For Frederick, losing the Keys would be about more than just baseball - BaltimoreBaseball.com

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For Frederick, losing the Keys would be about more than just baseball

Photo Credit of Ryan Mountcastle: Joy R. Absalon

Growing up in Frederick County, Shana Knight remembers spending summer nights at Harry Grove Stadium. She spent even more time there when she returned home for the summer from Frostburg State University, working three straight summers as a camera operator for the team from 2011-2013.

That connection deepened in 2019. Knight, who now works as the Marketing and Outreach Manager for United Way Frederick, took her 1-year old daughter to her first Keys game. Her daughter had “the time of her life,” Knight said, citing the Keys’ gameday experience that focuses on creating a family-friendly environment.

It’s a connection that countless families have made with the Orioles High-A affiliate since it was founded in 1989. A recent proposal for minor league reform could put future memories in jeopardy. In the proposal, the Keys are one of 42 teams that could lose their minor league affiliation as early as 2021.

“If we were to lose them in Frederick County, it would feel like there was a hole in the community,” Knight said.

The proposal is an early rendition of the latest Professional Baseball Agreement, which connects the minor league affiliates to their major league team and expires in September 2020. According to an October report from Baseball America’s JJ Cooper, the list of  teams that would stay affiliated came down to things like proximity to big league club, potential opponents, facilities and hotel availability.

With those qualifications, it’s surprising that the Keys could lose affiliation. The Keys are one of three Oriole minor league affiliates less than 50 miles from Camden Yards, and are much closer to Baltimore than the Low-A Delmarva Shorebirds and the Triple-A Norfolk Tides. Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium is just off Interstate 70, a highway that runs from Baltimore all the way to Utah. With the stadium located in central Frederick, there are plenty of hotels nearby.

The team has made upgrades to Harry Grove Stadium  since its opening in 1997. The stadium got a new playing surface in 2006 and a then-state of the art videoboard three years later. Before this past season, the Keys installed netting down the first and third base lines, placed speakers under the concourse for better communication with fans, and catwalks on the back of their scoreboard and videoboard.

But those aren’t the main reasons why MiLB director of communications Jeff Lantz was surprised to see the Keys on the list. Despite winning just one Carolina League title and having one other playoff appearance this decade, the Keys have always drawn well. Their 53-84 overall record in 2019 was the worst in the Carolina League, but they averaged 4,392 fans per game. That was the highest average attendance, not only in the Carolina League, but in all of High-A.

“Teams like Frederick, based on attendance, their community support, the fact that they’re a great partner in the community, their proximity to the Orioles, makes it a great fit,” Lantz said. “It’s a great city and has a lot of positive things going on. It’s kind of mind-boggling to see the Keys on the list.”

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Having the Keys lose affiliation wouldn’t just mean losing minor league baseball but potentially diminishing a valuable community partner. This past October, the team hosted the kickoff breakfast for United Way of Frederick County’s Day of Action, an event where volunteers go out and perform service projects in the community. Nearly 500 volunteers from 25 businesses participated in the event, helping with 42 service projects and more than 2,400 hours of community service. Besides setting up chairs and tables and buying breakfast for the hundreds of volunteers, the Keys also had a team of volunteers. This year, one of their staff members helped plan the event.

“Their brand has been so big in Frederick County,” Knight said. “We notice when we go out and promote our programs that more people get involved. They definitely have an audience we’re trying to attract.”

This year, the Keys won the Carolina League’s Matt Minker Award for Community Service. The team made donations to 500 organizations valued at approximately $47,000. The donations included game tickets, suites, marketing booths and memorabilia. Nonprofit organizations raised $14,500 through the team’s Pack the Park program and charitable concessions raised over $30,000.

Brandon Apter, who worked in the Keys’ marketing department from 2010-2013 and in minor league baseball for nine years, still remembers some of the events he attended. Apter had various roles with the team, ranging from on-field announcer to appearing as Keyote, the team’s mascot. He went to schools to talk about summer reading and fitness programs the team sponsored and appeared at community 5K runs as the team’s mascot.

“People don’t go just to see baseball but go to have fun with their family, in between innings and postgame concerts,” Apter said. “It’s entrenched in so many ways whether it’s schools, Chamber of Commerce.”

Under the proposal, teams that lose affiliation would be eligible to join an MLB-sponsored Dream League for undrafted players and those not on affiliated minor league teams. The Keys could still make an impact off the field as a Dream League team, but would have to deal with greater costs. Instead of having players assigned to the team, unaffiliated teams are responsible for signing and paying their own players and coaching staff.

