Shorebirds fans love them tender

Only at a ballpark named for the first family of chicken could you have a left-field fowl pole.

Or a stadium staff called "the flock."

At Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, just a quick turn off U.S. 50 on the way to or from the beach, chicken made Single-A baseball possible, but fans make it special.

There's Gil and Joyce Dunn, booster club leaders, who take Delmarva Shorebirds into their home, steer many of them through their first steamed crab dinner, cheer them when they're slumping and cheer for them when they're riding high.

And Hannah Seward, who started a Web site for the team four years ago when she was 12 - to profess her undying love - and ended up creating a site where the parents of players can see how their boys of summer are doing.

And Bob and Donna Cummings, longtime season-ticket holders, who sit just behind the visitors dugout and admit that geography makes them tighter with the opposing players and coaches than with the home team. But that doesn't stop them from honking away on a small noisemaker when their favorite Shorebirds come through.

The players love them back.

Mark Fleisher, the big first baseman who moved up to Frederick this season, gave 12-year-old Britteny Colandra the bat with which he hit his first Shorebirds home run. His parents hung out with the Cummings family when they came from Virginia to visit their son.

Other Shorebirds take time to sign scraps of paper and talk with little boys and girls in oversized jerseys and caps who seem in awe of athletes just barely out of their teens.

"Awesome," says Adam Walters, 9, as he stares at the bold, black signature of catcher Brandon Snyder, a player he just met and may never see again. "He's great."

And that, says Mike Veeck, part-owner of six teams, is what makes minor league baseball great.

"It's the first impression. It's the accessibility. It doesn't matter who signed the piece of paper. It could be you or me. But that child is going to remember that experience, maybe for the rest of his or her life," he says.

The Shorebirds, like the Frederick Keys and Bowie Baysox, changed owners in the offseason. Tom Volpe and Pat Filippone, owners of the Stockton (Calif.) Ports, a Single-A team, purchased the Delmarva team from Philadelphia-based Comcast-Spectacor.

Fan favorite 2007
Each season, the fans pick a favorite or two. With few accomplishments on their resumes this early in their careers, players often are chosen based on their friendliness.

This year, young fans are wearing homemade T-shirts adorned with No. 10 and the likeness of shortstop Stu Musslewhite, who draws a crowd no matter where he makes a personal appearance, Shorebirds management says.

Hitting .181, the affable Texan seems taken aback by the display of affection and teases his fans, asking where he can buy one of their shirts.

"We give him an extra little oomph," explains Seward, 16, owner of www.goshorebirds.com. "Even if he's not doing well, he knows we're out here cheering for him."

Adds Stacey Thomas, 20, of Parsonsburg, "We cheer for all of them, but we really cheer for the nice ones."

That would help explain Seward's allegiance to Levi Robinson.

"He's a second baseman who played here in 2003 and 2004. I really liked him. He always stopped to talk. I had so many pictures of him and his mom," she says, pausing, her smile turning to a frown. "Now, he's no longer doing anything."

Not in affiliated baseball, anyway.

Robinson is the typical minor league story. Of the approximately 6,500 minor-league players under contract, roughly 95 percent of them will never reach the major leagues.

Robinson, an Alaskan who graduated from Texas Christian, was the 1,006th player drafted in 2002 and the 34th claimed by the Orioles, the same draft in which they took pitchers Adam Loewen and John Maine and infielder Brandon Fahey.

Card immortality
In 2003, he was good enough to get his face on a Bowman baseball card (No. 299) that labeled him a Baltimore Oriole.

Robinson and his mid-.200 average never rose above A-ball in his three-season Orioles minor league career. He finished the 2004 season with the Aberdeen IronBirds, one rung down in the Orioles' minor league system.

Now, as far as anyone in the Orioles' system knows, he's playing independent baseball.

Here in the 16-team South Atlantic League - nicknamed Sally - teams will squeeze in 140 games in 151 days. Travel is by bus, and base pay is a shade over $1,000 a month for the five-month season.

For some of these players, who were stars in high school and college and were named to the All-Whatever team back home, it's hard to swallow. But when things get bad, they remind themselves that Erik Bedard and Nick Markakis played Sally ball.

"They're like our sons," says Gil Dunn. "We want them to do well while they're here, and we want to see them move on and move up."

Still, not everyone is cut out for "The Show," as the major leagues are called. That was something Frank Perdue, who helped bring the Shorebirds to Salisbury in 1996, understood.

He was honored for his financial contribution and leadership with a bobblehead figure (dressed in a white lab coat and black Shorebirds cap and holding a baseball) in July 2002, three years before his death. But at one time, he harbored a baseball dream, too.

Perdue, who named the stadium for his father, recalled that he "gathered more splinters than hits" as a benchwarmer on the Salisbury State Teachers College team of the 1930s.

In a 1991 interview, he said: "If you do this, you're going to have some heartaches from it. You're going to have people yelling at you or maybe screaming at you or criticizing you, but I think it's the best way."

He was, of course, talking about raising chickens.

But he could have been talking about baseball.


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