It's a breezy, early summer evening at Prince George's Stadium in Bowie. Batting practice has just ended, and the Class AA Eastern League game between the hometown Baysox and the Trenton Thunder won't be starting for another hour. Right now, there's a lazy feel to the goings-on around the stadium. The grounds crew is slowly dragging the infield, while a smattering of fans mill around the wide concourses at the top of the stands. Some buy hot dogs and beer before they start their search for prime seats in the general admission section. Others take their kids to the carousel or playground, both of which are only a relay throw away from the right field foul pole.

Out on the field, a few Baysox players are having a game of catch and a chat with a group of kids who have pressed themselves against the bullpen fence. Suddenly, balls go up in the air. There's a burst of action. Voices echo around the ballpark, and a pair of 8-year-old boys streak up the stadium steps. They're wearing blue Little League uniforms, and their mouths are agape, giving everyone a clear view of their matching Dodger-blue bubble gum.

Richard Jones is perched on the first row of general admission seats, about 13 rows up from the dugout. The boys are quickly advancing on him.

"Did you get one?" Jones asks his son, Will.

Will reaches his father, out of breath. He stretches out his arm to reveal a dirty, scuffed baseball thrown to him by one of the Baysox. His friend, Tony Bowen, also has a ball to show.

"All right," Jones says. "Two for two."

The Little Leaguers drop off their souvenirs, then head back out to the bullpen fence to hang out near the players, most of whom look young enough to be the boys' older brothers.

"This is our third game," says Jones, of Calvert County. "We came to our first last year, and [Will] loved it. He'll sit for an inning or two, and then he wants to go up to the kids' park. Then, he'll sit for a while longer and want to go back again. It's nice because, either way, the game is never out of your sight."

Carousels. Playgrounds. Players who chuck balls into the stands. These are only a few of the fan-friendly touches in today's not-so-shabby bush leagues. Add to the mix nightly promotions such as post-game concerts, wrestling matches and drop-ins by the sky-diving, jelly-doughnut-loving "Flying Elvises," and you've got a kitschy night of hardball entertainment (all for about $7 per ticket).

"We're also in the family entertainment business," says Charlie Vascellaro, director of public relations for Maryland Baseball, which owns three Baltimore Orioles farm teams: the Baysox, Frederick Keys and Delmarva Shorebirds (who play in Salisbury, Md.). "People have a lot of choices on how to fill their leisure time these days, and we have to be competitive with all those choices."

Bats, Balls and Darth Maul

Minor league franchises have always faced a unique problem in marketing their players, because the best of them are never around for very long. That's just the nature of the developmental system. Left-handed hurler Matt Riley has caused a stir among Baysox fans this year, but his success has also endangered his status as a Baysox player. Having earned a spot on the U.S. squad for the upcoming Pan Am games, he'll miss several weeks of the season. Once he returns, there's always the chance that he could be promoted to the Orioles' AAA affiliate in Rochester.

Resigned to the certain exodus of their stars, minor league teams preach an uncommon philosophy to their fans: Have fun, win or lose. The resulting promotions sometimes play like interactive vaudeville shows. Theme nights are abundant: "Star Wars," NASCAR, swing music. No cultural trend goes unnoticed. There are also lots of giveaways, everything from groceries to Sea-Doos. Weekly fireworks displays are another staple in many parks, and the between-innings contests are often hilarious. At Potomac Cannons games in Woodbridge, chosen fans get to race the team mascot around the bases, catch a Wiffle Ball that's been launched from a giant sling shot and square off against each other while dressed in inflatable Sumo wrestling costumes.

The winners do receive prizes for placing their dignity on the line.

The ever-widening disparity between minor league and major league ticket prices is another lure at the disposal of minor league teams, as are newer ballparks that offer big league touches. Bowie, Frederick and Delmarva all play in sparkling facilities that were constructed within the past 10 years. Each stadium is equipped with a video scoreboard and wide concourses behind the seats that allow fans to keep an eye on the action while visiting the concession stands. For kids who haven't yet come to appreciate an old-fashioned pitchers' duel, there is also a carousel, playground and kids-only food concession, which offers both smaller portions and prices.

