Major League Baseball could break your heart. The Montreal Expos (over and over and over). The potential sites for high-tech stadiums. (If we build it, will they come? And where will they park?) Meanwhile, major-league ticket prices keep rising. Athletes' salaries rival the GNP. Steroids threaten the State of the Union. And strikes these days are as likely to be job actions as swings of the bat.
So strike back. Shrug off the major annoyances and try the minor thrill. There are a half-dozen minor league stadiums within 100 miles of the Beltway, plus a seventh near the shore, and a couple of visits will convince you there is still something magical about a diamond in the night.
Following the minors is a lot cheaper, of course. The teams not only charge less for tickets -- and there are plenty of dollar nights, two-for-ones and other special promotions -- but the parking is nearly always free. All stadiums are wheelchair accessible and limit smoking to specific areas.
More important, the players are within reach, physically and emotionally. You'll never need binoculars at a minor league stadium -- in most cases, the seats are so close to the field that there isn't even room for bullpens; the pitchers just warm up in foul territory -- and the bond between the teams and their communities is obvious from the billboards and promotions for truck sales, chiropractors and local radio stations. Players are more apt to sign autographs, shirts and even gloves -- which can be even more of a thrill if your favorite player makes it up to the majors: Bowie outfielder Val Majewski, considered a very hot prospect, has worked his way up through all four area O's farm teams in just three years. And every once in a while you'll see a major-leaguer up close and personal because he's recovering from an injury: Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston recently spent several weeks at Bowie rehabbing a fractured finger.
Minor league stadiums have a much more playful atmosphere, and far less regimented seating. Children tend to run around in packs yelling at one another, blowing plastic trumpets and frantically chasing foul pops into the parking lot. Teenagers huddle over cell phones. Seniors, most of whom seem to be old friends, spread out and tell jokes. Kids get to play announcer and run the base paths; fans rather than recording artists sing the national anthem. Many of the minor league stadiums have carousels or moon bounces and speed-pitch tents to entertain younger fans when they get restless, as well as special kids' clubs activities, baseball camps and even sleepovers. Little Leaguers and T-ball teams get to go out on the field with the players while the anthem is being performed and often get in free when wearing uniforms. Costumed mascots and other characters such as Wilmington's mysterious Mr. Celery wander freely through the seats.
To fit family schedules, and also because it doesn't take nearly as long to park and seat 5,000 or 6,000 people as it does 40,000, night games generally start at 7:05 rather than 7:35. Pre-game activities include high-school drill team demonstrations and theatricals; post-game fireworks, at least a couple of times a month, are dependable draws. And the constant parade of silly contests between innings -- dizzy races, sack races, softball throws, musical chairs, "YMCA" dances -- will remind even cynical adults of summers gone by.
If you take the area tour, you'll see a lot of orange and black. The Aberdeen, Frederick, Bowie and Delmarva teams in Maryland are all affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, an unusual geographic convenience; the Hagerstown Suns also wear those colors, because of their affiliation with the orange-and-black San Francisco Giants. There's a T-shirt in the Aberdeen souvenir shop showing the IronBirds, Keys, Baysox and Shorebirds logos, with the Oriole himself in the middle; you could almost use it as a wearable autograph book. And thanks to the joint ownership of Frederick, Bowie and Delmarva, season tickets for any of the three are good for general admission to the other two stadiums.
You'll also see a whole lot more foul balls in the minors, including some wicked line drives; it's a good idea to pay close attention to the game or to buy seats behind home plate, where the screen protects you. (The Cannons' motto is "Real Baseball. Real Close," and the phrase cuts both ways.) What you may not hear much of is the "O!" that Orioles fans used to shout out at the beginning of the last couplet of the national anthem; for whatever reason, that tradition seems to be fading away. And unless you listen to OutKast as frequently as you do John Fogerty, you may not recognize all the musical snippets played as sports commentary these days. Taking the minor league tour may also allow you to see the same teams both home and away; the Keys, the Cannons and the Wilmington Blue Rocks all play in the Class A Carolina League, Delmarva and Hagerstown in the one-half-step-lower Class A South Atlantic League.
