Sports Outside the Beltway

Orioles minor league road trip

The Baltimore Sun had a series on the Orioles’ farm teams. Following an itinerary mapped out here, it’s especially relevant now that the Orioles have all their farm teams clustered reasonably close by.

The first profile was of Bowie. The Bowie Baysox are now in their 15th year. (Their first year, 1993, they played in Memorial Stadium. Tippy Martinez had a barbecue stand.) Since 1997 I’ve taken my children to at least one Baysox game each year. It is great family entertainment and somewhat less expensive than major league baseball. (Given the performance of the Orioles during this time, there is little reason to shell out the money to see their games.)

The first game we went to in 1997 featured the Baysox of David Dellucci and Calvin Pickering. Dellucci was the hero of the game we attended hitting a 12th inning double that drove in the winning run against the Reading Phillies.

After going to a few games I realized something: most foul-pops go to the right side. (For the physics explaining this see here.)
So we started sitting along first base. The first year we did that, 2001, Bowie first baseman Franky Figueroa hit a foul. I remember following it with my eyes. I don’t know that I moved much, but when it landed, I was in position. The ball bounced on the bench in front of me and I reflexively bare handed it on the bounce. (My children were impressed.) In 2001, the Baysox were terrible, and we were there late in the game when most of the fans had left, that gave me an extra edge.

In 2003, someone from the grounds crew saw my son, and tossed him a ball. After the game we were treated nicely and got autographs from a few players and coaches including Kris Wilken, former #1 pick Darnell McDonald and coach Butch Davis. That game wasn’t just a game, it was an experience and the children loved it.

Last year we got a foul ball. Had we been a bit quicker, we might have gotten a second. And then after the game they let the children on the field to run around the bases. When they finished, they were given a t-shirt. Needless to say the children had a great time again.

Other nice aspects of Bowie are the carousel and the free admission for children wearing a uniform. (I believe that all the Maryland farm teams have these.)

Among the players we’ve seen at Bowie have included Augie Ojeda, Jerry Hairston Jr., Brian Roberts, Mike Fontenot, Willie Harris, Howie Clark (who had an incident with A-Rod earlier this year), Aaron Rakers, Luis Matos and Jayson Werth. Here are a couple of posts related to the Baysox.

Anyway, back to the Sun article, At Bowie, zany promotions take fans’ breath away

When a team like the Baysox hovers around the .500 mark and players are being called up and sent down, building a reputation for entertainment and good service is paramount to survival. The Double-A Orioles affiliate will stop at nothing – or almost nothing – to put fannies in the seats.

That means staging last week’s Bad Breath Night, three Bark in the Park events for pooches this season (the last will be Aug. 26), a Tribute to Toilet Paper Aug. 31 and fireworks, fireworks, fireworks – 22 dates over the five-month season.

If a homeowner wanted to stage a similar 10-minute pyrotechnic display by Zambelli Internationale, it would set him back almost $5,000. By contrast, an adult general admission seat at Bowie is $9.

I believe that once the Baysox tried to get into the Guinness book of World records by giving everyone a whoopee cushion so they could have the biggest collection of people sitting on whoopee cushions at the same time. So yes some of the promotions are silly. But people enjoy them and will go as much for the promotions as for the game.

The next article in the series tells of Fans, players share special relationship between the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds and their fans. They’re somewhat more accessible than the AA players at Bowie.

There’s Gil and Joyce Dunn, booster club leaders, who take Delmarva Shorebirds into their home, steer many of them through their first steamed crab dinner, cheer them when they’re slumping and cheer for them when they’re riding high.

And Hannah Seward, who started a Web site for the team four years ago when she was 12 — to profess her undying love — and ended up creating a site where the parents of players can see how their boys of summer are doing.

And Bob and Donna Cummings, long-time season ticket holders, who sit just behind the visitor’s dugout and admit that geography makes them tighter with the opposing players and coaches than the home team. But that doesn’t stop them from honking away on a small noisemaker when their favorite Shorebirds come through.

(From what I’ve read having local families hosting minor league players is not unique to Delmarva. I believe that also happens in Bowie. I suspect that it’s a pretty widespread phenomenon.)

If you’d like to keep up with Delmarva, Monoblogue features a Shorebird of the week, every week of the season.

Frederick fans sing a different tune tells of Keys fans who sing

We’re the Frederick Keys

Come on out support your team

Baseball is back in town

You can hear the shaking sound

Bring the family

Unfortunately other than the Key’s theme song and how the grounds crew had to fix the field, there’s not much else to the Frederick article.

The Bluefield article about the Orioles rookie team, Bluefield offers rare throwback atmosphere tells of the no frills nature of the lowest rung in the system ladder, but the one with, perhaps, the most history.

But Bluefield’s humble status belies its place in Oriole history.

“This is where Cal Ripken got on the bus to start his career,” says Bruce Adams, a minor-league baseball aficionado who, with wife Margaret Engel, wrote the book, Ballpark Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Baseball Parks across America. “Bluefield is the one most people haven’t experienced and if they love baseball, they should.”

