A whole new ballgame: Keys set to begin play in MLB Draft League amid skepticism, curiosity

·13 min read

May 24—Jim Wilson is 90 years old and has been coming to Frederick Keys baseball games ever since the minor league franchise arrived in town in 1989.

Late Saturday morning, the Frederick native was quite capably roaming the concourse at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium by himself at the annual KeysFest fan event, looking around to see what might have changed since the last baseball game was played there on Sept. 2, 2019, an 11-2 loss to the Potomac Nationals.

Quite a lot has changed, actually. The Keys have lost their affiliation of 31 years with the Baltimore Orioles and are set to begin a new chapter in the city's baseball history. They are now part of this six-team Major League Baseball Draft League, which opens its inaugural season Monday with a blend of curiosity and skepticism.

The Keys, just hours after conducting their first team workout Sunday evening at Nymeo Field, will be in Philadelphia to take on the Trenton Thunder in a 7 p.m. game at the home of the Phillies, Citizens Bank Park.

After losing their affiliation with the New York Yankees last November, the Thunder are loaning their stadium in Trenton to the Buffalo Bison, the Triple-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, who have been shut out of their home stadium by the pandemic for more than a season now and have resorted to playing in Buffalo at the Bison's stadium.

So, after opening the next chapter of their careers in a major-league park, the Keys players will return home Wednesday for a 6:30 p.m. game against the West Virginia Black Bears, a former short-season affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Over the next three months, the Draft League will conduct a 68-game season, allowing draft eligible college players (juniors and seniors) to showcase their skills before major league scouts. The showcase event itself will be the MLB Draft, which was pushed back to July this year to coincide with the All-Star Game and allow a longer window for these players to be scouted.

Typically, the draft takes place during the first week of June before the College World Series has even started.

Wilson attended his first Keys game at McCurdy Field on South Jefferson Street during the first season. The team moved into Harry Grove Stadium for the start of its second season in 1990.

To Wilson's eye, the stadium looks largely the same as it did back then, which, of course, remains one of the big issues regarding the future of the Keys.

Over the years, the field and lighting systems have been replaced, a new scoreboard and video board have been installed and the suites have been renovated, mostly on the city's dime since it owns the stadium.

But the upgrades were not sufficient enough to keep the Keys as the Orioles' High-Class A affiliate. The clubhouses remain small and outdated. The concourse and seating areas lack some of the modern amenities of newer stadiums. And the players must still navigate their way through packs of autograph-seeking fans on their way to and from the clubhouse.

Many of these things will have to change if the Keys want to regain affiliation with a major league team, which team owner Ken Young says remains the long-range goal.

Wilson is skeptical the baseball in the Draft League will be as good as when the Keys were an Orioles affiliate. But, as he reaches one end of the concourse and begins to retrace his steps at KeysFest, he had another issue on his mind.

"Do you know where I can find a roster?" he asked.

The roster was not publicly released until Sunday, as players continued to trickle into town from their college teams prior to a noon media day event. Some players who will be on the team won't be available until their college seasons are over.

"It would be nice to know who some of these players are," Wilson remarked.

Baseball is why Wilson continues to show up at the ballpark. The fireworks, concessions, celebrity appearances and social atmosphere are nice. But they are not why he is there, unless his grandchildren rope him into some of the side attractions.

On the other hand, Shaun and Stephanie Fried of Frederick come to games, in large part, because there are other things to do. They aren't as heavily invested in the game, and it's a fun thing to do with friends or their 2-year-old son, Harrison.

"We come here for the family atmosphere," Shaun Fried said at KeysFest.

In the fan gap between Wilson and the Frieds lie two fundamentally important questions on which the success and the fate of the Draft League ultimately rest.

How much different will the baseball look? Does it really matter?

A new experienceAt first, the Draft League will take some getting used to for everyone.

The season, for starters, will be about half the length of a normal Keys season. Although, it will entirely take place during the warmer-weather months. Gone are the drizzly, 42-degree nights in April and the school nights in September.

Most of the players, who are not being compensated, are being thrust into competition together for the first time with little to no prep time. And there are only six teams in the league, which means players will have to overcome opponents that come to know their tendencies like the back of their own hand.

The on-field experience will be different for the fans, too, since they will no longer have the luxury of following the step-by-step progress of players as they try and climb through the ranks of a major-league organization.

While it's theoretically possible that Keys players can still wind up with the Orioles through the draft, there are no guarantees.

For some, this will be a turnoff.

"How do I root for a kid who in a few months could wind up with the Texas Rangers?" asked Jack Topchik, a longtime Keys season-ticket holder.

Topchik purchased tickets to five games and is willing to give the new league a chance. "But I doubt the idea will succeed as a baseball operation," he said.

Given the chance to make an impression and take root, others feel the league will be a big success.

"The league, once it's established, is going be bar-none the number one, premiere collegiate wood-bat league in existence, and under the umbrella of Major League Baseball," said former Keys general manager Dave Ziedelis, a longtime executive in minor league baseball who recently left the team to become the executive director of Visit Frederick.

Ziedelis said "99.9 percent of people, the fans, the attendees that are regulars at Keys games will not know a difference."

All six teams in the Draft League are former affiliated teams. So, they will have better facilities than just about every other collegiate wooden bat league, Ziedelis said.

And all of them are centrally located in the Mid-Atlantic region around major cities. So, it will be easy for scouts to get to games.

Since every player in the league can conceivably get drafted by any of the 30 major league teams, the scouting net cast at venues like Nymeo Field will be much wider, rather than just Orioles scouts and executives to evaluate prospects under the Keys' old setup.

