Twenty years ago, my first assignment at the News-Post was covering a Keys game, after which I interviewed a pro ballplayer for the first time.
Larry Bigbie was the star that evening. He later played for the Orioles, and that was pretty neat for me.
My experience as a sports reporter — getting introduced to a major-league hopeful as he worked his way to Baltimore — was not much different from the experiences of thousands upon thousands of people who have taken in a Frederick Keys game since the team’s inaugural year in 1989.
That, along with an incredibly pleasant atmosphere at a well-maintained ballpark, makes the Keys one of the most charming aspects of Frederick. Heck, to some who live in other parts of Maryland, the Keys are perhaps the most identifiable part of the entire city. Not to mention, the Keys’ relationship with the Orioles lends them terrific legitimacy and relevance among anyone who takes a seat at 30-year-old Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium.
It makes no sense for any of that to change — no matter how drastic Major League Baseball attempts to get in the hopes of improving the minor league system through a new contract with the minors.
While I’m not a minor league insider, it seems inconceivable — even in this economic climate — that MLB would alter or upend what the Frederick Keys have established.
With the Professional Baseball Agreement set to expire after the 2020 season and MLB looking to improve its business relationship with the minors, the Keys’ inexplicably found their name on the list of 42 affiliates proposed last year for contraction. The development and reporting of this list disturbed many, near and far. Petitions were circulated. Political committees were formed. Minor League Baseball took a strong stance against MLB’s proposal.
However, last week — in the throes of the coronavirus crisis that’s threatening the financial stability of minor league organizations — reports from Baseball America and The Associated Press hinted that an agreement was near, that the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues was ready to accept a cut from 160 affiliates to 120. The deal would eliminate short-season teams and limit each major league team to four minor league affiliates.
The Orioles have five, counting short-season Aberdeen.
Even if a deal is struck sometime soon, the Keys should be spared.
There are many reasons why, assuming the MLB decision-makers afford themselves a modicum of common sense with their $10 billion in revenues. And there’s a solution that seems likely to salvage the Keys in the event of a new contract that includes contraction plans.
It seems obvious that, if a reduction in minor league teams is agreed upon, Aberdeen would maintain its Baltimore affiliation and get bumped up to a full-season squad. After all, the organization plays in a newer facility (built in 2002) and is owned by Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr.
That could force a choice between Baltimore’s two Class A affiliates — high-A Frederick or low-A Delmarva, which was not on the preliminary cut list.
Still, Frederick has a long, strong tie to the Orioles, with whom they’ve been affiliated since the Keys’ inception 31 years ago. Delmarva became affiliated with Baltimore in 1997, its second year in existence.
Frederick also routinely draws very well, leading the Carolina League in attendance and ranking 62nd among 358 minor league teams last year, according to a list compiled by Ballpark Digest.
Of the five Orioles affiliates, only Triple-A Norfolk (No. 36 on the list) outdrew the Keys in 2019. Delmarva was 95th. Bowie, their Double A team, was No. 97.
Frederick also has proximity in its favor, since it’s an hour or so from Baltimore, similar to Aberdeen and Bowie. Delmarva, meanwhile, is nearly a two-hour drive.
So, allow this common-sense proposal from a non-minor league insider: Frederick should maintain its Baltimore affiliation while Delmarva — or maybe Norfolk — becomes the Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals.
Such a switch would come at the cost of the Hagerstown Suns, a Nationals farm team since 2007. Hagerstown was also on the dreaded elimination list proposed by MLB. And, at the risk of picking on Hagerstown, allow me to pick on Hagerstown: The Suns play at antiquated Municipal Stadium, and they ranked No. 257 on the Ballpark Digest attendance list from 2019.
Bottom line, no matter how MLB goes about rearranging the minors, Hagerstown is much more likely to be on the chopping block. In fact, the Nationals’ Class A short-season squad, the Auburn Doubledays, also could be eliminated, leaving Washington with just three affiliates — one of which, oddly, is in California (Triple A Fresno). If an Orioles farm team is set to lose its affiliation with Baltimore due to the new contract limitations, it makes so much sense for MLB to have that team join Washington’s fold.
Of course, I’m making all of this sound much easier than it probably is. Major League Baseball is considering numerous factors, most of which have to do with improving working conditions for farmhands, upgrading facilities and generating more revenue from the minor leagues.
But as negotiations continue during a time when the economy is pinching minor league teams much worse than their major league parents, it’s hard to envision a pact that results in 40 teams getting the ax.
There are some painfully easy choices, though. Frederick certainly isn’t one. Not even close. And if deep-pocketed MLB does even bare-minimum homework, that fact will come screaming at it like a foul ball into the dugout.
Alas, I’m no expert. Maybe I’m being too optimistic in weighing basic factors that favor the Keys remaining an Orioles affiliate and continuing as a Frederick staple for which I have a soft spot. Maybe I’m making this seem too simple.
But a lot of times, if you’re not keeping it simple, you’re just being stupid.
Joshua R. Smith is the News-Post sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaR_Smith