- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;

The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,

A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

Ernest L. Thayer, “Casey at the Bat,” 1888

It’s the perfect American anthem: “Casey at the Bat,” subtitled “A Ballad for the Republic Sung in the Year 1888” when it first appeared, not only helped to link the country with its national pastime but forever cast the small-town Mudville as the place to play it.

So what could be more American on this Fourth of July weekend than going to a baseball game that gives off the small-town feel the game was meant to have?

Washington-area fans have a host of nearby minor league ballparks to head for, including three minor league farm teams of the Baltimore Orioles — the Bowie Baysox, the Frederick Keys and the Aberdeen Ironbirds. Also in Maryland are the Hagerstown Suns, a San Francisco Giants affiliate. Across the river in Woodbridge, Va., are the Potomac Cannons, a team associated with the Cincinnati Reds.

With a wide range of ballparks, from ancient band boxes built in the 1930s to 21st-century theme parks, all of them are family friendly, offering affordable ticket prices, free parking and seats about as close to the action as field-level box seats in the big leagues.

True, in recent years minor league baseball — once considered the “bush leagues” for their teams’ relative obscurity and off-the-beaten-path locales — has aspired to become a major entertainment industry. Many of the newer minor league ballparks have added big-league amenities like luxury suites and dining rooms to an already festive atmosphere.

Yet the minor leagues have managed to retain a Mudville-style sense of shared intimacy between players and fans, especially young ones. Between-inning promotions, games and contests involve the fans, turning the spotlight back on them and making them part of what is happening.

This is the essence of the minor league experience. It almost renders the score of the game irrelevant.

Look, for example, at a recent game in Frederick between the Keys and the Blue Rocks of Wilmington, Del., that says it all:

• • •

The outlook was quite brilliant for the Frederick Keys that day;

The score stood four to zero with three innings left to play.

But then when Tupman homered, and Murphy walked and scored,

The Blue Rocks of Wilmington could not be ignored.

And while the crowd did grumble and its mood began to sway

It seemed of no importance to young Casey, here to play …

Two-year-old Casey Gunn doesn’t care if the Wilmington Blue Rocks catch up with the Keys as he runs up and down the grassy hill with other children in the left field corner at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick.

Casey doesn’t realize that Matt Tupman, the player who came into the game as a pinch hitter, then blasted a home run in the top of the seventh, is the same guy he was playing catch with over the bullpen fence just an inning before.

It’s Casey’s first professional baseball game, and all he really knows is that he’s having fun. It’s also the first time his parents, Dusty and Meredith Gunn, have attended a minor-league game.

“I love it,” Mr. Gunn says. “We’re going to come to a lot more games.”

The couple, who recently moved to Frederick from Bethesda, had never experienced the casual intimacy between players and fans and everything else associated with being at a minor league game.

“I’ve been to see the Orioles plenty of times, but this is a lot better,” Mr. Gunn says.

A grassy area in the far reaches of foul territory down the left field line is a gathering place for children to run, yell their heads off, roll down the hill and occasionally watch the game or try to talk with the players in the bullpen.

“He won’t come off that hill,” says Mrs. Gunn, watching her son playing with the other youngsters he had just met. “This is amazing. It doesn’t happen at home. He’s not usually like this.”

Casey and his parents have come under the minor-league spell.

About 300 feet down the line, in the back row of the bleachers behind home plate, sit Pat and Sally Dodd, a pair of senior citizens who say they’ve been to almost all of the home games the Frederick Keys have ever played.

According to ballpark employees, the Dodds are usually first in line when the gates open an hour before the game. They have occupied the same seats just in front of the press box since Harry Grove Stadium opened in 1990. The Dodds, who live about 16 miles away in Mount Airy, are introduced nightly over the public address system as the “Mount Airy Gang” when groups are welcomed between the fourth and fifth innings.

Of last year’s 70 home games, the couple missed four — “Because I had to work,” says Mr. Dodd, a part-time funeral director.