A few tips: If you're planning to buy general admission tickets, you may want to equip yourself with seat cushions: Although reserved and box seats are usually fold-down chairs, GA seats are usually benches. Concessions are predictable -- mostly hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken strips and pizza, plus some barbecue, nacho chips and kids'-menu items. (No food or beverages may be brought in from outside.) However, many venues have a buffet club level, and some have wait service for box seats. Most minor league stadiums offer premium or microbrew beers as well as the usual brands.
So now, ladies and gentlemen, here they are: Your . . . Washington area . . . minors!
Here are the minor league facilities nearest Washington:
THE HAGERSTOWN SUNS
The Suns play in the oldest stadium of the group, the third-oldest minor league stadium still operating in the country. It dates from 1931, and though it is showing its age around the restrooms and such (and is constantly rumored to be in danger of replacement), it has some period touches that are uniquely minor-league, particularly the manually operated scoreboard out in left field; fans 18 or older can sign up to take a turn hanging the runs/hits/errors numbers. The stadium resembles a college facility with a broadcast booth that doubles as a partial covering for the bleachers. Except for a few rows of VIP seats along the base lines, it's all bleacher seating, although they have some cushioning, and short-legged beach chairs are much in evidence as stadium seats.
The Suns are one of two National League affiliates in the area, the Giants' entry into the South Atlantic League. Even so, you won't see a pitcher bat, here or anywhere else on the minor league circuit; every team uses the designated hitter. The mascot is an orange-and-black woolly worm called Woolly B (theme song, "Wooly Bully"). Although the team's colors don't come from the Orioles, the Suns were an Orioles farm team for about a decade in the '80s and early '90s; Jim Palmer spent one week in rehab here. And at other times, the franchises that are now in Bowie and Frederick were in Hagerstown. (One Hagerstown team was even affiliated with the late, lamented Senators.) Municipal Stadium also used to host Negro League games and was the site of Willie Mays's first pro-ball appearance in 1950; there are historical plaques around the concourse.
Municipal Stadium -- 274 E. Memorial Blvd., Hagerstown; 301-791-6266 or www.hagerstownsuns.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 270 north to I-70 west to Exit 32B/Route 40 west; take Route 40 to a left onto Eastern Boulevard to the light at Memorial Boulevard; turn right to the parking lot. General admission $6 adults; ages 12 and younger, 60 and older, and active military $5.
THE FREDERICK KEYS
Harry Grove Stadium is many fans' first foray into the minors, and it's a classic, short on pretension and very long on audience activities. The Frederick Keys are named for native son Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," who is buried, along with Barbara Fritchie of "old gray head" fame, in Mount Olivet Cemetery, which faces the stadium across the parking lot. In summer, the cemetery's main gate remains open until at least 7, so if you want, you can park the car, walk along the side of the cemetery to Market Street and see Key's massive monument just inside the entrance.
The Keys routinely draw well regardless of their record. (How popular is this team? The stadium seats 5,400, but a record 11,000 fans turned out Aug. 31, a year after the franchise's all-time worst season; so don't leave your seat unattended.) The mascot is neither a key nor a bird, but the canid Keyote. He was partially inspired by Wile E., although he originally had a rounder, more bearish face; he's had three facelifts, each leaving him more lean and long-muzzled. (The droopy ears weren't intentional, however; they started out pointed but, being packed and unpacked so often, they've lost their perkiness.)
Frederick has a unique seventh-inning stretch tradition: The crowd sings "Shake Your Keys," written for the team by Washington duo Holly & Lou, and fans shake as large a ring of keys as can be assembled. The team is also unique in its female announcer, Victoria Gordon, who is less theatrically florid than many of her colleagues; and it has the best variety of beer, including several regional microbrews. It also serves gumbo (at the Power Alley Pub) and $1 dogs.
