Father and son taking in a Frederick Keys game at Harry Grove Stadium

Father and son taking in a Frederick Keys game at Harry Grove Stadium (ED BLOOM / June 18, 2014)

Among the joys of watching minor-league baseball in Maryland is that four of the Orioles’ minor-league teams—the Frederick Keys, the Delmarva Shorebirds (Salisbury), the Bowie Baysox, and the Aberdeen Ironbirds—play in such close proximity to each other and the big-league club. In the press box at a recent Delmarva Shorebirds game, the visiting team’s broadcaster loudly expressed envy over the relative closeness of the Orioles’ minor-league affiliates to the parent club. There’s also an intimacy associated with minor-league baseball that is absent at big-league games; whether it’s the atmosphere and more affordable cost of tickets that create an opportunity for families to enjoy each other’s company or the up and close and personal interaction with the ballplayers, minor-league baseball is more laid-back and casual than going to the big-league games. Plus, they’re readily accessible at the spur of the moment. We made early-season excursions to three of the four local parks—the Aberdeen Ironbirds’ season starts in mid-June—to let you know what’s on deck for 2014.

The truly ambitious game-goers should pick up the Birdland Passport, a cool little booklet with pages available to be stamped at all five of the Orioles’ minor-league locales—including the Norfolk Tides at Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va.—and Oriole Park. Passport holders can receive a “special reward” (a T-shirt) for visiting five of the six parks in the same season, and entry into a randomly selected drawing for a spring-training trip to see the Orioles play at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota next year for making it to all six.

 

You have to keep your eyes toward the ground when you’re walking along the concourses of the Orioles’ minor-league ballparks in Frederick, Bowie, Salisbury, and Aberdeen. There’s a lot going on in those first four feet above ground: Kids hopped up on high-fructose corn syrup and cotton candy scramble in every direction; puddles of spilled beer and splattered ketchup and mustard colorize the pavement. We almost stepped in a horse-sized dump dropped by a towering Great Dane and abandoned by the dog’s owner on “Bark in the Park” night at a recent Frederick Keys game at Harry Grove Stadium (21 Stadium Drive, Frederick, [301] 662-0013).

Half-carnival, half-spectator sporting event, sometimes it feels as is the game on the field is playing a secondary role to all of the peripheral activities surrounding minor-league baseball. The ballparks in Bowie, Frederick, and Salisbury all have carousels and other amusement-park rides located down the outfield lines inside the ballpark. In a time when ADD is the accepted norm, there’s always some kind of interactive contest, show, or call for audience participation designed to keep the kids engaged on top of the dugouts or in the stands between every half-inning.

But there’s plenty of adult fun to be had at the ballparks as well. In Frederick, my girlfriend and I shared a barbecue beef brisket panini and a huge grilled Italian sausage with a pair of locally produced beers from the Brewer’s Alley concession stand.

On the field, the majority of the minor-league players are young and unseasoned, but the quality of the baseball can be top-notch on any given night. Orioles’ third baseman Manny Machado recently completed a three-game rehab stint in Frederick, in which he went 8-for-12 with a triple, four doubles, two RBIs, five runs scored and a stolen base. (The jersey worn by Machado during his brief time in town was later auctioned on the Keys’ website for $993.88.) Slugger Chris Davis also completed a recent rehab stint with the Orioles AA Eastern League affiliate in Bowie.

The Keys are named for Frederick’s own “Star-Spangled Banner” scribbler, Francis Scott Key, who was born in town and is buried in the cemetery across the street from the ballpark under a huge bronze memorial in his own likeness. Opened in 1990, after 24 years as the home to the Baltimore Orioles’ single-A Carolina League affiliate, Harry Grove Stadium represents a nostalgic post-Rockwellian slice of minor-league Americana. In place of the Orioles’ tradition of singing “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” fans are instructed to stand up and shake their key chains and join in singing the team’s theme song, “We’re the Frederick Keys,” during the seventh-inning stretch.

 

Bowie Baysox

There were so many kids at Prince George’s Stadium (4101 Crain Highway, Bowie, [301] 805-6000) for a recent Bowie Baysox game that they seemed to outnumber the adults two-to-one, if not more. Many of the youngsters were cashing in free tickets to the game earned through the Baysox 18-years-and-running Home Run Reading Program, which rewards kids for reading at least four books outside of their regular curriculum with a complimentary ticket to a game. At one point during the game—an exciting 10-inning affair won by the home team on a walk-off infield single—the collective sound of children’s voices was like a tremendous group of birds chirping.

Again, in Bowie, they do a great job of keeping the kids entertained so the parents can also have some fun. We enjoyed huge half-pound burgers from the ballpark’s Black Angus Grille, washed down with a couple of pints of Troeg’s Sunshine Pils from a well-stocked microbrew beer stand. My favorite promotions in Bowie are the very adult beer dinners, which include pairings of beers and a themed buffet dinner in the ballpark’s Diamond View restaurant, scheduled each month throughout the season.

They still play “Gangnam Style” over the PA system in Bowie, and at the sound of the first note, every kid in the ballpark bounced up and began going through the wild gesticulations of the pop-dance phenomenon. After the game, we pulled out of the parking lot under a pretty impressive fireworks show, which happens most Friday nights during the season.

 

Delmarva Shorebirds

Arthur W. Perdue Stadium (6400 Hobbs Road, Salisbury, [410] 219-3112), named for chicken-magnate Frank Perdue’s father, is home to the Delmarva Shorebirds, the single-A South Atlantic League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and also houses the Eastern Shore Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame. We were greeted enthusiastically by volunteer docent Teddy Evans, who gave us a quick tour of the museum’s exhibits and memorabilia, drawing our attention to highlights like a set of Ty Cobb’s golf clubs and a pair of his sunglasses while providing a succinct but informative history of professional and semi-professional baseball in the region. There are plenty of black-and-white photos of the major-league stars and others who played in various local leagues during the area’s golden era, like Teddy himself, who proudly but humbly pointed out the trophy he received as Central Shore League batting champion in 1956.

While the crowd was relatively light on a recent Monday night game in Salisbury, it was a family affair of a different sort for 19-year-old Shorebirds pitcher Hunter Harvey, the Baltimore Orioles’ number-one draft pick of 2013. Harvey took the hill for the home team in front of his parents, who were visiting from North Carolina. Harvey’s father, Bryan, was a two-time All-Star during his nine-year major-league career. (Also, current Ironbirds outfielder Mike Yastrzemski is the grandson of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski.) In the best performance of his brief career to date, Harvey pitched seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts, and retired 16 consecutive batters in the Shorebirds 3-0 victory over the Lakewood Blueclaws.

When I bumped into him after the game in front of the Hampton Inn in Salisbury, where his parents and I both happened to be staying, the younger Harvey mentioned how his father’s presence influences his performance: “I love it when he comes to watch. I really just want to prove myself to him. He was an All-Star, and one of my goals is to be better than my dad. So that’s something I’m working toward.”