Historically, that’s made it much harder for unaffiliated teams to exist. According to Lantz, only 11 unaffiliated minor league teams have survived since 1999. Most of them are in or are near large markets such as New York and Chicago, while other teams in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Winnipeg are in large cities in their surrounding area.

If the Keys were to lose affiliation, they do have some local models for how to run a successful independent team. The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in Waldorf, Maryland, and the York Revolution in York, Pennsylvania, have been in operation for over a decade and drew slightly less than Aberdeen, Delmarva and Bowie last year.

Revolution team president Eric Menzer says there are various reasons why his team has been successful, but it all depends on the team’s market. Menzer said his team has a good corporate base to buy skyboxes at PeoplesBank Park, and it helps that the park is in the center of York. For him, the key to success isn’t just being tied to a major league team. It’s about creating an affordable product that appeals to both hardcore baseball fans and fans looking to have a fun night out.

“I don’t want to be on my high horse saying it’s great being affiliated or not, it’s just different,” Menzer said. “I think ability to be successful is way beyond just the affiliation.”

Lantz, though, doesn’t see Frederick being able to survive under the dream league model.

“The independent model is one that’s not really sustainable in most of our markets,” he said. “I would think Frederick is in that group as well.”

Though the current Professional Baseball Agreement expires in September, both the MiLB and MLB escalated their war of words after last week’s Winter Meetings.  The two sides had “cordial and productive” negotiations, Lantz wrote in a statement provided to reporters. However, after those meetings, MiLB felt that MLB inaccurately described its position on various issues and released a statement contradicting MLB on their positions. MLB then released a statement that it could possibly abandon all its minor league affiliates.

“MiLB agrees with MLB that contentious public statements are not conducive to the ability to conduct serious and good faith negotiations,” MiLB responded in a statement provided to reporters on December 14. “…We sincerely hope that we can move forward with MLB in the spirit of the excellent partnership we mutually have enjoyed for so many years and reach agreement on a new Professional Baseball Agreement that is in the best interests of the game of baseball and its future in communities across America.”

Leading up to the Winter Meetings, Norfolk, Bowie and Frederick announced their support for the creation of the Save Minor League Baseball task force to help protect minor league teams. The task force was created in November by Reps. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Max Rose (D-N.Y.) and Mark Simpson (D-Idaho).

The Keys released a statement December 4 supporting the initiative.

“We appreciate the support of Rep. Lori Trahan (D.-Massachusetts), David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and the members of the task force in standing up for Minor League Baseball and speaking out against MLB’s effort to cast off thousands of jobs, reduce affordable, family-friendly entertainment and undermine grassroots support for our great game,” Keys general manager Dave Ziedelis wrote in the statement.

If this were a normal year, the Keys would be preparing for an exciting season. Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, the top two prospects in the Orioles’ organization, are projected to start the 2020 season with the Keys. The Orioles have the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft and should have another high pick in 2021, meaning Keys fans would continue to see players expected to be a big part of the Orioles’ future for years to come.

Instead, it appears the Keys will be spending the season in limbo.

 

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Boog Robinson Robinson

    December 19, 2019 at 7:59 am

    What was it BanMo stated just a few days ago about a PR Nightmare on the horizon for MLB? How spot on was he?

    My 1st inclination after reading this was what a bunch of short-sighted, money grubbing monopolistic pigs the major league owners must be.

    Keep it up Fat Boys … you’ll lose all the people. You’ve already lost a generation or two.

  2. 5brooks5

    December 19, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Great article! very well written

  3. boss61

    December 19, 2019 at 9:15 am

    To me this plan is a travesty. Our kids really grew up at Harry Grove. So many great memories. I cannot imagine why Frederick – the games seem so well attended and the facility is great. Bowie is a wreck by comparison.

  4. jonniebmore

    December 19, 2019 at 9:49 am

    The same organization owns Frederick, Bowie, and Norfolk. If Frederick gets canned by MLB could the ownership move the Bowie club to Frederick? That would make sense to me. Better geographic spread of the clubs. Bowie is so close to Baltimore and DC their fans could easily attend O’s or Nats games. Frederick also out-draws Bowie.

    • Rich Dubroff

      December 19, 2019 at 9:59 am

      No, they couldn’t without approval.

      • Phil770

        December 19, 2019 at 10:24 am

        Rich, why was Frederick identified for contraction?

    • Rich Dubroff

      December 19, 2019 at 1:30 pm

      I’m guessing that they felt Aberdeen was a better facility, but otherwise I’m mystified.

      • Bancells Moustache

        December 19, 2019 at 2:43 pm

        Aberdeen is a fine facility, but something tells me their owner has much more pull with the league than anyone in Frederick.