The Fun Zone in left field includes a carousel, moon bounce, pitching booth and arcade games (each $1 entry). The Keys Cafe, a reservations-only buffet on the second floor, includes access to club box seats. There are also skyboxes that hold up to 14.
Watch for former Oriole lefty Scott McGregor, beloved for pitching a complete game shutout of the Phillies that clinched the 1983 World Series, and now the Keys' pitching coach.
Harry Grove Stadium -- 21 Stadium Dr., Frederick; 301-662-0013 (information) or 301-815-9900 (tickets) or www.frederickkeys.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 270 north to Exit 32, Route 70 east; then take Exit 54, turn left at the light onto Route 355 and take the second left onto Stadium Drive. General admission $8 for adults, $5 ages 6-12, 61 and older, and active military; kids 5 and younger free. Box seats $9 and $11; Keys Cafe $36 adults, $23 12 and younger. Youth league players 12 and younger who wear their uniforms get in free on Monday nights.
THE ABERDEEN IRONBIRDS
The IronBirds may officially be the lowest-level team on the tour, but Ripken Stadium is a beaut -- the minor league's version of a major league facility. There are no bleachers here; even the cheap seats are chairs, and the skyboxes and broadcast booth are serious. The closest thing to general admission is the Picnic Plaza at the end of the left field line. There is no patchwork of ads pasted to the backboard, either: The scoreboards look like miniatures of those at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, complete with radar gun report; and it's the only stadium on the tour to have bullpens that aren't actually on the field. It has a more serious club level than most, plus an "open air cafe" right behind home plate (you eat from the buffet inside but can sit either inside or out). Longtime Oriole hero Cal Ripken Jr. founded the IronBirds and was a partner in the building of the facility; the possibility of catching a glimpse of him or his brother, sometime O's infielder Billy Ripken, is one of the stadium's lures. In fact, season tickets have been sold out all three years of the team's existence.
The IronBirds are in the New York-Penn League; although it's called Class A, it's only the first rung above the rookie leagues and has a truncated schedule. The team's name is a combination of Ripken's nickname, the Iron Man (itself a tribute to "Iron Horse" Lou Gehrig, whose consecutive-game record Ripken broke), and the Orioles' informal moniker. (As it happens, Ripken himself never played in any of the stadiums on this tour; he was drafted by the O's at age 17 and played in Charlotte and Rochester, N.Y.) The IronBirds' new manager is another member of the Orioles' Hall of Fame, switch hitter and lead-off man Don Buford. The IronBird logo is a jet, albeit with a somewhat beaky prow. However, there is also a large, fuzzy oxymoronic IronBird of the costumed variety named Ferrous.
Because the New York-Penn League has a shorter schedule than higher leagues, Ripken Stadium also hosts some collegiate and international matchups, including the Team USA-Team Canada contest Sunday; the High School All-American Game Aug. 6 and the second annual Cal Ripken World Series Aug. 13-22 while the IronBirds are on the road.
Ripken Stadium -- 873 Long Dr., Aberdeen, Md.; 410-297-9292 or www.ironbirdsbaseball.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 95 through Baltimore and the tunnel to Exit 85/Md. 22 east to Aberdeen and Churchville; take the left fork toward Churchville back over the interstate; take a left onto Beard's Hill Road, left onto Maxa Road, another left onto Gilbert and left again onto Long Road and the stadium entrance. Reserved box seats and Picnic Plaza $6, terrace $8, loge $9.
THE WILMINGTON BLUE ROCKS
Visiting the Wilmington Blue Rocks in Delaware may sound like a real field trip, but they're only about a half-hour beyond the IronBirds, which makes for a great Saturday night/Sunday afternoon doubleheader. (The stadium is also only about 90 minutes from Rehoboth, making it a beach-break possibility.) If you've ever had the thrill of taking the New York subway to a ball game and suddenly, from the window, seeing into Yankee Stadium or the Mets' Shea, you'll love Wilmington's Frawley Stadium, which is tucked so neatly alongside Interstate 95 that you could probably catch the score if you were running late. The Blue Rocks are the Class A team of the Kansas City Royals, and over the last 11 years, the team has had the best winning percentage of all full-season minor league clubs.
