On this rainy day, the tarp on the field is peeled off, revealing lush grass underneath. One can almost see the white baseball high in the blue summer sky and hear the smack of a leather mitt. “The team has been here for over 30 years,” says new Keys General Manager Andrew Klein, who was promoted in early April. “And we have no intention of leaving.”
They won’t be, at least for now. Come May 26, baseball will once again be played in Frederick, but in the new MLB Draft League, essentially a last chance for unaffiliated college juniors and seniors to show off their skills to a professional organization. Hope — and grass — is springing eternal on this baseball diamond.
For 31 seasons, the Frederick Keys were the single-A minor league affiliate of the Orioles, their parent club 50 miles to the east. Often, teams in the lower minors are composed of a mix of 19-year-old prospects destined for the big leagues and players in their mid-20s looking for their big break. Think “Bull Durham,” but no Kevin Costner.
After arriving in Frederick, the Keys instantly became the pride of the city, which then had about 40,000 residents. Games were routinely sellouts. Fans would show up on players’ birthdays with baseball-mitt-shaped cakes. There were fireworks, bobbleheads and promotions involving monkeys riding dogs. Once, even President George H.W. Bush came to a game.
Michael O’Connor was a year out of college when the Keys came to Frederick. He’s now mayor of the city. “As a kid who grew up as a huge baseball fan, it was tremendously exciting,” O’Connor says. “It sort of felt like Frederick had graduated a little bit. ... We were part of an exclusive club.”
Catie Serio, who owns Pretzel and Pizza Creations, a downtown restaurant a mile from the stadium, also grew up in Frederick. She wasn’t a sports fan, but going to a Keys game was the thing to do. “The Keys, in my memory, have always been around,” says Serio. “I remember being in high school ... people would go to see friends there. There was just a vibe. They are so ingrained in the community.”
In 2006, former stadium concessionaire Ken Young bought the team, as well as the nearby (and current Orioles Class AA affiliate) Bowie Baysox. As the owner of five minor league teams, he has relished being in the baseball business. “If I had to answer in one word,” says Young of his ownership, “it’s just fun.”
The Keys weren’t a one-hit wonder, either. Years into their existence, Keys home games were among the best-attended in the minor leagues. “It’s an incredible field. It’s so intimate,” says Karen Foust, a longtime season ticket holder. “We feel like we’re at home there. We just feel like we’re up close and in person.”
Unfortunately, that down-home intimacy was a big reason the team lost its official minor league designation. In November 2019, the New York Times reported that the Keys were likely to be one of 42 minor league franchises to have their major league affiliation severed. MLB was looking to make the minor leagues “more efficient.” And the commonality among the teams selected for contraction was that their stadiums’ facilities were not up to the league’s standards.
“It always has been the responsibility of the Minor League owner to provide first class facilities,” an MLB official told The Post at the time. “Many of the current stadiums, primarily in the lower levels, are in worse shape than the facilities players played in during college, and in some cases high school.”
The notion that the stadium’s facilities are not up to current standards isn’t disputed by city or even team officials. “Our facility is 32 years old. ... Teams have bigger coaching staffs now that they travel with, there’s video people, [data] people,” said former longtime Keys general manager Dave Ziedelis in March. (The following month, he was tapped as the head of the city’s tourism organization, Visit Frederick.) “There’s much more area needed in the clubhouse ... that we simply don’t have.”
Young acknowledges this hard truth but thinks MLB didn’t give the team a chance to defend itself. “When [MLB] decided on those 42 contracted teams, there was no negotiation to speak of,” he says. “They had made their decision for their various reasons.” (In response, an MLB spokesperson told me: “The restructuring of MLB’s player development system was a multiyear process that involved hundreds of conversations with Minor League owners, government officials and leadership from the individual minor leagues and Minor League Baseball.”)
The Keys were to have one more season to say goodbye to the fans and community they’ve called home for three decades. That, of course, didn’t happen. In late June, the 2020 minor league baseball season was canceled, and six months later, the Orioles officially severed ties with the Keys. It looked, at least to an outsider, increasingly likely that the Keys wouldn’t play in Frederick again. “I think there was a little bit of a panic in my own heart,” says Foust. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, you’re pulling my slice of American pie out from under me?’ ”
But, like many of their pitchers over the years, the Keys had a good curveball. Within hours, the team announced it was going to be part of the MLB Draft League. The new league — its season runs until mid-August — differs from being an affiliate in several ways. For decades, Keys players were professionals who were contracted employees of the Orioles. Now, they will be amateurs and eligible to be drafted by any of the 30 MLB teams. Young believes in the MLB Draft League and expects it to be around “for a very long time,” saying that the Keys are committed to participate in it for at least several years.
The team hasn’t given up on the idea of eventually being coupled with an MLB team again. “Hopefully, we do have the opportunity to move back to affiliate ball ... in the coming years,” says Klein. Young, too, believes the team will someday get back to the minor leagues.
However, a new or at least significantly renovated stadium would be needed to meet MLB’s demands. The city’s mayor says there have been conversations, but, as much as Frederick loves its Keys, the public is likely to balk at paying for it. “One of the big changes we’ve seen over the last 25 to 30 years is that communities aren’t necessarily eager to step forward and open up their wallets to build sports facilities,” says O’Connor, who argues the onus should be on the private sector, including the team’s ownership.
Young has a different take: “I may be the owner of them, but the fact is they’re the community’s team.” He believes that a sports team and its stadium provide a lot of intrinsic value to a community — encouraging business growth, tax revenue and even civic pride. A city does need to take some responsibility for its team, says Young.
To Foust, though, who builds a new stadium matters little. All she wants is to watch ballplayers play baseball. “They’re going to put on their Frederick Keys uniforms and they’re going to keep chasing their dreams,” she says. “And we’re going to be there to support them.”
Matt Blitz is a writer in Washington.