- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

Baseball demands much of its fans, such as tolerating heat."I hope you got water here cause it's baking," shouts the goateed parking lot attendant at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, Va., home of the Potomac Cannons minor league baseball team.

Plenty of fans are willing to bake. It's baseball after all minor league baseball. Scorching Woodbridge heat will not stop these fans this Wednesday afternoon. (Many, though, huddle under trees in front of the ballpark.) These fans yearn for the crack of the bat against the baseball, the thump of the ball into the catcher's mitt.

They can hear such sounds from every spot in a minor league ballpark.

"I watched a couple of the College World Series," says Bowie Baysox fan Don Stafford, 56, smiling and chuckling. "And I just absolutely hate the sound of aluminum bats. The sound is absolutely disgusting to me." Go to a major league baseball game, and sometimes you're lucky if you can see the game because you have to sit so far away from the action.

Labor Day heralds the sunset of summer, and with it, the end of the minor league season. Major league baseball typically stretches into October, but tomorrow, the major league baseball players will decide whether to strike against the team owners.

The Washington area claims three minor league teams: the Frederick Keys, a class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles; the Potomac Cannons, a class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals; and the Bowie Baysox, a class AA affiliate of the Orioles.

More than a few mistakes are made on the field by these major league wannabes. At a Keys game versus the Kinston (N.C.) Indians, that meant four routine erors committed by a first baseman.

"This is AA ball," says Bowie Baysox usher Stephanie Jamieson, 40, from Crofton, leaning against the concrete wall in front of the box seats. She smiles. "There are lots of errors; there are lots of plays that you wouldn't see in a major league game."

Perhaps that's the point. The players are expected to be rough around the edges, says Willard Rudy, 64, of Middletown, Md., and president of the Frederick Keys Fan Club. "A lot of people don't realize that this is a learning process here. These guys are out learning how to play professional baseball so they can advance to the major leagues. If they do stupid things or make errors or whatever, you have to kind of overlook that.

"I sit here and listen to people yell and scream, and I have to bite my tongue. 'Don't say that. If you can do that any better, go out and do it yourself.'" Indeed, the players are usually on their way up or down, going at the horsehide ball with their hearts in their gloves. San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, who just passed the 600 home run mark, played for the Cannons in 1985. Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Walter Johnson ended their careers in the minors.

"These guys in AA, they've been filtered here," says Jimmy Foster, a member of the Baysox Founders' Club since 1994. "If you make AA, you've got a shot. You'll find a lot of players go straight from AA into the majors."

The labor contract situation in the pro ranks loomed like a menacing storm. The threat of a major league baseball players' strike tomorrow drew reactions from the fans. "It's millionaires fighting with the billionaires, and the contest is who's going to win," Mr. Rudy says.

Valerie Foster, 51, sits in the front row near the Baysox right fielder's batter's box, with her husband Jimmy, 59.

"I think they need [salary] ceiling caps," she says. "They're the only organization that doesn't have them."

The average salary for a major league player is about $2.5 million a year. Some minor league players earn as little as $11,000 a year. Yet the minor leaguers get caught up in the spirit of a day at the ballpark. Before and after the game, they crowd the chain-link fence next to the dugout, quietly signing baseballs, cards and programs. Perhaps some minor-leaguers realize that this might be the last time someone wants their autographs, making them eager to comply.

"Most of these guys will never get beyond this, right? But they're still trying," says Ron Wheeler of White Plains, Md., watching the Bowie Baysox with his wife, Linda. "Major-leaguers, particularly after they get a big fat contract, they don't try until their option year. They'll go two years and loaf. Third year, they'll bust their buns so they can get another three-year contract." Even within the league itself there are roadblocks for some players.

"There's a lot of guys out there filling positions because they have to have a team," says Frederick's Mr. Rudy. "You can look at the guys that are the high-round draft choices that have gotten the big bucks to be here. You know they are going to be promoted over some of the guys that might not have made the free-agent signings.

"But the nice thing about the thing is you know they're out there trying hard; they're out there giving it their all to be there, and at least they can say if they never make it any further than this that 'Hey, I played professional baseball for the Orioles,' and there are so many people that can't say that."

Mr. Wheeler, 59, has had Baysox tickets since Prince George's Stadium opened in 1993. He watches the Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators pitcher throw one high and hard, almost beaning the Baysox player.

"Whoa whoa whoa whoa," he shouts as the batter prepares to rush the mound. A nearby fan shouts, "airhead." Someone else hollers, "C'mon, tough guy." This is about the coarsest catcall you're going to get in this stadium.

"People tend to be a little more civilized here," Mr. Wheeler says.

And they're more entertained. They have to be. The minors have to use promotions to attract crowds. Promotions reign the day, with everything from floppy hats being handed out at the gate to fireworks after the game. Side attractions such as pitching booths, arcade games and carousels have children running back and forth to their seats.

Just inside the Cannons' entrance is a bulbous, purple hat resting on two balloon baseball bats, with netting on either side. Here, fans line up to hurl baseballs at a backstop and read the red, dotted neon lights that post the speed of their pitches. ("I heard someone threw a pitch at 90 mph," says an unimpressed teenager running the booth one afternoon.) The Keys and the Baysox have brightly lit carousels, spinning around until the game's over.