The team name refers to the fact that Wilmington was once a center of blue granite quarrying, and one of the symbols of the team is a bright blue, pickax-toting chunk of granite named Rubble. The main mascot is Rocky Bluewinkle, who looks a lot like a fairly famous cartoon moose except for his complexion. However, the cult character is Mr. Celery, who dates to a long-closed salad bar but still makes appearances to celebrate every Blue Rocks home run; he has his own cheering squad, complete with green face paint and clothing.
The stadium, which seats more than 6,500, has a uniquely urban vista thanks to the elevated highway to the left, the Wilmington skyline in the distance and glimpses of the river. The field is named for William Julius "Judy" Johnson, who, along with Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, was part of the Pittsburgh Crawfords team that dominated the Negro League in the '30s. Like Cal Ripken, Johnson played shortstop and third base and was a consistent .300-plus hitter; a statue of Johnson stands just outside the stadium.
There are three full-service concession stands and several smaller ones, plus the Blue Rocks Cafe, a $30 buffet with seating, and luxury suites. Even better, just across from the parking lot, along Wilmington's Riverfront promenade, there are several large full-service restaurants.
Among Blue Rocks' promotions is Story Time Sundays, when a player reads a book to kids on the field before game time while they get their faces painted; and Stress-Free Saturdays, with massages available on the concourse. Kids can also run the bases after Sunday games. A few players give autographs between 6:15 and 6:40 every Friday.
Daniel S. Frawley Stadium -- 801 S. Madison St., Wilmington, Del.; 302-888-2015 (information), 302-888-2583 (tickets) or www.bluerocks.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 95 north into Delaware and take Exit 6/Maryland Avenue. Turn right onto Maryland, right again at Read Street and another right onto South Madison. General admission $5 adults; ages 4-12, 61 and older, and active military $2; under 3 free. Box and upper box $9, 61 and older $7; reserved seats $8, 61 and older $6. Cafe seating $30.
THE BOWIE BAYSOX
As an AA team, the Baysox play at the highest level of the area teams, and even though the Orioles do have a AAA team (in Ottawa), the Baltimore team uses Bowie as a sort of extended bench. The higher-league position also means that the Baysox play with three umpires on the field rather than only two. The stadium seats more than 10,000, and you enter from the top and walk down, as you do in Wilmington. Rather sweetly, the turn-off for the stadium is alongside Rip's restaurant, which has its own set of baseball and softball fields where generations of Washington workers relive their childhood fantasies. There are several concession stands and the Diamond View restaurant, which is usually taken for private parties but which is occasionally open to the public. There are also several large party rooms and a picnic pavilion looking down over the left field line. The mascot's name is Louie, and (with apologies to Fenway Park) one can describe him only as a big green monster. But he's a good hugger.
Among more traditional promotions at Bowie are Rockfish Frydays (fish fry Fridays); $5 box seats every Tuesday; and fireworks every Saturday and most Fridays. In addition to running the bases after Sunday home games, kids can play catch on the field before the game starts. There's the usual inflatable pitching tent, moon bounce and playground ($1 entries), and the carousel is a particularly pretty one. Prince George's Stadium is the home of the annual congressional charity baseball game (July 8) and this year will be hosting the Eastern League AA All-Star Game July 14. (July 1 is Whoopee Cushion World Record Night. You'll be all set.)
Prince George's Stadium -- 4101 NE Crain Hwy., Bowie; 301-805-6000 or www.baysox.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Exit 19A, which is Route 50 east, toward Annapolis. Proceed on Route 50 to Exit 13A, which is Route 301 south. From left-hand lane, proceed to second traffic light, turn left on Ballpark Drive. General admission $9 adults, ages 6-12, 60 and older, and active military $6; 5 and under free. Reserved box seats $12, field box seats $14. Sundays through Thursdays, ages 12 and under in youth league uniforms free.
