THE KEYS TO SUCCESS Minor-league baseball teams like Frederick and Bowie keep the fans coming by keeping them entertained before, during and after the game

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's about 1:30 on a steamy Sunday afternoon in June, and in 30 minutes, the Frederick Keys are to play the Durham Bulls in Frederick's Harry Grove Memorial Stadium. Larry Martin, as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles' single-A minor league team, is assembling the Different Drummers, a band from Washington, to play the National Anthem. Mr. Martin may be one of the most creative people in minor league ball, but at this particular time he's standing in the hot sunshine, a straw hat covering his head, signaling the saxophone player to get the other Drummers over behind home plate.

A few days earlier, talking about the myriad duties of a minor league general manager, Mr. Miller, a burly, congenial man of 47, had said jokingly, "Sometimes I wonder if Roland Hemond [the Orioles' general manager] would ever do some of the things I do here." Surely, Mr. Hemond wouldn't be standing out at Camden Yards in sweltering weather in golf shirt and shorts, ushering along bands and Little Leaguers and the many other bit players who are part of the minor-league pre-game hoop-la.

Now it's almost time to begin yet another afternoon in the ball yard -- another three hours of small-town folksiness, of carefully orchestrated good times and warm-and-fuzzy. Among the several thousand in attendance today are hundreds of kids wearing their Little League uniforms -- from Frederick, from Montgomery County and Howard County and all around central Maryland and even Northern Virginia.

Youngsters who wear their team uniforms get in free, an important aspect of the Keys' marketing strategy. Kids, after all, bring their parents, and the Keys have led the Carolina League in attendance the past four years -- the last three with Mr. Martin as general manager. Some games, the atmosphere is so kid-oriented that you might think you're at Chuck E. Cheese or the Discovery Zone and not a ball game.

Janice Hamilton, 37, of Columbia has four children in tow for this game -- two of her own, and two friends of her sons. "The kids usually watch a few innings, walk around some, and watch a little more," she says, and then adds with a laugh, "I'm not sure how much baseball they actually see, but they seem to have a pretty good time."

At 1:45, Ron Kitzmiller, the voice of the Frederick Keys, turns on the microphone.

"Welcome to Harry Grove Memorial Stadium," he intones. "Today, our Frederick Keys will play the Durham Bulls."

The last bit of information won't even register with many in the stands. "One of the charms of minor-league ball is that it's a social occasion," Mr. Martin says. "I guarantee you that if you come out to any of the games this week and stand at the front gate and ask 20 people when they're leaving who the Keys played that night, 40 percent couldn't tell you. They might not know the score -- but they probably would know if the team won or lost."

Later this Sunday, the Keys have indeed lost -- 5-4 in 10 innings, after rallying to tie the score with three runs in the eighth. The defeat secures the Keys' hold on last place in the Carolina League's Northern Division. But few in the stands seem to care. For it's Carnival Weekend, one of the team's most popular promotions, and around the stadium there are clowns for the kids, face-painting booths, carnival games and the like.

And there are the standard fan-oriented Keys promotions, such as a putting contest with a portable green atop the visitor's dugout (with Mr. Martin as master of ceremonies), and a race between the foul lines between two Little Leaguers dressed up in horse costumes. You could almost swear the race between two 10-year-olds with horse heads atop their bodies drew more of a reaction than the Keys' late-inning rally.

But that's minor-league ball in the 1990s. Ball players like to talk of the majors as "the Show" -- all minor leaguers dream of "going to the Show." In today's minors, the surrounding show has become as important, if not more important, than the game itself.

What is happening in Frederick is happening in minor-league parks across the country. After decades of poor attendance and struggling franchises in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, baseball's minor-league teams are enjoying a major-league boom.

In 1964, there were 132 teams in the National Association, the organization that encompasses most minor-league clubs, and attendance was about 10 million. By comparison, in 1994, there were 216 teams in the association and attendance had risen to 33 million.

Maryland has three minor-league teams: the single-A Hagerstown Suns (affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays), the Frederick Keys and the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles' double-A franchise. A fourth team, a single-A club, is scheduled to begin play in Salisbury next year.

Ideally, major-league teams and their minor-league franchises operate under a symbiotic relationship. The major-league team provides coaches, the manager and the players, and hopes that the players are developed sufficiently so that they can one day make it to the Show. Minor-league teams provide the stadium and pay for the players' travel and hotel expenses, and also pay to the major leagues 5 percent of ticket revenues.

The transitory nature of minor-league ball in large part explains its free-wheeling sensibility. Keith Lupton, the astute general manager of the Bowie Baysox, and general manager of the Keys from 1989-92, has a ready answer for baseball traditionalists who are bothered by the gimmicks and sideshows at minor-league stadiums.

