First in a series

The Baltimore Sun

Six days, six teams, three states, 1,577 miles. The road to "The Show."

Bowie to Salisbury to Frederick. Bluefield, to Norfolk, to Aberdeen. Call it a double, triple play. Call it the Orioles' Minor League Six-Pack.

With apologies to Terry Cashman and his ubiquitous seamhead anthem, this isn't about talking baseball. It's about eating, sleeping, driving baseball. Plotting mileage between Bluefield, W.Va., and Norfolk, Va., roaming beneath the bleachers and behind the backstops, seeing Bubba Burgers and foot-long wieners in your sleep.

Before this season, catching six games at the Orioles' six minor league affiliates within a week was possible. It was, however, wickedly expensive.

But last September, the Triple-A franchise moved from Ottawa north of the border to Norfolk. Goodbye, hosers. Hello, sons of the South. All of the sudden, the trip came into focus like an eye chart after laser vision treatment.

One curveball: In December the Orioles became only the third team to have seven North American affiliates in their stable. The Gulf Coast Orioles, an instructional team, play in Sarasota, Fla.

Then a save: A look at this year's version of the Orioles minor league T-shirt shows no traces of the Gulf Coast. Six-pack intact.

Scheduling assistance from the Internet and MapQuest helped establish the itinerary. This year, the staggered starting dates of the teams and the All-Star breaks at each level of play meant the schedules lined up just two weeks - the last one in June and the last one in July.

For the purpose of this series, we chose the earliest opportunity, with the second week as a weather backup.

"Your trip covers the history of minor league baseball," says Bruce Adams, a minor league connoisseur, who with his wife, Margaret Engel, and children spent 60 days covering 25,000 miles to see 85 games in 44 states.

Adams and Engel wrote Ballpark Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Baseball Parks Across America, now in its third printing. Adams, a former Montgomery County official, also founded the Bethesda Big Train, which plays in the Cal Ripken Sr. League, a wooden-bat collegiate league with teams in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs.

"In Bluefield, you have one of the rare examples of when minor league baseball was king," says Adams. "Frederick was cutting edge in the 1980s revival. Bowie expanded on that and Delmarva advanced the game again. Norfolk was rated No. 1 [by Baseball America] and Aberdeen is one of the finest examples of a minor league park today."

Not everyone is enamored of the new ballparks, however.

Dan Collison, an independent documentary producer who has worked for National Public Radio, HBO and Nightline, verbally cringes when he talks about the gussied-up ballparks of today, with their giveaways and stadium seating. Collison and three buddies make an annual summer pilgrimage to America's iconic ballparks.

His idea of pure baseball? Bowen Field in Bluefield, which opened in 1939 and was rebuilt after a 1974 fire, and Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, the home of the Suns that opened in 1931.

"Bowie, Frederick, those kind of parks, you can't tell them apart. It's getting so that we're starting to revisit some places, like Bluefield," he says. "Pretty soon we'll be reduced to watching T-ball in a rec league."

But Mike Veeck, a Loyola College graduate and co-owner of six minor league teams, disagrees.

"If you're a little girl, you can go out on the field with the mascot. If you're a little boy, you might get to be bat boy for a game. And if you're mom and dad, you only had to pay $40 for the whole experience," says Veeck, son of legendary major league owner Bill Veeck. "I don't think that family says, 'Eww, this looks like Salisbury.'"

Ken Young, president of the Norfolk, Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury clubs in addition to the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, says family-friendly facilities and entertainment are needed to stay financially healthy.

"Everything we do is family entertainment. We really count on people coming to the ballpark for a good time and we realize that not everyone in the family is a baseball fan. We look for ways to appeal to them, too," says Young, who walks through the Norfolk ballpark during games to get fan feedback.

In Bluefield, Orioles baseball has been a part of the fabric of the community for a half century. While in Virginia's Tidewater area, fans are learning the words to "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy" after 37 years of "New York, New York," with the Mets.

Aberdeen has been under the Orioles' wing going on six years. For the people of Bowie, it's a time to celebrate 15 years with the black and orange and, along with Frederick and Salisbury, welcome a new owner.

Minor league baseball reminds older people of a simpler time and encourages a new generation of ballplayers to swing for the fences. It's face painting and cow-milking contests. Cold beer and hot dogs.

"There's something in our psyche that makes 3,000, 4,000, even 5,000 people manageable. Where 40,000 - even in a ballpark as nice as Camden Yards - is dehumanizing," Veeck says. "Minor league baseball is safe. It's fun. It's accessible."

It's a funny place, too, with a here-today, promoted-tomorrow philosophy, where last year's enemy could be this year's teammate.

On June 23, for example, it was Ripken vs. Ripken, when the Charlotte Knights honored Cal Ripken Jr., one of their own in 1980, with a bobblehead on a day when they played the Rochester Red Wings, for whom Ripken played 114 games in 1981 before being promoted to the Orioles.

"The whole point is to have fun," counsels a wise-beyond-her-6-years Natalie Ripple, at her first Frederick Keys game. "Like, you never know who's going to win. It's a huge surprise."

Let's play ball.

candy.thomson@baltsun.sun

An article in the sports section Sunday about minor league baseball incorrectly identified the new owners of the Delmarva Shorebirds. Tom Volpe and Pat Filippone, owners of the Stockton Ports, a California Single-A team, purchased the Shorebirds last winter from Comcast-Spectacor, the Philadelphia-based sports and entertainment company. The Sun regrets the errors.
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