For the final time this summer, smoke from the concession-stand grills hovered above the tidy baseball diamond at Prince William County Stadium.

The rhythmic sounds of two spectators beating giant bongos near the top of the grandstand behind home plate echoed in the cool, night air. Whoppers and Pepsis were given away and lucky fans took part in unusual promotions.

On this, the 63rd and final home date for the Prince William Cannons of the Class A Carolina League, the turnstiles tumbled 3,331 times, seven below the team's record-setting average for attendance.

"It's been a good year," Cannons General Manager Jeff Mercer said as he scanned the festive crowd from high above the field on Thursday. "A very, very good year."

From Portland, Ore., to Pittsfield, Mass., from Albuquerque to Albany, N.Y., these are boom days for minor league baseball. But there is no better example of the potential that brews in a young franchise than with the Cannons and their Northern Division rivals, the Frederick Keys, who have helped the league break its 43-year-old attendance record.

Before this weekend's series at Harry Grove Stadium with the Salem Buccaneers, the Keys had drawn 258,606 fans in 58 home games for an average of 4,459 in a 4,500-seat facility. The Durham Bulls, who had seven more home dates than the Keys because of rainouts, drew more total people but had a lower average.

Of the 135 Class A teams in the country, Durham, Prince William and Frederick had the best attendance figures. Most AA clubs and a handful of AAA teams couldn't match them either. And Hollywood didn't make a movie about the Washington area teams.

"What you see here is the result of a lot of hard work during the offseason," said Curt Bloom, a member of the Cannons staff and the team's play-by-play radio announcer. "We've worked for this."

Attendance has rocketed for the Cannons, an affiliate of the New York Yankees. In four seasons, their total draw has doubled, from 105,000 to 210,000. "And next year we're looking at 250,000 or better," Mercer said.

The Keys, an Orioles affiliate that has benefited heavily from its proximity to Baltimore, drew about 166,000 last year at old McCurdy Field.

And when the best-of-five championship series between Frederick and Kinston ends this week, the Carolina League will have drawn more than 1.27 million spectators. The previous record was 1,023,678 in 1947. As of July 31, the league's 36 percent increase over last year was the biggest in the country.

A minor (league) miracle?

"I don't know," said Mark Zeigler, the Keys' assistant general manager, laughing. "We're elated about what we've done. A lot of things have come together. It was a matter of getting the word out and letting people know we're here."

It has been the result of hard work and aggressive marketing, promotions and public appearances. It has been the result of convincing local folks that a night at the ballpark can be enjoyed by the entire family, not just the sports nut.

Most of all, Zeigler says, it is about having fun.

"People come out here and they have a good time," he said. "That's why they keep coming back."

Baseball alone doesn't cut it. That's why there were guest appearances by "The Chicken," baseball clown Max Patkin and the bodacious kissing bandit, Morganna.

"We have more fringe fans than true fans, so you might as well cater to them," Mercer said. "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."

Mercer's marketing studies indicate only 30 percent of the team's spectators are from Prince William County. Fifty percent travel from Springfield, Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria and 8 percent battle I-95 from Prince George's County.

On occasion, the Cannons' popularity has caused some trouble with local authorities. Lines of cars have been known to turn Davis Ford Road into a parking lot and the fire marshal reportedly was not pleased with a few overflow crowds.

Likewise, the Keys draw a large portion of their audience from outside the immediate area -- Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties, West Virginia and southern Pennsylvania.

"Many people tell us they want baseball, but they're not willing to pay the price to see the Orioles," Mercer said.

The ticket price for a box seat at an Orioles game ($11) is $5 more than at Frederick and $6 more than at Prince William.

"We expected Frederick to do well, but not this well," said Carolina League President John Hopkins. "We knew from the first day that they had the opportunity to move the team {from Hagerstown} to Frederick that it would be a strong area."

The Cannons' lease on their county-operated facility is for two more years plus a five-year option, which the club expects to use. And with minor league expansion under consideration, the Cannons may bid for another franchise in the region, probably AA or AAA.

The Keys are building 18 sky boxes at their new park, most of which will be leased to corporations and large groups for 10-year periods.

"People recognize the name now," Zeigler said. "We've become a part of Frederick."