(above) Keyote, the Frederick Key’s mascot, makes the rounds at lots of community events.
The late baseball icon Yogi Berra once advised, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” For baseball buffs in Jefferson County, the fork in the road is the I-70 split near Frederick. You can drive straight to catch nine innings at Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards; or you can swing right on I-270 to shag foul balls at Washington’s Nationals Park.
But there’s a third option closer to home that offers high-quality baseball this summer and will save you lots of gas and money at the box office and concession stand. Stay straight on I-70, then take exit 54 and follow the signs for Harry Grove Stadium. That’s where the Frederick Keys are back in action this summer and swinging for the fences.
The Keys, who open the 2022 season on June 2, have 40 home games on tap through the first week of September. In addition to all those hot smashes up the middle, nearly all games feature family-friendly promotions and giveaways. That includes 18 post-game fireworks nights, with three in row (July 1-3) before Independence Day.
“We’re excited to bring back our fans from across the Eastern Panhandle for another great season,” said Henry Feigen, of the Keys’ marketing department. “We want everybody to enjoy some baseball and have a great time.”
Almost A Final Out
The Keys, named after Frederick’s famous patriotic native son Francis Scott Key, arrived in town in 1989 as a minor-league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. Playing in the venerable Carolina League, a minor-league Class A-Advanced circuit that hones the game’s top young prospects, the Keys racked up four league pennants and, in the 2010s, operated as a model farm club, playing in their 5,400-seat stadium before enthusiastic, fireworks-loving crowds.
But in 2020, the final note nearly sounded on the Keys. The franchise landed on a list of 42 farm clubs that Major League Baseball (MLB) executives decided to shutter, part of a controversial initiative to downsize and innovate its then-160-team minor-league system. The Keys, however, didn’t stay shuttered for long.
Last summer, they returned to the diamond as a founding member of the six-team MLB Draft League, the latest innovation in player development. The league, with its intense 68-game schedule, gives big-league scouts a nightly MLB-sanctioned showcase to scrutinize the nation’s top college prospects and hopefully discover their less-heralded teammates from the smaller schools and community colleges.
Eyes On The Draft Prospects
This jam-packed schedule is also a perk for MLB draft leaguers. These aspiring pros have the opportunity to perform daily under the watchful gaze of established minor-league managers who’ve seen it all and can impart their wisdom. Players also get a valuable first taste of pro baseball life, including the demanding travel schedule and almost-nightly call to “play ball” while remaining laser-locked on winning.
For the MLB, the hope is for the cream of the Draft League crop to rise to the top just in time for its annual amateur draft, now held in July. With one season in the books, so far so good. In 2021, over 90 draft leaguers signed pro contracts, including seven players from the Keys.
All these hot prospects at Harry Grove Stadium, however, didn’t translate to a winning record last season. In fact, the Keys finished a league-worst 18-32. This season, the Keys look to turn the tables on their Draft League foes, including the mighty (Morgantown) West Virginia Black Bears, Trenton (NJ) Thunder, Mahoning Valley (OH) Scrappers, State College (PP) Spikes, and the wily Williamsport (PA) Crosscutters.
A New Roster With Some Familiar Faces
Chances are good that the Keys will overcome their beginner’s bad luck. All teams start with fresh 33-man rosters assembled during the annual spring draft. In preparation, the Keys staff poured over the league’s approved applicants, freeze-framed their game videos, and, of course, engaged in the alchemy of analytics.
Through it all, the Keys were lucky to redraft five mainstays from last year’s squad, and they’re good ones. They include Jorel Ortega, a top collegiate infielder for University of Tennessee, third baseman Jake Plastiak, who swung a big bat last season for University of Kentucky, and first baseman/outfielder Anthony Herron, Jr., a .374 slugger last season for the University of Louisiana-New Orleans.
Their new Keys’ teammates include a number of big sticks and arms. Among them are four players with Maryland roots. Joe Oliver is the Keys’ new manager this season. If the name sounds familiar, Oliver spent 19 years in pro baseball as a catcher, making his big-league debut in 1989 with the Cincinnati Reds and retiring in 2001 following a brief stint with the Boston Red Sox. In 2014, Oliver got back into baseball as manager of the minor league Lowell (MA) Spinners. He’s been rotating through minor-league dugouts ever since and is thrilled to land in Frederick.
“There’s a lot that you can impress upon players at this level and show them,” Oliver explained. “They are obviously polished enough to play at a high level, but they are still sponges. They want to know what it is like to play at a high level.”
New Local Owners Invested In The Fans
The Keys also are under new ownership this season. Last January, the brand-new Attain Sports and Entertainment – Maryland Baseball, LLC purchased the Keys and the minor-league Bowie Baysox. The company, based in McLean, Virginia and headed by seasoned business consultants Greg Baroni and Richard Roberts, has promised “increased community outreach, stadium enhancements, and a focus on the fan experience.”
Baroni and Roberts have come through on all three counts, especially their plans to up “the fan experience.” The Keys’ schedule is awash with fan promotions, including their always-popular Scout Night, which invites boy and girl scouts from around the region (the Eastern Panhandle included) to camp out on the field before, during, and after the game. Other upcoming promotional gems include: Bark in the Park (June 15), a canine favorite; Star Wars Night and Auction (June 18); Father’s Day – Play Catch in the Outfield (June 19); and Candy Drop (July 10), where kids will be able to scoop up sweets dropped from a “candy copter” onto the outfield grass.
Parking is still free at Harry Grove Stadium, and tickets start at $10 for adults ($7 for kids). The ballpark food runs the gamut, from Blue Ridge burgers topped with buffalo hot sauce, bleu cheese, dressing, and onion straws to the traditional hot dog, heavy on the mustard, starting at $3.
Suns To Rise Again In Hagerstown
Major League Baseball’s cut list in 2020 also included the Class A Suns in Hagerstown, where pro baseball had been in play since 1896! Lucky for local fans, the city didn’t agree with MLB. A new ballpark, the Multi-Use Sports and Event Facility, is under construction downtown, and a Hagerstown entry has been approved for 2023 in the Atlantic League, an independent circuit that partners with the MLB. More details to come.
With summer here, if you find yourself approaching the I-70/270 split, pondering strike zones, four-seam fastballs, and the probability of a well-executed triple play, heed Yogi’s advice: Take that fork in the road. Orioles? Nationals? Or how ‘bout them Frederick Keys!
The Keys play at Harry Grove Stadium, 21 Stadium Drive, Frederick MD. The box office (located to the right of the main gate) is open 8 am – 5 pm Monday through Friday (and until the 8th inning on all game nights). On Saturdays or Sundays with a home game, the box office opens at 10 am. Tickets and information online at MILB.com/Frederick; Phone 301-815-9939.
Bob Kuska is a career science writer and the author of three books on basketball. He lives in Jefferson County.By Bob Kuska