Young is the longtime owner and president of the Keys, as well as minor league franchises in Bowie and Norfolk that retained their affiliation with the Orioles as Class AA and Class AAA teams, respectively.

He said the quality of the play in the Draft League will likely be on par with Low-A ball, which is definitely a step below where the Keys were formerly, but not a drastic step down.

"Then the question comes down to: Is it a product the fans want?" Young said. "And, let's face it, so much of minor league baseball comes down to the experience in the ballpark, the building of traditions, socialization with friends, all of those things and just getting out as a family. I will tell you, all of that hasn't changed."

Young pointed out that most fans at minor league games don't know the score when they leave the ballpark.

"They just know they had a good time," he said. "That's still the situation."

The MLB brandThere are more than 70 collegiate wooden bat leagues across the U.S. None have the power and the weight of the Major League Baseball name behind them.

"It's huge," Chuck Greenberg, the former managing partner and CEO of the Texas Rangers, said in a phone interview.

Greenberg owns three minor league franchises, including the Keys' former Carolina League rival, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and the State College (Pennsylvania) Spikes of the MLB Draft League.

"This is MLB's idea," he said of the Draft League. "And the fact they are putting their name on it is a reflection of that. You know, for our clubs, each of whom had affiliations with individual major-league teams, the biggest thing we have to combat is the misinformed notion that we are no longer affiliated with Major League Baseball. We are. It's just that, instead of being affiliated with one club, now are affiliated with all of MLB."

When MLB reorganized its minor league system, resulting in 40 teams losing their big-league affiliation earlier this year, the Draft League was sort of the olive branch it extended to soothe feelings and retain a foothold in some of its reliable markets, such as Frederick.

The idea is that players will be hungry and on the upswing heading into the draft. There won't many phenoms and sure-fire, first-round talents. But, on the flip side, there won't be the hangers-on that permeate the lower levels of affiliated ball — the guys reporting for their third tour of duty with a team, desperately trying to keep the dream alive.

"If you are a player who is not a first-round pick, who isn't one of the elite arms in the league and you have a chance to, you know, play in front of every major league team on a consistent basis for a month or so leading into the draft, why wouldn't you?" Greenberg asked. "This is the place to do it. ... I am high confident this has legs."

A model to followThe standard for collegiate wooden bat leagues remains the Cape Cod Baseball League, which has sent more than 1,000 players into Major League Baseball, including Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk, Frank Thomas and Craig Biggio, over 136 years.

It has also spawned numerous books, documentaries and a full-length movie, "Summer Catch."

Fans and major-league scouts still congregate on the Cape to watch 10 teams slug it out over the course of a 44-game season that runs from the middle of June to the middle of August.

"Fans love being near the action," said Steve West, the team president of the Chatham (Massachusetts) Anglers of the league's East Division. "There are no reserved seats, and no admission, although suggested donations are encouraged. And since Cape Cod is a vacation destination, many families have established traditions that have been passed down for generations."

West started in the league as a host family for players in 2011 and ascended to team president for the Anglers in 2013.

"The vast majority of these players will be drafted, and the fact that around 15 percent of all current MLB players played Cape League baseball leads further credence to the excellence of the league," he said.

"Most pitchers you face are, or will become, Friday night college starters and/or their college team's bullpen stoppers. That, plus the transition to wood bats for the hitters, generally leads to lower batting averages and lower scoring games. I've heard it said that the caliber of play is similar to Class A minor league ball."

West has heard all about the MLB Draft League and feels it has a chance to attract a following.

"I think the league will work, although some growing pains can be expected the first couple years as the affiliates grow to understand the nuances and differences between minor league baseball and summer college baseball," he said.

West said that all six teams will need to develop a loyal fan base, something that will take time and effort.

"There are several differences between minor league baseball and summer college baseball — i.e. shorter seasons, colleges and not MLB control the players — that the League will have to figure out," he said.

"I specifically think the control of players aspect is going to take some getting used to as the teams will find their rosters are much more in flux than in the pro ranks as players may arrive late [due to college playoffs] or leave early for many reasons."

Winning over the skepticsSome people will have to see it before they are convinced the Draft League will be a success.

"This is like watching ballgames at a tryout camp, I would think," said Frederick resident John Golski, a regular at Keys games who has yet to buy a ticket for the coming season.

He said he would probably go to one game to see what it was all about, but would not commit to anything beyond that.

"The big thing is you won't be able to follow the kids," he said. "When they were with the Orioles, you could follow them as they moved up the ranks. That was the thing I really enjoyed. Now, you don't even know what team they are going to play for, and some of the top players won't be as recognizable."

Jim and Amanda Addington of Frederick ran the Keys' host family program for the last six years and attended just about every home game. They, too, enjoyed following the players as they moved through the Orioles' organization, and they, too, are skeptical of the quality of play in the Draft League.

"We are looking at college kids that may or may not get drafted," Jim Addington said. "With the old Keys, everybody was drafted. So, the caliber of play will be just a little bit lower.

"Is the average fan going to know? No, probably not, because they are still going to have fireworks, and they are going to have 'Star Wars' night, and the playground and all that stuff is still going to be there. But, as a true baseball fan, I think we will see the difference."

The host family program has been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic. The players are being put up in hotels by the league. So, the Addingtons won't be opening their homes to any players this season. But they have renewed their season tickets and are willing to give the new league a chance.

They know the alternative to no Draft League in Frederick is likely no professional-caliber baseball in Frederick.

"We are still big supporters of Frederick baseball. So, we are happy to have some kind of baseball in Frederick," Jim Addington said. "We really hope that, at some point, we get back to affiliated baseball. But, absent that, there are 41 other cities that probably don't have baseball. So, we are happy to have at least some baseball."

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