"If you open up the gates and put up a sign that says, 'Game Tonight,' which is basically what minor-league operators used to do, you might get 200 to 300 fans," he says. "In our marketing plan, we don't let up. We're very aggressive in telemarketing and group sales. As for promotions, you constantly have to work on things. You have to keep your product fresh.

"In minor-league baseball," he continues, "we can't sell the game around the players, like the Orioles can with Cal Ripken or Rafael Palmeiro. A guy could be a star for your team one week, and gone the next."

But the major leagues unquestionably are in trouble. Certainly the recent eight-month strike has had repercussions -- as of late June, attendance at major-league games for the 1995 season was off by 24 percent.

Going to a major-league game also is expensive: A family of four can easily spend $80 to $90 a game for tickets, parking, concessions and perhaps a souvenir or two.

"The big guys really shot themselves in the foot this year [with the strike], and they turned a lot of people off baseball," Mr. Martin says in an interview in his cramped office at Harry Grove stadium. "It saddens me, too, to drive past a diamond at a [municipal] park and no one's playing -- all the kids are over at the basketball court. When I was a kid, baseball was all we played. But that was before ESPN, before all the network telecasts of football and basketball. Baseball was the sport."

That minor-league ball is thriving despite disenchantment with major-league baseball, and competition from other sports and other kinds of entertainment, is testimony to the acumen of the people running the game. The seats certainly are being filled, even if purists may wince at the get-them-in-the-ballpark-at-any-cost mentality or the newly popular emphasis on cutesy logos and animal nicknames.

"Why would the Winston-Salem Carolina League team want to call itself the Warthogs?" muses Miles Wolff, publisher of the influential magazine Baseball America. "That's an African swine not indigenous to the Winston-Salem area. That's a part of minor-league ball I don't like."

He knows the answer to his question, of course -- money.

First, licensing of minor-league paraphernalia -- caps, jerseys, T-shirts and the like -- has soared in the '90s. Revenue from minor-league licensed items was $2.5 million in 1991; in 1993, it zoomed to $40 million. At Harry Grove Memorial Stadium, there's a stand that sells only minor-league caps -- 35 teams, with caps ranging from $18 to $20 each. Some teams with new stadiums, such as the Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks of the Carolina League, have souvenir shops open year-round.

Second, animal logos and nifty nicknames attract kids, according to minor-league surveys. So with an eye on younger fans, the minor leagues began in the mid-1980s to sell themselves in dramatically different ways.

Operated more by front-office types with backgrounds in finance and business rather than baseball, minor-league teams market aggressively. They all but lasso and hog-tie the family market with a dizzying array of promotions and new stadiums that include picnic areas and no-alcohol "family sections."

Maryland Baseball Ltd. Partnership Inc., which owns the Keys and the Baysox, has been in the forefront of this trend. The Frederick stadium was built in 1990, Bowie's last year. Admission costs are kept low ($5 for adults, $3 for children 6-14) and the promotions are, as Mr. Martin says, "triple-G family entertainment." In Frederick, schoolchildren even get free Keys tickets if they have perfect attendance, or if they make the honor roll.

"There's been a real change in sensibility," says David Lamb, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose book, "Stolen Season," profiled several minor-league teams in the 1989 season. "The mom-and-pop business that the minors used to be is gone. Teams are run by serious businessmen who want to make some money."

Mr. Lupton and Mr. Martin are good examples of the new breed of minor-league executive. Mr. Lupton was working in radio near Winchester, Va., in the late 1970s and doing promotions for a minor-league team in the Valley League. In 1981, he began working for the Hagerstown Suns, and when the team moved to Frederick in 1989 (to become the Frederick Keys), he came along as general manager.

An accountant by training, Mr. Martin was director of student finances at a small church college in Indiana and assistant coach two sports when, in 1989, he decided to try minor-league ball. He wrote to the Keys asking for a job and was hired as chief financial officer. When Mr. Lupton took the Bowie job in 1993, Mr. Martin replaced him as general manager.

"Baseball, in my opinion, is very antiquated, all throughout the system, from the minor leagues to the majors," says Mr. Martin, who also has a master's degree in sports management. "Sometimes I'm amazed at what I see. Teams are antiquated in their business practices -- not even having a marketing plan in some cases."

In a sport as tradition-bound as baseball, Mr. Lupton and Mr. Martin might have trouble operating, but they fit in comfortably -- at Maryland Baseball.

Formed in the early 1980s, Maryland Baseball brings an approach to the business that CEO Peter Kirk says was influenced by a child's-eye view of baseball.

"I fell in love with minor-league baseball because it reminded me of what baseball was like when I was a kid in New York," says Mr. Kirk. "It was inexpensive, family-oriented. Players were part of the community. There were no big salaries and big money and contract issues."

Maryland Baseball operated the Hagerstown Suns in the 1980s, then bought the Williamsport, Pa., double-A team and moved it to Hagerstown. The old Suns were moved to Frederick and renamed the Keys. (In 1993, the double-A Hagerstown team was moved to Bowie, to be replaced by the current Hagerstown single-A club.)