Minor league teams like the Baysox are currently enjoying a run of hard-earned success, with turnstiles spinning like they were during the original bush-leagues heyday just after World War II. The all-time minor league record for attendance was set in 1949, when more than 39 million people turned out for games. At the time, there were 448 teams playing in 59 leagues. But like a high, hard one to the noggin, television coverage of major league games, as well as major league expansion, sent many of the minor league outfits reeling. By the mid-'70s, annual attendance was in the 10- to 11-million range, and only 137 teams were still in operation.

Minor league baseball staged a comeback in the 1980s. The rally was fueled, in part, by the movie "Bull Durham," which, if nothing else, made minor league merchandise a hot commodity. But the real impetus for the major minors resurgence was the "have fun, win or lose" marketing strategy. There's no arguing the success of those earliest theme nights and on-field contests. During the 1980s, attendance figures shot up faster than the Orioles team ERA during a series against the Yankees; from 12 million in 1980 to 25 million in 1990. Last year, attendance surpassed 35 million, with 174 teams playing in 15 leagues.

More than half of all minor league teams now play in stadiums that are less than 12 years old, and many older parks have undergone recent renovations. G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, home to the Class A Potomac Cannons (a St. Louis Cardinals affliliate), received touch-ups in 1994 and 1995, and 68-year-old Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown, home to the Class A Hagerstown Suns (Toronto Blue Jays), was spruced up in 1993. None of the intimacy that people associate with minor league parks has been lost amid the additions of picnic areas and kids' attractions. Even in the worst seats, you can still see a hitter grimace and spit after striking out. Sometimes, among a sparse crowd, you can even hear a pitcher's cry of fury after he serves up a tater.

Ground Rules

The Washington area (if you're talking about a 110-mile radius) is ripe with opportunities to savor the minor league experience. From Richmond to Hagerstown, the level of play and the types of facilities and promotions run the gamut. Antique grandstands. Ultra-modern skyboxes. Class A, AA and AAA ball. There's so much to choose from, a fan could use a guidebook to help plan a minor league road trip.

Fortunately, that guidebook exists. Fodor's "Ballpark Vacations" is like an encyclopedia of baseball stadiums, covering 75 minor and major league parks throughout the country, including those in Maryland and Virginia. It rates everything from food to mascots and also offers tips on the best ways to chat up players, snag foul balls and collect autographs.

The authors, Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel, who live in Bethesda, drove 25,000 miles and took in 85 ballgames while researching the book. Their overall verdict is that today's baseball fans are blessed by an abundance of fan-friendly ballparks.

"In the new stadiums, the family focus really makes it accommodating to young families," Engel says. "Some purists frown on merry-go-rounds, but you don't want baseball to just be a sport for nostalgia buffs. That's why teams make a concerted effort to get younger fans into the game."

As for stadiums close to home, Engel especially likes the newer parks in Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury. She also heaps praise on Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium for its nostalgic atmosphere.

"The old, covered grandstand gives it a special feel," she says. "It harkens back to the '40s and '50s. The crowd is also more compact and closer to the field than in Bowie or Frederick."

Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, which was built in 1984, is what might be called a 'tweener of a ballpark. It's too old to offer all the amenities of Bowie but too young to possess the historical significance of Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium, where Willie Mays once played. Nevertheless, Engel and Adams say the Cannons offer plenty of added entertainment with their lively between-inning contests and promotions. Fans quack like ducks, race around the infield dirt in go-karts and try to throw a baseball through a tire for prizes. Live bands also perform before Friday night Cannons games. During last season's "Grateful Dead Night," the Cannons got into the spirit by taking the field in tie-dyed jerseys.

