If you are an Orioles fan that follows the minors and have been to games at Single-A Frederick, you’ve probably seen a team that consistently draws well and is an organization that, by almost any standard, is very well run.
So that made it pretty surprising when the New York Times published a list of 42 minor league teams (subscription required) that could lose their Major League Baseball affiliations at the end of next season and Frederick was on the list.
The Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MLB and Minor League Baseball (MiLB) expires next fall. Under a proposal from MLB in recent negotiations, 42 teams would lose their MLB affiliations. MLB’s proposal, if adopted, would reduce the minors from 160 teams - not counting the complex league teams (like the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League) that are wholly MLB-owned - to 120 beginning in 2021. Losing 42 teams would reduce the number to 118 and two cities that currently feature independent league ball would become teams with MLB affiliations.
Frederick has been an O’s affiliate in the Carolina League since 1989. The Keys played their first season at McCurdy Field and every year since at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium.
Under the proposal, teams that lose their MLB tie would play in a so-called Dream League with rosters filled with non-drafted players. That would likely not be satisfactory to a Frederick community that consistently has shown up to support its team.
Frederick ranked second in the Carolina League in 2019 attendance, despite losing 10 openings, second-most in the league. Overall, 263,528 fans came through the gates in 2019, marking the eighth straight season where the club ranked first or second in the league in attendance. Frederick also led in average attendance at 4,392.
The Keys are also very strong in the Frederick community. They are a summer fixture in Frederick County. How they even got on this list is a surprise. Harry Grove Stadium is not the best facility in the Carolina League and probably could use upgrades, but it would seem that could be worked out as the team continues on.
Initial reporting on this story by outlets like the New York Times and this story from Baseball America indicated that MLB seeks to limit teams to five United States-based affiliates. The Orioles currently have six in Triple-A Norfolk, Double-A Bowie, Frederick, Single-A Delmarva, short-season Single-A Aberdeen and the Gulf Coast League.
In a phone interview Sunday with MASNSports.com, Frederick Keys owner Ken Young expressed surprise that the report listed Frederick. Young owns three O’s minor league teams - also Bowie and Norfolk. He also owns the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League and the Biloxi Shuckers of the Double-A Southern League. Frederick is his only team on the list of 42.
“First of all, I do need to preface it with this is a wish list of Major League Baseball supposedly - but we don’t know this for sure - from the commissioner’s office. And any teams on there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the end,” said Young.
“However, I will tell you, Frederick is a great baseball city. It has a good history. I would think that the Orioles would still want to be there. So I was extremely surprised when I saw Frederick on the list. Now that doesn’t mean to me that Frederick stays on the list. But I was extremely surprised that Frederick was on the list.
“I do think it’s really a bogus thing having Frederick on there. Great city. Great baseball city and it’s obviously very close to Baltimore.”
An Orioles official reached Sunday declined to comment on the ongoing negotiations.
Young said he didn’t know what rationale was used to list Frederick. So, as owner, what will he do now?
“I have a lot of confidence in what MiLB is doing in these negotiations. I really do,” Young said. “It’s not something that I necessarily can take into my own hands or do anything at this point. But I will follow the lead of Minor League Baseball.
“I certainly have concerns. I do have concerns. And you know what? I could probably give opinions on the way I think Major League Baseball is going about this. But it’s probably wise of me not to do that at this point,” added Young.
Jeff Lantz is senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball. He previously worked on the Orioles’ public relations staff. He expressed a strong desire Sunday for all communities - Frederick included - to keep their teams.
“You know, after about 30 years of just kind of rolling over the agreement and not making a ton of changes to the Professional Baseball Agreement, we knew that there would be some changes coming,” said Lantz. “Some different things that Major League Baseball wanted to see happen, whether it’s realignment or facility upgrades. We started the negotiation process early. The current deal runs through Sept. 15, 2020. So there is plenty of time for the two sides to get together and look at different options.
“Obviously it’s unfortunate for the list of teams to get out. You never want to see that happen. It’s bad for business whether teams are trying to sell tickets or sponsorships. There has been a lot of back and forth, and people don’t really know what to think at this point. The two sides will get together a couple of times here in the next month or so and try and get to the root of some of the issues and see what we can do to save baseball in as many of the 160 communities as we can.
“It’s hard to look at some of the names on that list and think there is a real good reason why they should be on that list. I guess that is what Major League Baseball is wanting to do. So we’re going to have to see what we can do to save baseball in those towns. Places like Frederick that are so important in their market. The main option for summertime fun in Frederick. It’s a great baseball town and they do really well attendance-wise. It’s tough to see them be put on a list like that,” he said.
In addition to turnstile success, the Keys have been a strong presence often in the Frederick community. In fact, last month, Frederick was named the winner of the Carolina League’s Matt Minker Community Service Award. This award is given out to the team that best demonstrates an outstanding, ongoing commitment to charitable service, support and leadership within its community.
The Keys were recognized for their efforts in 2019 thanks in large part to charitable giving, donations and strong community programs. Over the last year, the Keys donated more than $10,000 through the team’s charitable foundation - Frederick Keys Care. The team made donations to over 500 different organizations. These included game tickets, suites, marketing booths, jerseys, hats and autographed memorabilia. Combined, these donations were valued at just over $47,000. Keys players were active in the community, attending over 80 events with Keys mascot Keyote. Frederick pitcher Cameron Bishop was named the winner of the Orioles’ Elrod Hendricks Minor League Community Service Award.
Frederick won the 2018 Carolina League Complete Franchise Award, which goes each year to the club that demonstrates franchise stability and significant contributions to its community and league.
MLB officials also desire player development contracts with affiliates longer than two years as part of the current negotiation. The Orioles’ current player development contracts with their top five clubs at Norfolk, Bowie, Frederick, Delmarva and Aberdeen run through 2020. At this point, no O’s affiliate besides Frederick has been listed among the 42 teams that could lose affiliations. The Hagerstown Suns, a Washington Nationals affiliate in the Single-A South Atlantic League who play about 30 miles west of Frederick, also are among the list of 42.
Entire short-season leagues could be disbanded including the New York-Penn League, where Aberdeen is a member. But under the current proposal, it appears that Aberdeen would be safe and likely become a full-season affiliate.