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.”
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.