Mr. Dodd wears some tough-looking tattoos that hark back to his World War II days but belie his congenial nature. He explains what keeps him and Mrs. Dodd coming back to Harry Grove Stadium:

“We like baseball, for one thing, and we’ve met a lot of nice people and made a lot of friends,” he says.

Almost every person, fan or staff, has a greeting for the Dodds. Pitchers who are not pitching that day have occasionally sat with the couple during a game.

In fact, the Dodds seem to have an easier time remembering names of players who have passed through the Keys ranks than some of their 22 great-grandchildren.

Immediately after Keys outfielder Jacob Duncan connects for a home run in the bottom of the seventh, Pat Dodd stands in applause and exclaims, “That’s that new boy they just brought up today from Aberdeen.”

• • •

“Up from Aberdeen” takes some explaining. Minor league baseball (see minorleaguebaseball.com) classifies its teams as Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A Advanced, Single-A, Single-A Short-Season and Rookie, with Triple-A one rung below the major leagues.

Of all the farm teams in the area, the Bowie Baysox rank highest, at Double-A. The Frederick Keys and Potomac Cannons are classified A-Advanced. The Hagerstown Suns are in the Single A category. Coming in below these are the Aberdeen Ironbirds, a Single-A Short-Season team; that is, they play half as many games as, for example, the Keys.

Thus “up from Aberdeen.” But make no mistake: Aberdeen is no country cousin. The Ironbirds are owned by Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. and have sold out every home game in their three years in the New York-Penn League.

They play at Ripken Stadium, off Interstate 95 Exit 85, the centerpiece of a baseball complex envisioned by their owner to carry on his family’s tradition of teaching baseball to young people.

The stadium is modern but built of traditional red brick. Around it are four impeccably kept youth baseball fields that are used for tournaments by traveling teams and serve as the headquarters for the Ripken Youth Baseball Academy. The academy’s camps and clinics take place from April through October, beginning two months before the Ironbirds start play and ending more than a month after the end of the New York-Penn League season.

The youth fields can be used for games but are still not complete. When construction is finished, they will be miniature replicas of four classic major league parks: Chicago’s Wrigley Field, Boston’s Fenway Park and Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Memorial Stadium.

Groundskeeper Chad Olson, who leads a crew of 13 employees every game day and has taken care of every field at the facility since ground was broken in the fall of 2001, says Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Bill Ripken put everything they have into their work with the young players.

“When they conduct their camps, they’re right out there with the kids,” he says.

• • •

Back at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, it’s the seventh inning, and the “stretch” here takes on unusual flair: Instead of singing the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” fans stand and shout out the team’s own theme song, “We’re the Frederick Keys,” as they jangle their key chains in accompaniment.

The seventh inning also signals an end to beer sales. Some fans make their way to the concession stands circling the concourse for last call. With a decidedly local flavor, the Power Alley Pub in right field serves a variety of microbrews and the minor-league staple, a pulled pork sandwich. This one is produced in Frederick by the Brewer’s Alley brew pub on nearby Market Street.

In addition to hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack, more upscale fare such as beef tenderloin or crab cakes is available at specialty food stands on the concourse or at the Keys Cafe, a dining room on the upper deck open to the public but also available for private parties.

According to Chris Inouye, the general manager of food service, concessions and catering at the stadium, wine tastings as well as beer and wine dinners have become increasingly popular promotions for the Keys and other minor league teams.

“We’re trying to get the craft beer crowd and the wine crowd that previously you would not find at minor league ballparks,” Mr. Inouye says.

Certainly, it’s a farm-team marketing strategy, in this case aimed at adults. For the past three years the Baysox, for example, have hosted beer dinners in the Prince George’s Stadium’s Diamond View restaurant. These have drawn as many as 120 people for unlimited beer, food and baseball at an all-inclusive price of $38 a person.

“They are lined up at the doors to the restaurant and start pouring in at 6:01,” says Pete Sekulow, group events manager for the Baysox. Stadium gates open at 6 p.m.

