For local baseball fans, this may be the best summer ever. D.C. has fallen in love with the Nationals, as Bryce Harper and all-star Stephen Strasburg have lived up to their monumental hype and led the team into first place. Up Interstate 95, the Orioles are making Baltimore believe again — a tough task considering the club is in the throes of a miserable streak of 14 consecutive losing seasons. Thanks to a hot start, the Orioles remain in the thick of the playoff hunt.
Where have those successful teams been built? In little towns outside the Beltway such as Hagerstown, Bowie and Woodbridge. The Nationals and Orioles have minor league teams in those towns that serve as incubators for the major league squads. But watching a future big league player is only a small part of the draw of a minor league baseball game. After all, the vast majority of players you see on the field during any given game will never make it to “the show.”
The thrills of going to a minor league game extend far beyond what transpires on the diamond — unless it’s on the diamond after the game, when a monkey is riding a dog in a Monkey Dog Rodeo. (We saw this at two different stadiums on one recent weekend.) It’s about the creative promotions, the fun giveaways, the artery-clogging concessions, the ease of getting autographs, sitting close to the field without breaking the bank and seeing all of those local advertisements that fill nearly every inch of the outfield wall.
So if you want to spend the next two months going to as many games as possible without forking over major league dollars, let this serve as your guide on how best to enjoy the area’s many minor league offerings. You might not see the next Nats or O’s superstar, but can that really compete with a monkey riding a dog?
The basics: Just a long fly ball from I-95 sits Ripken Stadium, home of the short-season Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, the Aberdeen IronBirds. Owned by legendary former Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., the IronBirds play in a sleek-looking, decade-old stadium with open-air concourses, party decks and comfortable seats with terrific sight lines that make it well worth the hour-and-a-half drive from Washington.
Tickets: $9.50-$30. 410-297-9292. www.ironbirdsbaseball.com.
Activities: For kids, there’s an outdoor shed with claw machines, an inflatable slide, a speed gun to clock your fastball and an arcade-style Wiffle ball game. Head down the first base line and grab a seat at the paper-covered tables to crack open some crabs at Conrad’s Crab and Seafood Deck.
Concessions: One of the more popular stands offers county fair-themed fare, including fried Oreos, fried pickles, ice cream sundaes and funnel cake. Most notable of all, however, is the Funnel Cake Baconator with maple syrup, bacon and chocolate sauce. If you’re up for a challenge, head over to the Charred Rib for the Pig Feast: two pounds of ribs and a half-pound of barbecue piled on fries and rolls with a half-pound side of coleslaw.
Upcoming promotions: The IronBirds regularly hold fireworks nights, with the next one July 13. The team will welcome Star Wars fans July 12 and celebrate Christmas in July on the 26th.
Get an autograph from: Torsten Boss, a third baseman selected in the eighth round of the draft this June, has made a strong early impression, hitting for power and getting on base.
Top tip: Get there early. This has nothing to do with traffic; it’s an invitation to explore. Adjacent to the stadium is Ripken’s sprawling youth baseball complex, which features fields modeled after famous stadiums, including a miniature Oriole Park at Camden Yards that has a brick hotel standing in for Baltimore’s B&O Warehouse. In Ripken Stadium itself, banners hang above the concourse showing past IronBirds who have made it to the majors, with their pictures from Aberdeen on one side and pictures as big leaguers on the other.
— Brandon Weigel
The basics: Some stadiums have a retro feel. Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown is really retro. The home of the Suns, the Nationals’ low Class A affiliate, was built in 1930 and has had a few updates, but it maintains a rickety old charm. There’s also some history to it: Willie Mays played his first professional game at Municipal Stadium as a member of the visiting Trenton Giants in 1950, although it might soon be known as Bryce Harper’s first professional home.
Tickets: $9-$12. 301-791-6266. www.hagerstownsuns.com.
Activities: It’s a pretty operation in Hagerstown. Kids entertain themselves the old-fashioned way, running around and being loud. Between innings, fans come out for three-legged races and kids guess the price of ice cream in a “Price Is Right”-type game, with prizes awarded to the winners. The prizes are, invariably, tickets to future Suns games.
