Friday, September 7, 2007

A night at the (Keys) ballpark

It was THE perfect night for baseball... temperatures dropping through the 80s, a light breeze, the warm setting sun yielding to a light panoply of stars, and $11 seats three rows back from the field in my favorite stadium.

It’s sure not Oriole Park.

We’re maybe an hour’s drive west, at Frederick’s Harry Grove Stadium, a ninth the size of Baltimore’s purported baseball palace (which I have long bemoaned as grossly overrated, despite my masochistic love for the team in black and orange that plays there). Thursday night, the team that plays in Baltimore was losing 7-6 to the Red Sox in a game devoid of meaning, save for the Boston fans who find tickets easier to get for Oriole Park than for their own Fenway Park But I was in Frederick, with my daughter and son-in-law, for a game that mattered – though you’re unlikely to read much about it in big-city newspapers.

Just try to find news about the lowly Class-A Frederick Keys, who were seeking to sweep the equally lowly Wilmington Blue Rocks in their best-of-three Carolina League Northern Division Championship Series.

Now why blog about this game for THIS newspaper’s Web site? Well, a lot of people say baseball is a business, and we cover business. And the owner of that team down in Baltimore, he’s a lawyer (albeit, an increasingly unpopular lawyer), and we cover lawyers. And that team in Frederick – it’s an Oriole system farm team.

So it makes sense, sort of, to share a few insights gleaned from a starry night in Frederick, where a Keys pitcher with the unlikely name of Chorye Spoone took a no-hitter two outs into the ninth inning before giving up a solo home run. And then he was carried off the field by the team, which took the division championship in a 3-1 victory before an enthralled crowd of some 1,726 fans.

Yup, the stadium was just about one-third filled (or two-thirds empty).

Mary, a 50-something fan sitting with her husband in the second row, explained: “It’s a school night.”

I couldn’t tell you, offhand, who hit the Keys’ decisive two-run homer earlier in the game, or which of the Blue Rocks spoiled Spoone’s no-hitter. The bottom half of the scoreboard that used to have such information went on the fritz last year, according to our new friends in the second row. The field was refurbished this year, and the scoreboard is next year’s project, they said.

But it didn’t much matter. I’m sure it’ll show up on the Keys’ Web site, and in the hometown Frederick newspaper, maybe with pictures of the young ballplayers doing the champagne thing just outside the cinderblock entranceway to their locker room.

(Actually, as I passed by the celebration on my way to the free parking lot, it smelled a little too yeasty to be real champagne... and some of the players looked too young to do more than bathe in it.) They were having the time of their lives.

I had a pretty nice time, too. I was the guy with the loud kazoo, playing the theme “da-da-da-da-da-tah-da!” that leads up to the fans screaming “Charge!” (though what that has to do with baseball has long eluded me). In any case, my cheap kazoo seemed louder than the stadium P.A. system’s version. It was also a keen instrument for playing a funereal theme as the Blue Rocks pitcher was replaced late in the game.

The kazoo notes carried better in the night air than the whizzzzzz sound of the little plastic whistle I used for the Blue Rocks’ swinging strikeouts.

Shame it was a school night out there, in semi-small-town America, where the National Pastime was alive and well and nobody was getting rich.

Just enriched in spirit, the way it ought to be.

-DAVID ETTLIN, Special Correspondent

(Note: The Keys advanced to the Carolina League's Mills Cup Champion Series, with the first two games scheduled this weekend in Frederick - at 7 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Ticket information here).

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