• • •

The entertainment focus can sometimes obscure what is most important here: the game, and the spirited brand of baseball played by young men who may have major league ambitions but who remain approachable.

Shortstop Brandon Fahey, 22, the son of former major league catcher Bill Fahey, has time and a smile for every fan, stopping to pose for pictures and sign every autograph request before heading into the clubhouse.

He boards with a local family, the Levys, and has become a mentor to their son, Andy, who plays catcher at Montgomery College. Fahey is aware of the special relationship between the team in Frederick and its surrounding community.

“We’ve got excellent fans here, and all of us [players] like seeing so many children come out,” he says. “They’ve got good people here in Frederick. Hopefully they’ll treat me just as good whenever I get to wherever the next stop is.”

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light …

You know the rest, but fans around Washington hope for a different ending — and whatever the score, there is joy in our minor league Mudvilles.

Where to see a minor league game

WHAT: Aberdeen Ironbirds

WHERE: Ripken Stadium, 873 Long Drive, Aberdeen, Md.

WHEN: Home games 7:05 p.m. July 1-3, 6:05 p.m. July 4

PROMOTIONS: July 1: Appearance by Reggy the Purple Party Dude; July 3 and 4: fireworks

TICKETS: $6-$13; only scattered single seats remain.

INFORMATION: 410/297-9292 www.ironbirdsbaseball.com

WHAT: Bowie Baysox

WHERE: Prince George’s Stadium, 4101 N.E. Crain Highway, Bowie, Md.

WHEN: Home games 7:05 p.m. July 1-3, 6:05 p.m. July 4

PROMOTIONS: July 1: free whoopee cushions to first 3,200 patrons; July 2: Sue Wee pig races; July 3 and 4: fireworks. On July 14, the Baysox will host the 2004 Eastern League All-Star Game with a pre-game Home Run Derby and Fanfest beginning at 3 p.m.

TICKETS: $9-$12; children 5 and under free. Children 6-12 in youth athletic league uniform Sundays-Thursdays free.

INFORMATION: 301/805-6000, www.baysox.com

WHAT: Frederick Keys

WHERE: Harry Grove Stadium, 6201 New Design Road, Frederick, Md.

WHEN: Home games 7:05 p.m. July 7; 12:05 p.m. July 8; 7:05 p.m. July 9,10; 6:35 p.m. July 11; 7:05 p.m. July 12.

PROMOTIONS: July 7: Spider-Man appearance; July 8: Camp day; July 10: The Blues Brothers appearance; July 12: Bark in the Park (dogs pay $8 and owners are free, one owner per dog)

TICKETS: $5-$11; children 5 and under free. Children 6-12 in youth athletic league uniform Mondays-Thursdays free.

INFORMATION: 301/662-0013, www.frederickkeys.com

WHAT: Hagerstown Suns

WHERE: Municipal Stadium, 274 East Memorial Blvd., Hagerstown, Md.

WHEN: Home games 7:05 p.m. July 1-3, 6:45 p.m. July 4; 7:05 p.m. July 5 and 6

PROMOTIONS: Thursdays: Summer Beach Party, “Thirsty Thursday,” Ladies’ Night; Friday, Saturday, Sunday: fireworks; Mondays: “Feed Your Face”; Tuesdays: Two-for-One Tuesday.

TICKETS: $5-$8

INFORMATION: 301/791-6266, www.hagerstownsuns.com

WHAT: Potomac Cannons

WHERE: G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, 7 County Complex Court, Woodbridge, Va.

WHEN: Home games 7:05 p.m. July 1-3; 6:35 p.m. July 4; 7:05 p.m. July 5; 12:05 p.m. July 6.

PROMOTIONS: July 2: Family Fun Fest, with postgame movie, “Shrek 2”; July 3 and 4: fireworks. Every Thursday is “Dollar Thursday.”

TICKETS: $6-$11

INFORMATION: 703/590-2311, www.potomaccannons.com

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