FOR THE big leagues, the baseball season is entering its dramatic final days, but for the two minor league teams within striking distance of Washington, it's already over -- and a very good season it was. The Keys, a Class A team (that's the lowest rung of the minors) in Frederick, Md., drew more than a quarter of a million fans, according to a recent report in this paper by Steven Goff. Their average home crowd was only about 50 people short of the stadium's capacity of 5,000. To the south, their Carolina League rivals, the Prince William Cannons, set an attendance record for their field in Woodbridge with an average of over 3,300 people per game.

These are good days for minor league baseball in many places around the country, but especially where the franchises have been well run and have succeeded, as one Keys official put it, in just "getting the word out and letting people know we're here." It's worth noting that both the Frederick and Prince William teams have drawn large numbers of fans from suburban counties close to Washington and Baltimore; in Frederick's case many of them probably drove farther to see the Keys than they would have to see the big-league Orioles.

Another thing the teams' managements have noticed is that they're attracting a lot of people who aren't hard-core baseball types. "We have more fringe fans than true fans. . ." said the Cannons' general manager, Jeff Mercer. "The average fan doesn't know or care where we are in the standings, how we did two nights ago or even whom we're affiliated with. They just come out because it's a good place to come out to."

At a time when the big-league baseball owners are setting a $95 million entry fee for new franchises, when the best ballplayers are pulling down two or three million a year and whining that it's not enough, and when the commissioner is worried that "smaller" cities (Pittsburgh, Milwaukee) may not be able to keep up with their rivals because of the huge amounts teams are getting in the big media markets for TV rights, the boom in the minors comes as something of a relief.

It shows that many people could care less about TV rights and free agents. What they're looking for is a night away from the TV at a place where the admission is relatively cheap and they can take in a game if they're interested or talk to friends if they're not. Meanwhile they need not worry about their kids, who are likely roaming the stands looking for other kids and a chance to talk to ballplayers who aren't all that unapproachable because they're not far from being kids themselves. It's not exactly baseball as it used to be, but it could have some interesting implications for what it's going to be.