Here’s what you need to know about the breakup of the 30-plus-year relationship between the Frederick Keys and Baltimore Orioles:
* It was a decision made by Major League Baseball, not by the team.
* It had nothing to do with fan support or community relations and commitment.
* It had everything to do with facilities no longer considered acceptable for High Class-A Minor League Baseball.
Be sure to note the phrase “no longer” in that description because when the Keys opened the gates to 5,400-seat Harry Grove Stadium in 1990, it was considered state of the art. It was the first of four parks built with state/county funds specifically for use by minor league baseball teams.
The ones that followed — in Bowie, Salisbury and Aberdeen — were improvements over the original model and have aged better, but none had more success than the original model in Frederick. The Keys played their first year at McCurdy Field, a nice 2,500-seat stadium that was first class for American Legion ball but below professional standards that truthfully weren’t all that high three decades ago.
In other words, the transition from McCurdy to Grove was like moving into the Taj Mahal. You might even compare it to moving from Memorial Stadium to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, which the Orioles did two years later.
The Keys have had a great run in Frederick, once even hosting a sellout crowd that included President George H.W. Bush.
But the aging process apparently hasn’t gone well, at least by the standards set by MLB, which is rapidly becoming the king of all the baseball it surveys. The team’s ownership has to bear some of the pain, and perhaps the city could have done more, but one thing we do know is the fans more than did their part.
To be honest, as attractive as Grove Stadium was, and for that matter still is, it had some design flaws, including a cramped clubhouse reachable only by players going through the stands. Admittedly not ideal, but hardly a deal-breaker, even now.
Few would deny that Grove Stadium could use a makeover, a little tidying up here and there, a few frills to go with the skybox restaurant and club seats that were ahead of their time.
It should also be added that even fewer could deny that the amount of money invested in the facilities by either MLB or the Orioles, or both, wouldn’t pay a low wage utility player in today’s market. In other words, teams have to not only provide facilities that meet standards but for the most part pay for them too.
On Dec. 9, the Orioles and the other 29 teams were like puppets on a string as MLB revealed the makeup of the new minor-league system. In what had to be the height of uppityness, 120 cities were “invited” to be a part of this grand new undertaking.
It’s like these towns were outcasts from a failed system being offered the golden parachute as a lifeline. Less is more, you know, and you better buy in now.
Of the 120 invitations sent out only one, to Fresno, Calif., hasn’t been accepted. The Washington Nationals’ Triple-A team got reassigned to the Colorado Rockies as a Class-A affiliate — an “invitation” that wasn’t well received and not yet accepted. But you can be sure the MLB clock is running.
In what might even be a bigger height — call this one arrogance — those “invitations” were sent out without contracts, without details describing involvement by the teams and MLB. You get the impression these might be “take-it-or-leave-it” deals?
The old minor-league system has been torn down … and is being replaced by one that doesn’t have a completed blueprint. “Baseball will never be the same,” one well-respected longtime executive said to Further Review. “Mr. [Branch] Rickey might turn over in his grave.”
The Frederick Keys were among the 40 teams that failed to make the 120 cut yesterday. Instead they were “invited” to participate in something called the MLB Draft League, which will use wood bats and showcase eligible college players looking to improve their draft status. It will be a short-season league, and without the affiliation, it will damage the O’s presence in the area.
After 30-plus years, the Keys and the community deserve a better deal. Hopefully they’ll get one down the road. There’s a whole lot more to this story than 120 “invitations.”
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Patrick Cavey