The lights are on. The outfield is mowed, and the baselines are chalked. The infield dirt is getting one final mist of water so it won't crumble under the spikes of players chasing grounders and running out doubles.

On the mound is pitcher Brian Finch, 23, the starter for the Frederick Keys. His warm-up music, a rap song about being a superstar, pumps over the loudspeakers in Harry Grove Stadium: "live large/big house/five cars."

A spotty crowd fills in, full of families and packs of teenagers. Behind the Keys' dugout, a team of female softball players flirts with the minor leaguers and jumps to catch sunflower seeds and gum they flick out of the dugout.

Finally, the umpires take their places. At 7:04 p.m., Finch throws his first pitch.

Strike!

With that, the public side of a summer-night ritual -- minor league baseball -- begins again.

But one recent day spent at the stadium showed that the preparations for the game actually started about 11 hours earlier.

At this ballpark -- which those in and out of uniform treat as a steppingstone to something bigger -- game nights begin at 8 in the morning.

"People think we just come out here . . . cook some hot dogs and open the gates," said Shaun O'Neal, the team's advertising sales manager. In reality, he said, there's a lot more to it.

First, consider the grass.

Jon Pawlik, the head groundskeeper, cut it at 8 a.m. on this recent day, in preparation for a night game between the Keys and the Salem (Va.) Avalanche.

He mowed the grass, snipping off the very tips of blades that had grown since the last mowing, and mashed the turf flat with a special roller. The result was an outfield fit for the majors. With a two-inch buzz cut, crosshatched with light and dark green stripes, it fairly glowed under the lights.

Pawlik would like to be a big-league groundskeeper some day. His outfield, here at this 5,500-seat baseball outpost, is his resume.

"Fans don't know what you do," he conceded. "But when they see this, they say, 'Wow, it looks good.' "

Then there's the sound coming through the stadium's loudspeakers. The Keys are way beyond the cheesy organ music of minor league ballparks past. Instead, they've got a computerized music program called "Stadium Click Effects."

Maintaining it falls to public relations assistant Eric Jarinko, 23. His is not an easy job: These players, mainly in their twenties, are partial to potty-mouthed rap music so Jarinko has to seek out expurgated versions of their favorites.

In one case, when second baseman Nate Spears chose the 50 Cent song "Candy Shop" for his coming-to-bat music, Jarinko had to chuck the words entirely and use an instrumental version.

When a player doesn't select his own music, Jarinko has to choose it, dipping his toe into the mysterious world of baseball karma. He got lucky with his pick for third baseman Bryan Bass.

"I picked a L'il Jon song for him," Jarinko said, naming a popular rapper and producer. "He's raised his [batting] average about 60 points since then."

Then think of the fans: How did they get here? Most of them had to deal with the team's box office, manned by the frenetic Rob Finn, 24, and assistant Terri Rouse, 19.

Most game days, this pair spends 14 hours in their office, a cinder-block box with its walls papered with stadium seating charts and posters for an upcoming professional wrestling event at the park.

"You write down the hours, and how much you make an hour, and you cry," Finn said.

The players on the field as night falls have actually been there since midday, warming up and taking batting practice. The manager in the Keys' dugout, Bien Figueroa, was in uniform several hours before the players, filing reports to the Baltimore Orioles parent club and handling all the amateur sports psychology required by his job.

"Minor leagues," said Figueroa, 43. "There's always something to do."

And then, the food. This is prepared by a cast of dozens, from the workers who baked cookies in the early afternoon to the crew of volunteers raising money for a church hall in the Frederick County community of Middletown, who push the red button that fires up the rumbling, oil-guzzling popcorn machine.

An hour before the game, 17-year-old food service employee Lauren Lambert put on blue swim goggles to protect her eyes from a night of staring into a smoky grill.

As the crowd filed in, Lambert said she's already learned a few lessons about how baseball crowds like their hot dogs.

"If they burn, that's okay," she said, as a few of hers started to blacken. "People like 'em burned."

Just before the players took the field, the last preparations were made by Pawlik and his crew. When he walked off, into stands slowly filling with people, he said he was mostly satisfied.

"It looks like a field, you know?" he said.

People may not know what the grounds crew does, says head groundskeeper Jon Pawlik, "but when they see this, they say, 'Wow, it looks good.' " Box office agents like Jack Heagy, 63, above, are among the legions of behind-the-scenes workers who play a role in preparing Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick each game day for baseball fans such as Trevor Johnson, 10, left. Frederick Keys pitcher James Johnson tosses bubble gum over the dugout to members of Carroll Manor Elementary School's softball team before a game.Jon Pawlik waters the infield before the start of a game. He'd like to be a big-league groundskeeper.