The typical minor league stadium holds 4,000 to 6,000 fans, though teams can usually squeeze a few thousand spectators into grassy areas if the demand is high. The largest minor league stadium near Washington, and the only one to house a AAA team, is the Diamond in Richmond. Home to the Richmond Braves, the International League affiliate of Ted Turner's Atlanta squad, it holds 12,500 spectators. Between-inning contests aren't the norm here, say Engel and Adams. Richmond fans are more content to focus on the games, which feature the minor leagues' most-seasoned prospects.

The cozy atmosphere found in most minor league parks offers ample opportunities for autograph-seeking youngsters. The bullpen areas down the left- and right-field lines are especially popular hangouts among younger fans. Between innings, players often chat with kids or even toss balls over the fence to them. The parks in Frederick and Hagerstown offer another convenience to autograph seekers; the locker rooms are part of the concession concourses.

"They're wonderful places to wait before and after games," Engel says, "but there's good interaction at all of these parks."

Sign Her Up

Back in Bowie, Will and Tony are taking interaction to another level. The two of them, along with their entire Calvert County Babe Ruth Little League team, are trotting alongside Baysox players to their positions before the game. The kids will stay on the field through the national anthem. This is another minor league tradition, one that's played out almost every night at parks across the county.

Despite the many lures that clubs use to fill seats, the game is still the main attraction. George Tuccinardi, former baseball coach at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, is checking out tonight's game under the bill of a Boston Red Sox hat. Why the Sox? Because Bowie's foe this evening, the Trenton Thunder, is a Red Sox farm team, and Tuccinardi is a big Red Sox fan.

"I like to see the guys who are coming up, but it doesn't have to be the Red Sox," he says. "This is just a great place to relax and watch the game."

Tuccinardi's buddy, Ed Hiser, the current baseball coach at Friendly, says that while AA players aren't quite as polished as their major league elders, they still offer fans a high level of play.

"You see 90 mph fastballs, 400 foot home runs and double plays," he says. "And, on a smaller scale, this park has the same amenities as Camden Yards."

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the air-conditioned Diamond View Restaurant above home plate, where reservations are not required. Paul Lyles and Bob and Diana Greeno, all of Bowie, are eating dinner and enjoying the early innings of the game from a table by the window.

"It doesn't get any better than this," Bob says. "Sitting behind home plate and watching the game."

The three friends are especially fond of the crab cakes and daily specials such as mahi-mahi tacos. Prices for meals, which fall into the soup-and-sandwich category, average $8.

"We get up to the restaurant about once every two weeks," Bob says. "Other games, we'll sit in the general admission seats. We come to a lot of games. We're too regular."

They all share a laugh over that observation. Meanwhile, down below, a Trenton batter hooks a ball foul into the right field stands. Only a few people are seated in the area. One of them, 12-year-old Stephanie Young of Charles County, corrals it with her glove.

"That's why we're sitting here," says her father, Richard. "She's foul-ball hunting."

Stephanie beams at the dusty souvenir but then quickly turns her attention back to the game. A Little League catcher, she enjoys sitting this close to the action. She likes to observe the catchers on the field.

"I like coming to the games," she says. "The players seem nice. One of them autographed my glove before the game, but I can't read it."

She looks down at the sketchy signature inked into the leather and squints. Finally, she shrugs as if to say, "It doesn't really matter."

And she's probably right. There are plenty of autographs to be had. Maybe another foul ball. A ride on the carousel. A sprint around the bases. Lots of fun, win or lose.

Minor League Baseball Teams

Maryland

BOWIE BAYSOX -- Prince George's Stadium, 4101 NE Crain Hwy., Bowie. 301/805-6000. Web site: www.baysox.com. The Baysox are a Class AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles in the Eastern League. Single game ticket prices are $7-$12. Children 5 and under are admitted free, as are children 6-12 who attend the game in Little League uniforms. Military and senior citizen discounts are also offered. Fireworks displays are held after every Thursday and Saturday night game. The next homestand is Monday through Wednesday (July 19-21) against the Akron Aeros (a Cleveland Indians affiliate). Upcoming promotions include a hot dog eating contest Wednesday, '60s night (July 29) and an appearance by The Famous Chicken (July 30).

