When the Frederick Keys’ decadeslong tie to the Orioles was severed 13 months ago as part of a reshuffling of minor league baseball, a portion of the farm team’s fan base remained supportive as the franchise became an inaugural member of the Major League Baseball Draft League.
Another segment, however, thought the team’s 31-year existence was ending along with the affiliation to Baltimore.
“They thought if there’s no Orioles, there’s no anything,” Keys General Manager Andrew Klein said. “Even as we were rolling into our season this past year, I would run into people in the community, and I would tell them that I work for the team, and they would be asking, ‘Oh, is the team still around?’”
In time, between word-of-mouth and the weekend fireworks shows booming from Harry Grove Stadium, the community learned that, yes, the Keys still played baseball, even if they look different from the way they used to.
In an effort to optimize travel in the minor leagues while improving the facilities that major league organizations were using to develop their prospects, MLB reorganized the minor leagues after the canceled 2020 season, leaving each of the 30 franchises with four full-season affiliates. That restructuring meant 43 minor league teams lost their affiliations to major league organizations in December 2020.
The Keys, who served as the Orioles’ High-A team, were the only one of Baltimore’s five affiliates to be trimmed away.
The Keys continued to share an owner with two of the remaining Orioles affiliates, Triple-A Norfolk Tides and Double-A Bowie Baysox, until Jan. 13, when Ken Young sold the Bowie and Frederick teams to Attain Sports and Entertainment, a recently established McLean, Virginia-based firm.
Unlike some other teams that lost their affiliations in 2020, Frederick had somewhere to go. The Keys joined five other former affiliates as part of the newly formed MLB Draft League, which was designed to give amateur players a chance to showcase their abilities ahead of the MLB draft. Seven Keys were among the Draft League’s 39 eventual draftees, with dozens of other participants signed as undrafted free agents.
“We’re not able to say, ‘This guy is the No. 1 prospect with the Orioles,’ anymore, but we were able to say, ‘This guy is highly touted as a draft prospect,’” Klein said. “Now, we can look at it as having 30 affiliates because any of our guys could go to any organization.”
The 2021 season was shorter than in the past, with the Keys’ tally of home dates cut in half. But Klein said Frederick’s per-game attendance dropped by no more than 200 fans. In their final season as part of the Orioles’ system in 2019, the Keys averaged 4,392 fans a game, the most in what was then the Carolina League.
“We understand that people coming out to a baseball game, more often than not, that’s their fun money, their discretionary income,” Klein said last year. “The fact that people continued to support us despite all the challenges that they may have been facing this year, or the past two years at this point, really meant a lot to us.”
That support has Klein feeling much better about the Keys’ future than he did a little more than a year earlier. At that point, he and his wife, who lost her job as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, had just had their second child. He was Frederick’s assistant general manager for sales, wasn’t sure what was next for the franchise and whether his family’s lone source of income would continue.
“We didn’t know if we were going to stay with the Orioles, we didn’t know if we were going to be affiliated with any team or if we were gonna have to be looking to move into some other type of baseball to provide to our community,” Klein said. “I did not know if the team was going to exist.”
But with a year in the Draft League complete and another season set to begin in June, Klein believes the Keys are positioned well for the future — and an eventual return to affiliated baseball, with the Orioles or some other team.
Given Frederick’s location in a region featuring several minor league teams, Klein said that what cost the Keys their affiliation was likely their ballpark. Team ownership and the city are looking into renovating Harry Grove Stadium or building a new venue at another site, he said.
“The community has always supported us, and that’s been something that we always made sure to take care of, a lot of that forward-facing, fan experience-side of stuff,” Klein said. “But at the end of the day, our stadium opened in 1990, and our stadium was built with the standards of Major League Baseball’s minor leagues at that point.”
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He specifically noted the size of the team clubhouses, which feature a manager’s office and one coaches’ office. The latter was suitable at the time of the ballpark’s design, but minor league coaching staffs have grown larger over the past three decades, with roving coaches and various support and analytics staffers now traveling with teams, as well.
To get from that clubhouse to the field, the players and coach must cross the concourse, a design that would be replaced with under-stadium tunnels with dugout access.
“If you’ve got someone that a major league team has invested millions of dollars in, you don’t want to necessarily be putting them right in the middle of the fans if they don’t want to be there,” Klein said.
Any such upgrades also would include adding indoor batting cages, as well as general wear-and-tear upkeep for the playing surface and stadium lights. Given the scale of the changes needed, the Keys are likely years away from a completed project.
In the meantime, they’re thankful for their place in the Draft League.
“Everyone locally and in our ownership group and everything else are in agreement that we are very happy to be in the Draft League, and we’re very happy to be able to continue to provide that family-friendly environment of baseball here in Frederick,” Klein said.
“But we also want to be in affiliated ball. It might take us a few years, but that is our current plan, to get everything lined up and get that going, so that we can then bring an affiliated minor league team back to Frederick.”