Cannons giveaways include magnet schedules, batting helmets and seat cushions. The Baysox presented a pregame Elvis Presley tribute by Glenn and the Gemtones, plus a raffle for a vacation package to Graceland, Elvis' home. The Keys sponsors Cal Ripken bobblehead giveaways and pregame tailgate parties featuring live music. All three have fireworks nights, which usually pack the stands.

Some might find such attractions harmful distractions from the serious game of ball. You won't find that belief in the dugout though.

"Minor leagues are built upon promotions and gimmicks," says Todd Severson, hitting coach for the Cannons, seated in the small dugout after a Cannons victory. "Really, in the minor leagues, the game is a sideshow.

"The game is last when it comes to a lot of fans in the minor leagues. Not everybody in this area knows what our record is or what we're striving for. They're just here because a bobblehead doll is being given away; they really don't know about what's going about our team since April." Mr. Severson, 30, insists, however, that it doesn't bother him.

"That's the way to incite interest," he says. "It's somewhere to go in the summer, and we play a great game or it's fun, we win, especially when we win, it might incite somebody to come out again on general principle."

Mrs. Jamieson admits that the promotions annoy some as a distraction from the purpose. But that is offset by the inexpensiveness and the baby-sitting benefits of the minor league experience.

"I think for the majority of the people who are attracted to this baseball stadium," she says, "Part of the attraction is that there are things your kids can do that you can let your kids go and do that without fearing for them. That you can afford to buy something to eat and buy them a toy or whatever and still go home with a little bit of money.

"And it really generally is pretty decent baseball and sometimes it's very, very good. Sometimes it's also pretty awful." If the game or the side attractions don't suit the average ticket-holder, then there are always other benefits in the minor league ballpark.

"There's a more social climate here," says Charlie White, 79, of Clinton. He has ushered at Bowie for nine years and for the Washington Redskins since 1939. "Fans get to the point where they know each other, and they're more cordial. At least they are to me."

Indeed, most clubs offer incentives such as welcome parties and other receptions to let season-ticket holders get to know each other. There are also booster clubs, which sponsor many events. Some, such as the Frederick club, even find housing for the players during the season. Mr. Rudy says he had four players staying with him this past season. ("We had five, but one of them went up [to the majors]," he says.) Mr. Rudy's house is big enough that he could put four in the basement, which has a kitchen, shower and bathroom, and a private entrance.

"They never cause any problems," he says. "There might be a little noise now and then, but it's like having a bunch of college kids."

Jimmy Foster seems to think that's the natural thing for fans to do.

"People watch out for the players when they're young," says Mr. Foster, 59. "At this level, they're 22 and 23 years old, at the Frederick level, in the minors, they're younger than that, 19 and 20. For some of them, it's the first time away from home." Some minor league ticket-holders prefer to keep more quiet.

Jason Kaba, 30, of Columbia, is sitting in front of the Kinston Indians box with his girlfriend Giovanna Seminara, 22, of Gaithersburg. A diehard Cleveland Indians fan, he goes to see the minor league Indians whenever they come to Frederick. And he's always decked out in regalia, so much that he's often confused for a player.

"Yeah, every once in a while a fan yells at me, and I've even had a coach yell at me to get on the field," he says, laughing.

Meanwhile, sitting in the last row of the box seats in Prince George's Stadium is Don Stafford, wearing a Baysox cap and peering through glasses. He is also carefully marking his scorecard in neat, swift strokes.

"It started the very end of last season. We had a couple of tickets given to us," Mr. Stafford says. "It happened to be on a night where there were fireworks. My wife just loves fireworks. So we bought season tickets this year." Throughout the conversation, he follows the game with his scorecard a true devotee.

"I enjoy it," he says in his soft Southern accent. "I go back and look at it. Probably the same night or the next morning I'll look at it. It's a great way to review the game because I can't remember all the stuff. I guess I do it about half the time."

Like most of the other fans here, Mr. Stafford hails the minor leagues over the majors because parking is easier, the seats are closer to the play (he can even hear calls from the umpire) and the atmosphere isn't "big and overwhelming." He wishes the Baysox weren't "in the cellar," but he's impressed and made hopeful by the team's heart. "And we're working on a two-game streak."

Yet, he has problems with some of the promotionals. One of them is the T-shirt launchings. The Baysox staff stand in a field and shoot T-shirts into the audience with a slingshot. Mr. Stafford complains it's a safety hazard.

"I don't particularly like when they shoot the T-shirts, for two things, because the kids are running back and forth and I'm amazed that somebody hasn't been hurt. And the other thing is they don't have the ability to get them over the screen very well with a slingshot so after a while they quit trying. I got my first T-shirt Monday," he adds proudly.

Of course, coming to so many games a season means adding to one's share of experiences.

"I've gotten two balls this year, and I almost broke a rib Saturday night," he says with a laugh. "A ball went back, and somebody bobbled it up there and came down the steps, and I turned to the left. I was afraid to take my eye off of it, so I went ahead and tried to turn around this way and almost cracked a rib."

Even minor league baseball has its risks.

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