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Kirk turns minors into major plus

Peter Kirk is amazing.

A half-dozen years ago he moved into an area -- minor-league baseball -- that was once all but given up for dead.

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As soon as there were two TVs in every household in America, which was a long time ago, people said no one would pay to see minor-league ball. Not when they could watch major-leaguers for free in their own homes.

Kirk, who had made his money as a developer, bought the Single-A Frederick Keys in 1989 and the following year presided over their move into a spiffy new, 5,000-seat ballpark alongside Interstate 70.

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Then he and his partners became owners of the Double-A Bowie Baysox, now completing their first full season in 10,000-seat Prince George's County Stadium on Route 3, a mere 27 miles south of Camden Yards.

Next year Kirk and partners will open a 6,000-seat park for a new Single-A team in Salisbury, the largest city on Maryland's Eastern Shore, 30 miles from Ocean City.

Everything Kirk has touched is turning to gold -- and the end is nowhere in sight.

Call Peter Kirk a lot of things -- businessman, entrepreneur, promoter. I would add another term: visionary.

Kirk sat in the conference room at Prince George's County Stadium yesterday and chuckled at the visionary stuff.

"I'd like to say that when we sat around that table in Frederick in 1987 -- actually, when we sat in that barroom," Kirk said, "that we had a master plan for all this. We didn't.

"We did think, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could bring the Orioles' minor-league system to Maryland?'

"First one thing worked. Then we went on to another, and that worked. And next year we'll go on to Salisbury. The playing field is already in there. The parking lot is in. We think our prospects for success are good."

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When corporate support for the Salisbury park came up a couple million dollars short of the desired goal, chicken king Frank Perdue stepped forth.

Perdue wanted the park to be done right so he agreed to make up the shortfall. All he asked in return was that the park be named not for him but for his late father, the founder of the family chicken empire, Arthur W. Perdue. Done deal, said Kirk.

Kirk is not the only operator making money out of minor-league baseball these days. One owner in the Carolina League, in which the Baysox play, reported to his major-league affiliate in 1991 that he had earned a $600,000 profit. Every dollar went in his pocket.

And, of course, there is the Triple-A operation at Buffalo, which draws 1 million people annually.

"The difference," said Kirk, "is that the park in Buffalo was built for major-league baseball. They seat 16,000 and the place is expandable. We really only seat 10,000."

Kirk's small but still growing baseball empire has done so well that he recently named his Bowie general manager, Keith Lupton, as his senior vice president.

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"The general managers at Frederick, Bowie and Salisbury will all report to Keith," said Kirk.

Said Lupton: "It'll be a challenge and it'll be fun. We're averaging 6,700 a night here at Bowie. We expect to draw 450,000 by the time our home season ends on Aug. 30 [unless the Baysox close fast and make the playoffs].

"Our three clubs next year should draw a little over 1 million. That's about the same as a small market major-league club like Pittsburgh, Minnesota or Milwaukee does."

el,3 How has Kirk managed to pull all this off?

He took on good partners. He persuaded the state and the various counties involved (and Frank Perdue) to invest in the new ballparks. And he ran a good show in an inviting setting.

As he spoke, his attractive park in Prince George's County was being pressure-hosed down, clearing away the dirt and debris from the previous day's near capacity crowd.

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Saturday night there were 13,000 to see Morganna the Kissing Bandit in a park that is supposed to have a capacity of 1,000 less.

But yesterday the place looked spotless.

In right field there is a newly installed carousel and play area, which tends to interest the 6- to 10-year-olds more than the game once they have have had their first soda and popcorn. At a kids' concession stand, every item is priced at $1.

Kirk pointed out that Triple-A ball is due to expand in 1998 to accommodate the two expansion clubs coming into the majors.

He would be interested in hosting Triple-A ball at Bowie -- perhaps the Orioles' Rochester club, though that city is getting a new park.

"A lot of places have the money and want in minor-league baseball," Kirk said. "Allentown [Pa.] is ready to go. Atlantic City and Wildwood are ready. Charlottesville [Va.] wants in."

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This despite the 20 percent decrease in major-league attendance in this post-strike season.

Said Lupton with a smile:

"You never know what we'll do next with Peter in charge. Peter's a builder. He's not finished. He'll never be status quo."



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