'They're still here': Minor-league teams who faced extinction are back but not the same

·10 min read

FREDERICK, Maryland – For nearly two years, the Frederick Keys existed in an awful sort of limbo, their very existence in doubt, their last chance to impress their incoming overlords at Major League Baseball wiped out by a pandemic, the community that supported them confused, annoyed and ultimately befuddled by their fate.

As one of 42 teams identified as potential contraction targets in MLB’s blunt takeover of the minor leagues, this 31-year affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles – just a 50-minute trip down I-70 from Camden Yards – saw many of its worst fears realized. With MLB mandating its franchises trim from five or six minor-league affiliates down to an efficient, cost-friendly, ostensibly optimized four, the Keys were left on the outside looking in.

They’re just not dead.

“For a lot of our community and for that fan base, I don’t know if they recognized that we’d still be here,” says Andrew Klein, a five-year Keys employee and their general manager for the past month.

“It felt all or nothing.”

On a stormy Tuesday night, the Keys, their fans and dozens of unheralded players found out what something looks like.

For the first time since September 2019, the doors to Harry Grove Field swung open for paying customers as the Keys played their home opener in the MLB Draft League, one of three amateur-ball circuits MLB concocted to retain some form of baseball in dozens of smaller towns that would otherwise be cut off from any connection to the major leagues.

The Frederick Keys returned to play for the first time since 2019, although much about the experience on and off the field was different.
The Frederick Keys returned to play for the first time since 2019, although much about the experience on and off the field was different.

Both political and community will inspired MLB to populate the minor-league towns it deserted with alternatives, and for Frederick and five other mid-major towns that comprise the Draft League, their fate could have been worse. The Draft League is designed to showcase players who might have slipped under scouts’ radar in advance of the July 11-13 draft, and players hungry for any exposure, rather than solid prospects aiming to boost their stock.

So for a franchise that saw All-Stars such as Manny Machado and Nick Markakis and John Means pass through town, here’s what the first game of the rest of their lives looked like:

On the roster: Players hailing from a veritable alphabet soup of leagues and conferences, not an SEC player in sight but the TJCAA, MIAA, Illinois Skyway and others represented, all hoping to stick when reinforcements arrive next month – even if it means switching teams just three games into the season.

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On the field: Glimmers of upside but also the lack of polish one would expect from an unproven group – such as the West Virginia Black Bears starter who walked two batters and hit two more – all in the bottom of the first.

In the stands: A gathering of grateful but skeptical fans, willing to give the new league a shot because any baseball is better than no baseball.

“This year? We’ll see,” says Jordan Schneider, a Keys season-ticket holder from 2017 to '19 who for 2021 will buy single-game tickets. “Quality. Let’s see what we got out here. This is a whole different ballgame. Watching high school and college kids is different than watching guys who have been drafted and trained by the right people.

“I think there was a lot of shock. The county and the city put some money into the field, but it happens. You have to know that sooner or later, minor-league baseball, the way they were paying, it was going to have to change a little bit. It’s a reality of the world.”

'I go through withdrawal'

David Reyno’s Jake Arrieta shirsey had long lost the battle with the washing machine, though it now served as a testament to the 69-year-old fan’s passion for baseball. Reyno drove 80 miles one way from his home in Owings, Maryland to make Frederick’s home opener. He’s held season tickets to the Bowie BaySox for 27 years, long enough to see the original Vladimir Guerrero play there and to claim that faded Arrieta fabric, commemorating the failed Orioles prospect turned Cy Young Award winner’s stint in Class AA back in 2009.

Reyno’s other passion is his various barbershop quartets, and his stint with the Alexandria (Virginia) Harmonizers allowed him to combine the two: The group would travel the country for competitions and conventions and Reyno, in between singing bass and occasionally tenor, always made sure to mix in a minor-league game, from Oregon to Utah to Kentucky.

That made the contraction talk – which began in November 2019 with a leaked and generally accurate list of 42 affiliates targeted for contraction – all the more distasteful for him.

Two members of the Frederick Keys confer before Wednesday's game. How long will they be with the team?
Two members of the Frederick Keys confer before Wednesday's game. How long will they be with the team?

“I was not real happy with that,” says Reyno. “I’m glad they put another team in Frederick. Real happy with that. Unfortunately, cutting back, like, 40 teams, takes away the opportunity in places.”

He sighs, and pauses, long enough to make painfully evident the power dynamic between MLB and the sport's most loyal fans.

“But it’s baseball,” he says. “I love it. I go through withdrawal when the season ends. (2020 was) Horrible. Horrible."

COVID-19 busted the major league season down to 60 games and the minor leagues to nothing, what with health and safety protocols challenging and expensive enough to stage a 30-team MLB season, let alone hundreds of minor league squads.

That plus the contraction drama was quite a double-whammy for the teams involved. The Keys furloughed a significant number of employees and the ones brought back are wearing more hats than they did before.