Concessions: It’s mostly standard ballpark fare — hot dogs, hamburgers, french fries, popcorn — without a real trademark item, though the funnel fries were tasty and should be on more stadium menus. A beer garden next to left field is stocked with microbrews and offers some shade on especially sunny afternoons.
Upcoming promotions: Aug. 3-5 is Bryce Harper Hall of Fame Weekend, as Hagerstown celebrates the career of the Nationals’ 19-year-old phenom who just last year called Hagerstown his temporary home. On Aug. 4, the first 1,000 fans will receive a Bryce Harper garden gnome, which just sounds awesome.
Get an autograph from: Brian Goodwin was the Nationals’ 2011 supplemental first-round pick and is living up to his draft status during his first professional season. The 22-year-old center fielder has power, speed and covers plenty of ground in center field — a good recipe for a future major leaguer.
Top tip: When you pull into the parking lot and see all of those open spaces near the entrance, don’t be enticed. There’s a reason they’re empty — foul balls regularly leave the stadium and crash down on the cars near the entrance gate.
— David Malitz
The basics: Harry Grove Stadium is home to the reigning Carolina League champion Frederick Keys, the high Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The 5,500-seat stadium was built in 1990, near the intersection of I-270 and I-70. Several updates, including the addition of a new scoreboard in 2009, have kept it an appealing place to spend an evening for less than top dollar: The best seats in the house go for $14.
Tickets: $8-$14. 301-815-9939. www.frederickkeys.com.
Activities: Kids can frolic in the right field Fun Zone, which includes a carousel and moon bounce, or chase foul balls as they’re hit into the grass general admission seating areas along the first and third base lines. The team sets off postgame fireworks on Friday and Saturday nights.
Concessions: Frederick has a nice craft beer scene these days, which you can sample with plenty of Flying Dog and Brewer’s Alley offerings at concourse beer stands. Beyond the usual ballpark array of hot dogs, chicken tenders and nachos, there’s one thing more big league parks could adopt: Fritos Chili Pie. It’s a huge serving of chili, cheese and the corn chips that goes for just $5 at the Dugout Dogs stand along the first base line.
Upcoming promotions: Regrettably, Six Months Till the End of the World Night came and went on June 21, but you still can look forward to Super Hero Night (July 14), an appearance by wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (July 27) and Tribute to the Mustache Night (Aug. 22). On Guaranteed Win Night (July 17, Aug. 7 and 21), a loss by the Keys means free admission to a future game for those in attendance.
Get an autograph from: Taken fourth overall in the 2011 draft, Dylan Bundy is the top pitching prospect in the Orioles’ farm system. The 19-year-old right-hander pitched 30 scoreless innings and gave up five hits while striking out 40 batters before earning promotion to Frederick from Class A Delmarva. And it might not be long before he’s pitching at Camden Yards. Baltimore Ravens fans might want to seek out first baseman Michael Flacco, the younger brother of quarterback Joe.
Top tip: Sit in Section 119 or on the grassy patch along the first base line to slap hands with Keys pitchers as they go back-and-forth to the clubhouse. Take a seat along the green fence, and when it comes time for a pitcher to warm up in the bullpen mere feet away, you’ll want to reach for your catcher’s mitt.
— Alex Baldinger
The basics: The Orioles’ Class AA franchise is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and the Baysox have reeled off five consecutive winning seasons. But the team truly has excelled in the art of promotion. Past examples include “Office Space” night, during which fans could smash printers and fax machines with baseball bats in exchange for donations to charity; a Betty White Night with a look-alike contest; and numerous attempts to set world records for (among other things): simultaneous yo-yoing, pillow-fighting, sitting on whoopee cushions and brushing teeth.
Tickets: $7-$17. 301-464-4865. www.baysox.com.
Activities: Leave the Nintendo DS at home, because there’s no way a kid can get bored at Prince George’s Stadium. The kids’ park in right field has a carousel, a moon bounce, a test-your-speed pitching area and an inflatable Wiffle ball batting cage (yes, as cool as it sounds). During the game, Baysox employees troll the crowd to find participants for such between-innings activities as three-legged races (teams of two wearing size 68 jeans) and races atop inflatable rocking horses. Kids get to run the bases after every game.