In addition to Ripken, who played in Bluefield in 1978, there’s Eddie Murray, Boog Powell, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich. Dean Chance, signed by the Orioles in 1959, passed through town on his way to the Los Angeles Angels in the expansion draft and a Cy Young Award in 1964.

Last Sunday, Grich returned to town for the first time in 40 years to celebrate the Golden Anniversary and conduct a baseball clinic for local kids.

But if the 50 year relationship between the Orioles and Bluefield shows the rich history of the franchise, the article about Norfolk, In Norfolk, Tide turns from Mets to O’s tells of the Orioles’ less than sterling recent past. Four years ago the Orioles lost their affiliate in Rochester, because the Red Wings were tired of poor showings. This past fall the Orioles lucked out, because Norfolk decided that it wanted to be the location of the O’s minor league team. Norfolk terminated its longtime association with the Mets to do so. Having a farm team in Norfolk is much better than having one in Ottawa, but it serves as a reminder that not only have the Orioles been failing their fans, they’ve also been failing their affiliates.

Owner Ken Young was wooed by the Nationals and the Orioles, both looking for a Triple-A affiliation closer to home.

“It was hard to make the decision even before we knew it was the Orioles,” says Young, a food service mogul and baseball traditionalist who wears a 2000 Mets National League championship ring on his right hand. “I joked that the hardest part was that I might lose out on some more hardware.”

But Young, who also bought the Bowie Baysox and Frederick Keys in the offseason, gave up little in the switch. Season ticket sales are up slightly, the team store is selling more Orioles apparel than it did Mets gear. And with the MASN sports network on the Norfolk cable system, fans can follow their favorite players up to Baltimore.

The Orioles gained, too.

In abandoning fan-less Lynx Stadium in Ottawa in favor of Harbor Park, they gained a 12,000-seat gem along the banks of the Elizabeth River that serves as one of the anchors of a revitalized waterfront. Trains roll by the left-field fence and ships and barges glide by right field. The ballpark, 15 years old, looks a third its age because crews power wash it daily.

Norfolk’s GM David Rosenfield has some positive words for the big league team

But Rosenfield, 76, runs a tight ship, which means clean and well-lighted restrooms, a full-service restaurant down the right-field line and a huge picnic area. It’s exactly what you would expect from a man voted the “King of Baseball” at the 2004 baseball winter meetings.

Rosenfield praises the Orioles’ minor-league brain trust.

“At this level, you have some players on the downturn just hanging on. The Mets last year had six or seven guys in their mid-30s and they played like it. That’s not what the minor leagues are supposed to be about. You’re not supposed to be hanging on for a paycheck,” Rosenfield says. “The Orioles don’t put up with that.”

The oldest players on the Tides are Alberto Castillo, 37, who had two stints as backup catcher with the Orioles this season, and pitcher Tim Kester, 35. The rest of the players are 30 or younger.

With the Tides currently languishing in 3rd (out of 4 places) in their division at 45-49 and few prospects worthy of the name on the roster, I wonder how long the honeymoon will last.

Finally in If you build it they will come, the Sun reports on what it’s like to attend Cal Ripken’s Aberdeen Ironbirds.

It also includes a bit of a primer what teams look for at the lowest level of the minor leagues and at succeeding levels.

As Orioles assistant general manager and director of minor league operations, David Stockstill spends his summers on the road pruning the farm system.

“At the beginning, they’re very, very raw,” he says. “As hitters we want them seeing the pitches, judging the rotation, judging speed. When they can do that, they’re able to move up a level and then we’d like to see them hit the ball all over the field and hit the ball with authority, the breaking ball as well as the fast ball. That should get them up to the Double-A area. After that, it’s more adjustment pitch to pitch as the pitcher adjusts to them.”

Stockstill also watches how players mature and deal with stress and being away from home: “Can they handle having 10,000 people yelling at them and come back and perform?”

Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer says at lower levels, the emphasis is on athleticism, good control and movement on the pitches: “Does he have a wind-up he can repeat?”

“As they go up, you want to see how they read bats,” he says. “If the batters are on their fastball, do they recognize that and go to something else? How do you do when things don’t go well? That usually happens at some point in the minors. Do you maintain your composure when it does?”

Making sure players have the fundamentals down at Double-A is important, says Stockstill, because many players skip over the highest level of the minors on their way to the majors. These days, a city that pays for construction of a 12,000-seat Triple-A stadium wants a winning team in return. So the age and experience of players has increased as parent clubs try to maintain good working relationships.

However Minor League, Major Troubles tells of mistakes the city of Aberdeen made in luring the Ironbirds. Certain development that the city was counting on never materialized. Now the city is seeing none of the expected benefits of having the minor league team in town. It doesn’t change the fact that the Ironbirds are thriving financially.

It was a good idea to give an overview of the Orioles’ minor league system. The illogical route taken is a function of scheduling. (Sometimes the scheduling’s a little odd. Recently we had considered taking in a Frederick or Bowie game but neither team was home that week. The different leagues ought to work things out so there are options of catching one or another team on a given day.)

I can only hope that it won’t be long before it will be interesting to see games at each level for the baseball and not just for the gimmicks.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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