephenson, the losing pitcher in Bowie's final playoff game last year, will throw the first pitch of the season against the Norwich Navigators, a New York Yankees farm club.
He is one of 17 players on the roster who spent all or a part of last summer with a good Frederick Keys club that barely missed the Single-A Carolina League playoffs.
Only six -- Stephenson, closer Chris Lemp, infielders Ken Arnold and Jose Millares and outfielders Harry Berrios and Clayton Byrne -- saw time with the Baysox.
But unlike last summer, when the Bowie roster underwent few changes, there figures to be wholesale shifting when the major-leaguers return in late April.
The 15 players caught between the 40-man winter roster and the final 25-man big-league roster will have to be accommodated somewhere, producing a ripple effect from Triple-A Rochester down through the system.
"Our kids know they're going to have to show a lot, to prove they belong here," said manager Bob Miscik. "In these first three weeks, they will be trying to make the decisions very tough."
Miscik has established a five-man rotation of Stephenson, left-hander Scott Emerson, Calvin Maduro, Toby Lehman and left-hander Matt Jarvis, in that order.
He has 11 pitchers and is experimenting with the rotation in the first month.
B. J. Waszgis (21 homers, 100 RBIs with the Keys) will be the regular catcher, and the Baysox have plenty of sock elsewhere.
Third baseman Eric Chavez (23 homers, 82 RBIs at Frederick), and outfielders Berrios (.348, 13 homers, 71 RBIs, 42 steals at Frederick), Roy Hodge (.289, nine homers, 64 RBIs with the Keys) and Byrne (.286, eight homers, 48 RBIs at Bowie and Frederick) are also potent bats.
Miscik said the Baysox will not be a station-to-station team, "although we won't be a big base-stealing club. We will put a lot of guys in motion on the bases."
That could change if Kimera Bartee, the fastest player in the Orioles organization, returns from Triple-A Rochester, where he has been assigned initially.
Bartee has been impressive in the Australian Winter League and during spring training and is trying to jump a level after batting .292 with 10 homers, 57 RBIs and 44 steals at Frederick.
But the return of Curtis Goodwin and/or Damon Buford to Rochester could bring Bartee back to Bowie because, when all are active, the Orioles have a surplus of strong center fielders in the minors.
The Baysox will be playing Feliciano Mercedes at second base, his natural position, after Mercedes underwent a shaky first two months at shortstop, then spent the rest of the season rehabilitating from an injury.
Miscik was overjoyed at the amount of progress in spring training despite the Orioles' stand against replacement players. That meant the Orioles' farm clubs had to play among themselves.
"Spring training was excellent. This club's ready to roll," he said. "We had a lot of good contests with Rochester. We were challenged by their pitchers and their hitters and held up very well."
Working with the major-league staff and seeing the players above them in the system was a benefit for the Baysox, Miscik said.
"There was a lot of instruction and enthusiasm in Florida," he said. "Even in the last few days, they didn't show the usual boredom. This is a pro-type club."