Concessions: Head for the Black Angus Grille on the third-base concourse. Pickle on a Stick ($2) is exactly what it sounds like, although you might not be expecting it to be the size of an eggplant. You also can fill up on the third-of-a-pound Bowie Big Dog — far too long for its bun — which comes topped with grilled onions and served on a platter with baked beans and cole slaw.
Upcoming promotions: The calendar is full of events ranging from the annual Daddy-Daughter Date Night ($20 for two tickets and two hot dogs), on July 19, to the Fireworks and Flames Show, a “fireworks and flame wheel extravaganza” commemorating the War of 1812, on Aug. 24. The Matt Weiters bobble arm promotion Aug. 15 honors the former Baysox catcher’s Gold Glove win last season.
Get an autograph from: Shortstop Manny Machado, who turned 20 on Friday, was the Orioles’ top pick in the 2010 draft — No. 3 overall — and impresses with his arm strength and above-average range. He’s making his second consecutive appearance in the All-Star Futures Game this weekend.
Top tip: Tickets are $2 cheaper if you buy them by midnight the day before the game. Use the savings to buy a pickle on a stick.
The basics: It has been a long journey for the franchise that became the Potomac Nationals. This 35th-anniversary season is the team’s eighth as the Nationals’ high Class A affiliate. Before they were the P-Nats, seven major league teams operated the franchise, and the team has undergone many name changes and one move (from Alexandria to Prince William County). In Woodbridge, Pfitzner Stadium is the centerpiece of the Prince William County sports complex, which features a half-dozen softball fields. It’s all lush forest beyond center field, which gives the stadium a pleasantly tranquil feel.
Tickets: $7-$15. Parking, $5. 703-590-2311. www.potomacnationals.com.
Activities: If the little ones get restless, a Kids Zone near the right-field grandstand has all of the minor league park staples — moon bounce, inflatable slide and pitching and hitting areas. Plus, mascot Uncle Slam is always wandering around the stadium, ready to entertain. He’s also the team’s resident Teddy, losing a race to a lucky kid in the crowd at every home game.
Concessions: There’s nothing too out of the ordinary, but select Wednesday home games are Bellybuster Nights, at which you can upgrade an $8 grandstand seat to a $15 all-you-can-eat buffet.
Upcoming promotions: Harry Potter Night, Family Guy Night, Star Wars Night — there’s usually something going on at Pfitzner Stadium. Friday is Stephen Strasburg bobblehead night — a bit odd considering he made just a lone rehab start there last season. But hey, Strasburg bobblehead.
Get an autograph from: After dominating in Hagerstown last season, David Freitas has continued to hit well while showing good plate discipline in Potomac. He could be the Nationals’ catcher of the future.
Top tip: Make sure to check out the plaques in the Potomac Hall of Fame to get an appreciation for some of the greats who played in Prince William County. Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols have won 10 combined MVP awards in the major leagues and played some of their earliest ball in Woodbridge.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs
The basics: Yes, we know. Technically the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs aren’t a minor league team (they belong to the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball). But with inexpensive seats close to the action and wacky promotions, they have all the hallmarks of a minor league team with a few major league names. The Blue Crabs, which are owned by former Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson and Opening Day Partners, play at the Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf.
Tickets: $6-13. 301-638-9788. www.somdbluecrabs.com.
Activities: Two words: bumper boats. And yes, adults can get in on the action, too. There also is Pinch’s Playground, a place just for kids with inflatables and a rock wall.
Concessions: Perhaps the only club to cannibalize its own, the Blue Crabs offer crab cakes and even crab beer. Don’t leave without trying the crab dip with pretzel bites.
Upcoming promotions: You can pick up a “Papa” Pinch Garden Gnome (Aug. 6) and a light switch cover (Sept. 9). The Friday game features an appearance by the World War II veterans who were portrayed in HBO’s “Band of Brothers.”
Get an autograph from: Chin-Lung Hu was a former top-five prospect for the Los Angeles Dodgers and won MVP honors at the 2007 All-Star Futures Game. The shortstop spent parts of five seasons in the major leagues, including 22 games last year with the New York Mets.
Top tip: Save your money and buy lawn seats. Just beyond the right field wall, between the bumper boats and Pinch’s Playground, the gently sloping green space is a perfect place for families to spread a blanket. Of course, it’s also a prime location to snag a home-run ball.