THE DELMARVA SHOREBIRDS
Arthur W. Perdue Stadium is another pretty little venue, with a merry-go-round down the left field line and an almost palpable clean-and-shiny look that irresistibly brings to mind the commercials featuring "obsessive" Jim Perdue. It was named in honor of his grandfather, the founder of the poultry empire, and Jim's father, the courtly Frank Perdue, is frequently in attendance. It has a markedly relaxed, community-friendly feel, but is clearly comfort-conscious, with sky suites and a good broadcast booth and sound system. It's only a quick drive from Ocean City, and pulling off to catch a Friday night game on the way to the beach might solve the munchies and the are-we-there-yet blues. The playground will help, too.
The Shorebirds' mascot, Sherman, is definitely an orange bird, as befits their affiliation with the Orioles, but he is not a chicken: Like Louie, he's a somewhat ambiguous species (he recently underwent a beak rhinoplasty and much-needed costume rehab). There is also an unofficial lesser mascot, the rubber Rally Chicken. The Shorebirds' seventh-inning stretch ritual is also a little unusual: It's the chicken dance, which makes that "YMCA" thing look calm.
Perdue Stadium has an additional feature, the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame, which houses old photographs, bats and balls, uniforms, gloves and trophies from various amateur, pro and semi-pro players from around the region. The museum is open during home games or by appointment. The best gift option here, aside from a Rally Chicken, is a bronze plaque at the Jimmie Foxx Home Run Club; for $100, you can have one inscribed to salute a family member or friend. (Foxx, a Sudlersville, Md., native, was a three-time MVP, hit 534 home runs and had a lifetime .325 average.)
Arthur W. Perdue Stadium -- 6400 Hobbs Rd., Salisbury, Md., at the intersection of routes 50 and 13; 410-219-3112 or www.theshorebirds.com. From the Capital Beltway take Route 50 east to Salisbury just past the Route 13 bypass; from Ocean City, take Route 50 west to the light at Hobbs Road and turn left to the parking lot. General admission $6, box seats $9, field boxes $11 and luxury-level seats $12.
THE POTOMAC CANNONS
The Potomac Cannons are the Cincinnati Reds' Class A team, the other National League farm team -- although, in its quarter-century of play, the team has also been affiliated with the Yankees, the Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates and, until two years ago, with the St. Louis Cardinals. To be frank, the drive to Pfitzner Stadium can be the most stressful of the seven, even though it's not the farthest, thanks to traffic in the area. It's also the only one that charges for parking ($3). And the 20-year-old stadium itself is the least impressive from the outside. (Rumors persist that a bigger, better stadium is in the works.) Once inside, however, it grows on you. It's a pretty field, with a fine tree line behind the walls and bleacher seats angling in at the ends, and seems far more intimate than the 5,500-seat venue it is. Be warned, it has bowl acoustics that carry your voice, family gossip and all, for quite a ways.
The team name refers, of course, to the nearby Manassas battlefield; the clearly pacifistic mascot, who has a cannon for a nose and is called Big Shot, rather resembles an aardvark. There's little in the way of amusements, except for on-the-field contests and a speed-pitch game near the entrance, but there are a fair number of on-field fan contests and softball under the lights on the other fields. (Not to mention Jimmy Buffett theme night July 16.) Among the more unusual souvenirs for sale is a Barry Bonds bobble-head doll (he was a Prince William Pirate in 1985).
G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium -- 7 County Complex Ct., Woodbridge. 703-590-2311 or www.potomaccannons.com. From the Capital Beltway, take Interstate 95 south to Exit 15-B/Prince William Parkway and go five miles; turn right into County Complex Court. Or take I-66 to Route 28 south/Manassas; go six miles and turn left onto Liberia Avenue and left again on Prince William Parkway. Go 7 1/2 miles to a left onto County Complex Court. Reserved seats $9, box seats $10-$11; general admission $7 adults, $6 ages 6-12 and 62 and up; 5 and under free.
Eve Zibart is a staff writer for Weekend.