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Minors Put on Major Show

D.C. Area’s Low-Level Baseball Teams Offer Big Fun at Low Prices

From whoopee cushions to cartoon characters to singles nights, the carnival-like atmosphere that is minor league baseball is just a short trip from the Capitol.

Within an hour’s drive of the Hill are three different minor league ballparks that offer a degree of entertainment that is both relatively cheap and family friendly. Such a combo could be quite appealing to younger Hill staffers scared away from Baltimore’s Camden Yards and its $6 beers and $4 hot dogs while warming the hearts of 30- and 40-somethings fearful of spending $20 a ticket on Orioles games for toddlers who don’t yet understand baseball.

The Bowie Baysox in Bowie, Md., the Frederick Keys in Frederick, Md., and the Potomac Cannons in Woodbridge, Va., all offer Washingtonians a chance to catch a glimpse of potential future major leaguers — two Baysox have already been called up to Baltimore this year — in a smaller setting that is a relative throwback to the game’s 19th-century origins.

And for those real minor league fanatics willing to make a big drive, or a stop-over on a trip to/from places like Philadelphia or New York, there’s also the Aberdeen Ironbirds, who play in Cal Ripken Stadium just off I-95 north of Baltimore in Aberdeen, Md. If those aren’t enough options for a different kind of baseball experience, local politicians in Maryland’s Charles County are trying to build a $15.7 million stadium for a minor league franchise, one that most likely would have to be independent from any Major League Baseball squad given the other regional minor league teams’ existing contract arrangements.

Recognizing that the quality of baseball isn’t quite at the level of the Orioles or other major league teams, the folks who run the Baysox and other minor league squads are experts at coming up with promotions and a fan-friendly atmosphere for all sorts of fans.

Last year, the Baysox set what is considered an unofficial record for the most people ever to simultaneously sit on a whoopee cushion: more than 2,400 people. (They’re still awaiting word from the folks at Guinness to validate it as an official world record.) The goal for this year’s whoopee cushion effort, which was planned for July 1, was 3,000.

In Frederick, Harry Grove Stadium is home to all sorts of deals and promotions. A recent Sunday game featured a three-in-one promotion day: a seat cushion giveaway to the first 1,000 fans, a teacher appreciation day and a family fun day sponsored by Giant.

“There’s always a lot going on out here,” said Phil Wrye, director of marketing for the Baysox.

He can say that again.

Here’s a look at three teams, and their ballparks, closest to Capitol Hill.

Bowie Baysox

An affiliate of the Orioles in baseball’s Class AA level, the Baysox play in the South Division of the Eastern League against such teams as the Reading Phillies and Erie Seawolves (an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers). Wrye estimated that about a dozen players currently on the Orioles roster played in Bowie for some time.

The Baysox haven’t made the playoffs since 1996, but this year’s team has been at or near the top of the division standings all season. With the top two teams qualifying for the postseason, this summer promises to be one of the most exciting in recent Baysox history.

The action, of course, isn’t just limited to the field. There is a kids park in the right-field corner that includes a merry-go-round and other activities. During the game, at almost every half-inning, Baysox officials have some form of activity, such as a trivia contest or team employees shooting T-shirts into the stands. “We try to keep the entertainment going throughout the game,” Wrye said.

Tickets range from $9 to $14 for adults, and all children under 5 years old get in free. Mid-level tickets, the reserved box seats, cost $12. In addition, the club also sets a lot of promotional nights for cheap tickets, including their “Dollar Dayz,” when general admission tickets cost $1, as do hot dogs and sodas. There’s also the very popular “Pay-What-You-Weigh” night, when general admission seats go for a penny per pound of each customer.

Once a year the club even promotes a “singles night,” when a section of the park is devoted to the non-family types in a “low-pressure to no-pressure mingling” scene, Wrye said.

And, of course, the Baysox host the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game at their home, Prince George’s Stadium.

Potomac Cannons

The Cannons are an advanced Class A affiliate of MLB’s Cincinnati Reds, placing them above the Rookie League and lower A leagues but just below AA and AAA. The Cannons, playing in Prince William County, have bounced around in MLB affiliation since the team’s founding in 1978, when it first played in Alexandria.

In the late 1990s the Cannons were a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate, which gave current All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols a chance to play for Potomac in 2000. Having been affiliated with the Reds since the start of the 2003 campaign, the Cannons are now battling for the top spot in the Northern Division of the Carolina League.

As the only non-Orioles squad in the region, the Cannons offer a chance to see regularly a set of players who won’t end up in Baltimore. The club’s single-season batting record, for instance, is held by five-time MLB All Star Bernie Williams, the Yankees centerfielder who hit .335 with the Cannons in 1988 when they were affiliated with the Bronx Bombers.

Other current major leaguers who played for Potomac include Coco Crisp, the Cleveland Indians centerfielder whose name makes him an instant fan favorite.

In addition, the Cannons don’t want to be outdone by the Baysox when it comes to promotions. “We’ll be having some fun appearances,” said Liz Braswell, director of community relations for Potomac, including an August guest spot by the Washington Redskins cheerleaders.

The team launches fireworks after every Sunday game — that’s a big thing at most minor league parks, apparently, given that the Baysox set off fireworks 24 times a year — and July 16 is Jimmy Buffet Night. No, the singer won’t be on hand, but there will be a beach theme.

“We’ve got lots of fun things going on,” Braswell said.

Frederick Keys

The Class A affiliate of the Orioles, the Keys are divisional rivals of the Potomac Cannons, although the Keys have been bringing up the rear of the Northern Division. Most of the stars who have made their way from Bowie up to the “Show” in Baltimore had a prior stop in Frederick.

Ticket prices range from $8 to $11, with kids getting general admission access for $5.

Like the Baysox, the Keys are owned by Comcast-Spectacor, the subsidiary of the telecommunications giant that also owns sports franchises such as the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. Players and coaches for the Keys and Baysox are employees of the Orioles, while everyone else works for Comcast-Spectacor.

A recent post-game activity included the club’s first-ever laser show. The Keys also offer a host of kid-friendly events such as pregame meet-and-greets with cartoon characters such as Dora the Explorer and Spider-man.