“The pandemic devastated us as an organization,” says Klein, the GM. “We had no product, couldn’t open the gates. That was tough. I’ve been talking to staff about how proud I am of them getting us to this point. It’s been a tall task being out of baseball for almost two years.”

In that sense, the Tuesday night opener was a whirlwind for Keys employees and the roughly 100 part-timers who help staff home games. With Maryland loosening COVID-19 restrictions, the Keys’ staffers wore masks but could focus on the minute details of a game night: Which playlist to avoid due to a stray cuss word, how to pick out a “Play Ball!” kid from the crowd, reminding fans to remain standing after the national anthem until the color guard from nearby Fort Detrick exited the field.

Forty-nine minutes into the home opener, they discovered something else: The tarp works just fine.

Staying alive

A spectacular thunderstorm chased players off the field and fans into the concourse, ending the baseball portion of the evening early. A fair amount hung around to finish their Flying Dog beers or eat that long-delayed hot dog before the game was officially called.

The players were similarly nonplussed. After all, the past two years have been brutal on ballplayers with dreams that might outsize their talent.

First came the pandemic, cutting short a 2020 season that was just a few games old for collegiate players and perhaps not even that much for high-schoolers. MLB then cut the 2020 draft to five rounds and all drafts thereafter to 20 rounds, halving the number of draftees.

For Dwayne Marshall, 2021 wasn’t much better.

Marshall, a right-hander who played collegiately at Maryland-Eastern Shore, drew the starting assignment for the Keys’ home opener, a just reward for his perseverance. Marshall’s original senior season was cut short by the pandemic, so he opted to return as a “super senior."

But COVID-19 mitigation isn’t as simple for a school in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference than, say, a Power 5 school. So last fall, Maryland-Eastern Shore announced its 2021 season would be cancelled, too.

Marshall was left without a team, but not hope.

“It’s been a pretty big drag, for me especially, but I look at it as a way to keep busy, to keep working hard,” says Marshall, 23. “I had a lot of time to work during that time off, so you can’t waste time sulking about not being able to play. When the time comes, when your opportunity comes, you have to be ready.”

And so Marshall – who struck out 17 in 17 innings before the 2020 season was halted – bumped his fastball up into the mid-90s and wrangled an invitation to a scouting showcase in Pennsylvania, where scouts tied to the draft league – a joint presentation of Prep Baseball Report and MLB – saw him throw.

Now, he is serving, essentially, an unpaid internship, though one not without perks.

The Keys unwittingly benefited from MLB’s stewardship of the minors when the Toronto Blue Jays announced they’d play a portion of their schedule in Buffalo once again. That bumped the Buffalo team to Trenton, New Jersey, leaving the Trenton draft league team without a home for the moment.

So MLB had Trenton and Frederick open the season with a two-game series at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.

It was a thrill for those on the field; Marshall was more awestruck by the London Broil served by the Phillies’ clubhouse staff. In his four days as a Key he also enjoyed unfettered access to Moe’s Southwest Grill, served buffet-style.

There have been no shortage of wide-eyed players.

“Honestly, this is a dream come true for me – everything and more I could ask for,” says Cy Kerber, the Keys catcher and leadoff batter. “Playing at Philadelphia was probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. I can’t ask for anything more.”

Kerber is on a mere two-week contract, a byproduct of the Draft League’s churn within even a 68-game season. As collegiate seasons wind down, players from more traditional blue bloods like Washington, Texas, Purdue and Creighton are slated to join the Keys in coming weeks.

Kerber is ticketed for Tennessee Tech this fall, after stints at three Illinois junior colleges – Rock Valley, Elgin and Morton – in as many years. COVID-19 played a part in that but so, too, did Kerber’s determination to seize opportunities.

“It’s been a wild ride,” he says, “but you just have to keep grinding. I’ve learned that along the way.”

It’s a lesson that keeps on giving: Wednesday morning, hours after the home opener, Kerber was transferred from the Keys to the Thunder, a move that likely buys him more time in the league after the Power 5 conference lads blow into town.

Flexibility is certainly a lesson for his old club, too. The opening-night crowd of 3,292 was down from the 3,800 the Keys averaged in 2019, although any number of reasons - the short run-up to an oddly-timed opener, late-pandemic conditions, iffy weather - could have contributed. The Keys drew 263,000 fans in 2019, which now seems like a lifetime ago.

Seventy home dates have now become 34. None of the rebuilding Orioles’ five consensus top 100 prospects will be rolling through, nor any rehabbing O’s from the east. It’s impossible to say how many fans that will deter from coming to the ballpark.

For now, anyway, there’s still a ballgame.

“If you’re really into it and want to see them climb the ladders of success, yeah, I feel like we are missing a little sparkle,” says Miranda Ducey, a 37-year-old Frederick resident who toted her two young children to the game.

“But at the same time, they’re still here.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Minor league baseball: Teams who faced extinction from MLB play on