Frederick was appealing because the business community seemed eager to support the team, Mr. Kirk says. Mr. Martin notes that the Keys' success has been in part due to Frederick's location -- "the proximity to I-70 and I-270. We can go down the Montgomery County corridor to Germantown and Rockville and even Silver Spring. And Frederick is a great baseball town. The support from these people is overwhelming."

The Keys' fan base, Mr. Martin says, is diverse -- one-third from the Frederick area, one-third from Howard and Carroll counties, and the rest drawn from the Washington and Baltimore areas, and even Pennsylvania. That means a lot of selling.

"We made a decision to become part of the community," Mr. Martin says. "That means going to civic and professional groups in the off-season -- a lot of them, all over central Maryland."

With the Keys quickly gaining acceptance, Maryland Baseball turned its attention to building a state-of-the-art minor-league stadium.

"What we dreamed about in Frederick was starting all over and building a ballpark from scratch," Mr. Kirk says. "Hagerstown has a wonderful old park, but it was built in the 1930s. Good facilities were built for the players, but the fans were almost an afterthought. The concessions and restrooms were underneath the stands."

So Harry Grove Memorial Stadium was built in 1990 for $5.5 million, with Maryland Baseball contributing $1.5 million and most of the rest coming from the state of Maryland, Frederick City and Frederick County. The "bowl" layout meant that fans upon entering the park didn't have to climb stairs to get to their seats -- they merely walked down. And along each foul pole was left a grassy area where children could congregate.

"We wanted a ballpark where families could bring young kids, and parents could sit in the seats and let the kids run around -- without fear of having the kids get lost or hurt or be out of sight," Mr. Kirk says.

Bowie's Prince George's Stadium is modeled after Harry Grove Stadium, but with more amenities -- more concessions and souvenir stands, for instance -- and is nearly twice as big. The Keys average close to 6,000 fans a game -- about 95 percent of seating capacity -- but the Baysox, on a good night, can dwarf that figure. On one Saturday in June, the Baysox drew 13,900 fans -- almost 2,000 more than seating capacity, and slightly more than the major-league Orioles did that night in Detroit.

(The Baysox and Keys' attendance figures are helped by the fact that the grassy areas by the foul poles can accommodate several hundred fans).

In addition to the kid-friendly features, the Bowie and Frederick parks have two major revenue-producers: sky boxes and outfield billboard signs. Harry Grove Stadium, one of the first minor-league parks with sky boxes, has 12. All are rented out for this season, at $10,000 each, Mr. Martin says.

At Bowie and Frederick, the outfields are covered with billboards, which bring in enough revenue to keep ticket prices low, Mr. Kirk says. "At Frederick our first year, I think we had 119 signs, and we were told that was more than anybody else in the minors," he says with a laugh.

So minor-league teams such as Bowie and Frederick seem to have found the right combination for keeping fans' costs reasonable and making money for themselves.

"Maryland Baseball has done as good a job selling and marketing as anybody in the game," says Mr. Wolff of Baseball America.

"The Frederick team has had a tremendous impact on the Carolina League," says John Hopkins, the league's president. "They brought us a new stadium, the first facility with luxury suites and a restaurant." He added that when the Salem, Va., team opens its new stadium (the scheduled date was July 25), "it will mean half of our eight stadiums will have been built in the 1990s, all with those amenities."

But even if all those new stadiums are being filled, how much longer can the boom continue?

Mr. Kirk says he is "very optimistic, with some concerns" about the future of the minor leagues -- particularly if those in charge "get away from the roots, the way they got away from [them in] major-league baseball. Business got bigger and bigger, and the fan suffered."

And though Maryland Baseball's approach has been successful, comes at a price, both literally and figuratively.

Mr. Martin notes that "it's more and more expensive to operate these teams. The staffs are larger, and that means salaries and fringe benefits. If it gets to the point where minor-league operators are just gouging the public, then it would be wrong."

There's also the question of just how many hoops the minors can jump through before fans, weary of a barrage of promotions, tune them out. Mr. Lupton says he regards promotions as "a constant, ongoing thing. It's like taking medicine the rest of your life."

But is this medicine the average fan will continue to take? It could be argued that the minors are not really cultivating baseball fans but customers, who are more fickle.

That's why Mr. Kirk believes the Keys' and Baysox's biggest competition for fans comes not from the Orioles, who are only 30 to 45 minutes away, but "people who would rather go to the movies or simply stay home and watch TV instead of coming to the park. We want to keep it relatively easy, inexpensive -- something to do many, many times in the summer."

He adds: "Promotions and marketing -- that's the fun part. There isn't an idea that's too crazy or wild not to be considered. But we try to understand the difference between entertaining the fans and being disrespectful of the game. If we don't, we'll find out in a hurry."

TIM WARREN is a copy editor for The Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
32°