  5. Camden Brooks

    December 19, 2019 at 10:55 am

    Losing the Keys would just plain stink. So Rich, if they do get canned, how will that affect our A-ball situation. Would we go back to only having 1 team at that level?

    • Rich Dubroff

      December 19, 2019 at 1:31 pm

      My understanding is that, if enacted, there would be just four teams in an organization plus a team-owner rookie league.

  6. Bancells Moustache

    December 19, 2019 at 11:30 am

    I think the Keys survive this. The one downside to the Orioles having their Minor League system so close is they act to dilute the market for live baseball. In the Orioles eyes, a person going to a Keys game and spending money is one less person coming to Camden Yards with wallet in hand. I would imagine some of the Oriole brass is quietly hoping for the Keys demise for that very reason. The only problem there is that Frederick is just as close to DC, where a vastly superior baseball product is available. For that reason, and the fact that Nymeo is such a fine facility, I think eventually the guns get turned on Salisbury rather than Frederick. Bowie and Norfolk aren’t going anywhere due to the legislative heft of their respective areas. Aberdeen is completely bulletproof in this based on it’s ownership’s last name. I’m calling it now, when the music stops it will be Delmarva without a chair.

    • boss61

      December 19, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      Bowie. Have you been there lately? The place seems like its falling apart. Also, PG County nowadays is more Gnats territory. The Delmarva ballpark, by contrast, is nice and the Shorebirds have a following across the Peninsula.

      • Bancells Moustache

        December 19, 2019 at 5:09 pm

        I don’t see much of a difference in terms of the parks. They both fit the cookie-cutter mold of Minor League ballparks: retro red-brick style, open concourse, green seats, some sort’ve of play area or picnic area down the foul lines, you been to one of these parks you’ve been to em all. As for it being Gnats country, that’s a matter of debate. Bowie was Oriole turf first. It’s a populous area with plenty of money, and the Orioles would be fools to simply surrender their footprint. Quite frankly, if the O’s can’t draw from the Montgomery/PG county population, they will wither and die. If they don’t compete for fans in that portion of the state then load up the trucks, it’s over.

  7. ClayDal

    December 19, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    MLB doesn’t own the minor league teams, they just have a working relationship with them. From what I understand, the agreements between the Orioles and their affiliates are for 2 years at a time. Depending on how the negotiations turn out the Orioles minor league situation could be vastly different in 2021. For instance, the agreement with Norfolk runs out. It’s possible that another MLB team tries to work out an agreement with them. Say the defending World Champions who’s AAA affiliate is in Fresno. Phillies could steal Aberdeen. Once they figure out which teams to eliminate, the musical chair affiliate game will begin. Just don’t want the Orioles to wind up in Fresno. Or Ottawa.

    • Rich Dubroff

      December 19, 2019 at 5:53 pm

      Ottawa no longer meets Triple-A specifications. Norfolk says they’re happy with the Orioles. They could have reunited with the Mets, but they prefer the Orioles.

    • ClayDal

      December 19, 2019 at 6:03 pm

      The Nationals would be better off with a AAA team in Richmond. Richmond used to be in the International League but they lost that team. Richmond is now a AA affiliate for San Francisco. Maybe the Nationals and Giants can work out some sort of trade.

    • Rich Dubroff

      December 19, 2019 at 8:18 pm

      Richmond’s park no longer meets Triple-A standards.

  8. BirdsCaps

    December 19, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    Someone mentioned moving Bowie, but doesn’t Delmarva have huge attendance issues? Just a few yrs ago I remember hearing attendance at or below 1k. I hope that the Keys stay affiliated, even though I would love to have a high a team in Aberdeen. Since Frederick is somewhat of a bedroom community for DC this is kind of a head scratcher.

  9. WorldlyView

    December 19, 2019 at 7:06 pm

    If the Frederick team is expelled from the Carolina League, seems to me that this would deal a major setback to the Elias plan to stock the farm system with promising prospects.
    If the Frederick franchise would transform into a Dream League team, would it be possible and legal for the O’s to have selected farm hands told to show up there and asked to be signed? And maybe some coaches under Oriole contract could also show up unannounced and seek employment with the new club. Wouldn’t provide competition at the same level of talent as the Carolina League, but it would be better than nothing.

    • ClayDal

      December 19, 2019 at 7:15 pm

      The Orioles would still have 2 A affiliates. Teams would lose the short season A team. In the Orioles case that would be Aberdeen. Apparently under the proposal, Aberdeen would replace Fredrick. Instead of the short season, the draftees would go to Sarasota

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