FREDERICK KEYS -- Harry Grove Stadium, 6201 New Design Rd., Frederick. 301/662-0088.

Web site: www.frederickkeys.com. The Keys are a Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles in the Carolina League. Individual game tickets are $6-$10. Children 5 and under are admitted free, as are children 12 and under wearing Little League jerseys and hats. Military and senior citizen discounts are also offered. The Keys are at home Saturday through Monday (July 17-19) against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (an Atlanta Braves affiliate) and again July 24-26 against the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City Royals). Upcoming promotions include a Sea-Doo giveaway and "Legends Classic Game" Saturday (July 17) and fireworks July 24. Postgame "Friday Night Jams" concerts will be held throughout the season.

HAGERSTOWN SUNS -- Municipal Stadium, 274 E. Memorial Blvd., Hagerstown, Md. 800/538-9967. Web site: www.hagerstownsuns.com. The Suns are a Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays in the South Atlantic League. Tickets for individual games are $5-$7. Children 5 and under are admitted free, and children under 17 are admitted for $3. Student, senior citizen and military discounts are also offered. The Suns play Friday (July 16) at 7:05 p.m. against the Charlestown Alley Cats (Kansas City Royals). Tonight is floppy cap giveaway. The next homestand is July 26-Aug. 2, with series against the Columbus RedStixx (Cleveland Indians) and the Macon Braves (Atlanta Braves). A fireworks display is planned for after the July 30 game.

DELMARVA SHOREBIRDS -- Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, 6400 Hobbs Rd., Salisbury, Md. 410/219-3112. Web site: www.theshorebirds.

com. The Shorebirds are a Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles in the South Atlantic League. Single-game tickets are $6.50-$17. Children 6-12 are admitted for $3. Children 5 and under are admitted free. Military discounts are offered. The Shorebirds play Friday (July 16) at 7:05 p.m. against the Cape Fear Crocs (Montreal Expos), with a postgame fireworks display. The next homestand is July 26-Aug. 2, with series against the Macon Braves (Atlanta Braves) and the Columbus RedStixx (Cleveland Indians). Fireworks displays are held after every Saturday evening home game.

Virginia

POTOMAC CANNONS -- G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium, 7 County Complex Ct., Woodbridge. 703/590-2311. www.potomaccannons.com. The Cannons are a Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals in the Carolina League. Single game tickets are $5-$9. Youth (6-14) and senior general admission is $4. Ages 5 and under free. The Cannons are at home Friday (July 16) against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Atlanta Braves), with a postgame fireworks display. Their next homestand is July 24-29, when they'll play series against the Lynchburg Hillcats (Pittsburgh Pirates) and the Salem Avalanche (Colorado Rockies). "Friday Night Jam" concerts are held on the field before every Friday evening game. Tonight's performer is the band Maven. The show starts at 6 p.m.

RICHMOND BRAVES -- The Diamond, 3001 N. Boulevard, Richmond. 800/849-4627. Web site: www.rbraves.com. The Braves are a AAA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves in the International League. Individual game tickets are $5-$8. Admission for seniors and children under 12 is $3. The Braves' next homestand is July 23-Aug. 1, when they'll play a series against the Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit Tigers), Indianapolis Indians (Cincinnati Reds), Louisville RiverBats (Milwaukee Brewers) and the Columbus Clippers (New York Yankees).

Resources

"FODOR'S BALLPARK VACATIONS," by Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel. $16.50 from Fodor's Travel Publications. Adams and Engel also have a Web site with information on minor league baseball travel: www.clark.net/pub/rothman/ballpark.htm.

CAPTION: The surroundings are often cozier for fans at minor league games than at a big league ballpark. At parks like Prince George's stadium, that can sometimes make it easier to snag an autograph or satisfy a sweet tooth.

CAPTION: Except for the occasional mascot blocking the view, every seat is a good one.

CAPTION: Although the stadiums offer plenty of amenities, there's nothing like the old-time feel of a minor league game.