The Frederick Keys return to town today, opening their 2021 home season, and the sounds of baseball will once again ring out on Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium. Those are glad tidings.
But you can think of the Keys’ return as a metaphor for our new life post-pandemic. The new normal will be somewhat recognizable from the old days, but it will be significantly different in a number of ways. Get ready to adjust your attitude once again.
Baseball returns to Harry Grove Stadium for the first time since the last game of the Keys’ 2019 season was played on Sept. 2 of that year. The entire 2020 season was wiped out by the coronavirus restrictions.
The players will be wearing the familiar Keys uniforms. But this will be a much different kind of team. The Keys have lost their affiliation of 31 years with the Baltimore Orioles as a farm team at the High-A level.
Fans for all of those years could go to the local ballpark and watch the future stars of the Orioles hone their skills and try to demonstrate that they were ready to move up on their way to The Show.
These new Keys are part of a six-team Major League Baseball Draft League, which opened its inaugural season Monday. The players are trying to demonstrate that they deserve a chance to play in the minor leagues in the hope that someday they might develop into a major leaguer. But they are much farther away from that dream than even the players Keys fans are used to seeing here.
To the serious fan who knows the game pretty well and has always prided him or herself on spotting big league talent, it is likely to be a disappointing brand of baseball. Longtime season ticket holders for the Keys have been grumbling since the plan was unveiled, and not without some justification.
But to the casual fan just looking to spend a pleasant evening under the stars at the local ballpark, watching the game, drinking a beer, eating a hot dog and maybe staying for fireworks, the new Keys will probably be good enough. The casual fan is less likely to be invested in the success of the team, and any baseball is better than no baseball.
The players will be college juniors and seniors getting a chance to showcase their skills in front of major league scouts in advance of the Major League draft. The draft has been moved back from early June to coincide with the All-Star Game July 13, allowing college players more time to demonstrate their potential talent.
These young guys generally will not be the top college players from the best teams, most of whom are already slated for the first rounds of the draft. The players in this league will be more marginal prospects.
The Draft League season will be considerably shorter than the old Keys’ seasons, with just 68 games, of which 34 will be at home in Frederick. Of those, 14 nights will feature postgame fireworks. The season will end in mid-August.
Harry Grove Stadium was a state-of-the-art park when it opened in 1990, but minor upgrades made over the years were not enough to keep its Orioles affiliation when baseball decided to reduce the number of teams in its minor league system.
Keys owner Ken Young says an affiliation agreement remains his long-range goal, but that will require a major financial commitment from the city of Frederick and possibly the state to bring the stadium up to modern standards.
That is a discussion for another day and another place. For tonight, we can celebrate the return of baseball to the ballpark on the south side and revel in the sights and sounds of the beloved old game.
What is that sound? Do we hear the first chords of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”?