Spring is here and joy is returning to Birdland, but with only 81 Orioles home games this season, what’s a diehard fan to do with all those other days? How about a visit to the minor leagues to see where the baby birds grow? Down on the farm, you can actually speak with the players, run the bases after the game, ride a carousel, and take the whole family for less than a C-note.
That’s the magic of minor-league baseball. Herewith, our roundup of the minor-league parks (all less than a day’s drive from Baltimore), with some insider tips from Orioles Super Fan, Army Sgt. Romeo Santos, who catches at least a half-dozen games per park every season and was a finalist in ESPN’s Fan Hall of Fame in 2014. So grab your ball cap and big foam finger and let’s hit the farm!
→ Aberdeen IronBirds
Class A, Short Season, New York-Penn League. Venue: Ripken Stadium, Aberdeen. First Season: 2002. Stadium Capacity: 6,300. Distance From Camden Yards: 35 Miles. It goes without saying that we’d expect a park built by Cal to be the ultimate place to play ball, but it’s a great place to watch it, too. Walking through the main gate provides a panoramic view of the natural-grass field stretching out to the new Orioles orange outfield wall. And the seating bowl is intimate, with fans close enough to chime in on pitcher’s-mound manager chats. Know Before You Go: Ripken Stadium will immediately feel like home to any Orioles fan. In 2014, the IronBirds started wearing orange and black uniforms and The House that Cal Built is a loving homage to both the “Oriole Way” and the “Ripken Way” in every way. The Marriott hotel off the left field line is a dead ringer for the warehouse at Camden Yards, and there is an ever-present nod to the jersey numbers of the Ripkens: Cal Sr. (No. 7), Billy (No. 3), and Cal Jr. (No. 8). The stadium’s address is 873 Long Drive, the power alleys are 378 feet, and even Ferrous (the word means “contains iron”), one of the team’s two mascots, is number 3 7/8. What to Eat: Head straight to Conrad’s Crabs & Seafood Deck for steamed crabs. If there’s anything better than baseball and a pile of steamed crabs, we haven’t found it yet. Bonus: Get great views of the game from the deck. Can’t-Miss Promo: Collectors won’t want to miss the Cal Ripken Jr. Bobblehead 2131 Night on Sept. 2. Famous Alumni: Right-fielder Nick Markakis, now with the Atlanta Braves, played his first pro-season with the IronBirds in 2003. Tip From a Super Fan: IronBirds home-run balls make the best trophies. “Most balls have grass stains on them,” says Sgt. Santos. “If one lands in your crabs, though, it’s got Old Bay on it, and what’s better on a baseball? It doesn’t just look good in your cabinet, it smells good, too!” 873 Long Dr., Aberdeen, 410-297-9292
→ Delmarva Shorebirds
Class-A South Atlantic League. Venue: Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, Salisbury. First Season: 1997. Stadium Capacity: 5,200. Distance From Camden Yards: 119 miles. Let’s just get this out of the way: This Salisbury-based team should have been called the Salisbury Steaks—put a T-Bone on a ball-cap and you’ve got a license to print money. Despite the missed naming opportunity, Perdue Stadium (built, in part, by one of the nation’s largest chicken producers, based on the Eastern Shore) is an amazing place to catch a game. Kids will love team mascot Sherman the Shorebird, and the stadium also has a carousel. (Instagram alert: Ride the giant chicken for a prime photo-op.) For grown-up baseball fans, Delmarva’s classic, three-level brick concourse is a great place to watch baseball. The sightlines are fantastic, and the park has a classic minor-league feel. Thanks to the Eastern Shore’s rich baseball tradition, Delmarva fans are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable anywhere, so if you’ve got a question about the kid on the mound, ask your neighbor. Know Before You Go: Give yourself at least an hour to peruse Perdue Stadium’s Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame, featuring shore natives and baseball legends Jimmie Fox and Harold Baines. What to Eat: There’s a tasty half-pound Angus burger, and shrimp salad is on offer, too, but at Perdue Stadium, eating the chicken is practically required. Hit the “Chicken Fry Fry” stand and ask for anything made from a bird. Can’t-Miss Promo: All of Sherman the Shorebird’s mascot friends will be on hand to celebrate his birthday on May 29! Famous Alumni: Former Oriole (and recently retired Yankee) Brian Roberts played 14 seasons in the majors, but got his professional start in 1999 with the Shorebirds. Tip From a Super Fan: “Go to a day game on the way home from the beach,” says Santos. “You get your baseball, and when the game is over, the traffic is gone!” 6400 Hobbs Rd., Salisbury, 410-219-3112
→ Frederick Keys
Class-A Advanced, Carolina League. Venue: Harry Grove Stadium, Frederick. First Season: 1990. Stadium Capacity: 5,400. Distance From Camden Yards: 49 miles. The IronBirds may play in the house that Ripken built, but Harry Grove Stadium is the park that Francis Scott Key haunts. “The Star-Spangled Banner” author’s grave lies just a long fly ball from the Keys’ ballpark, one of the many features that gives Harry Grove Stadium a certain harmony with its surroundings. We like that the sightlines from its open concourse are fantastic, so grabbing a hot dog won’t mean missing a play, and the gently sloping lawns down both lines are good for shagging fly balls. In 2009, the Keys added a giant new scoreboard providing pitch speeds, counts, and up-to-the-second stats, plus a massive video board that brings some serious big-league razzle-dazzle. We like the old with the new: The coolest throwback feature is the old-school metal bleachers, perfect for hand drumming up a Keys’ rally. Know Before You Go: There’s a family-friendly picnic area on third-base side and a kid’s “Fun Zone” near right field. Also, try to catch a fireworks game (on April 10 and 24 this month), because when it comes to the rocket’s red glare, the Keys get it right. No doubt the ghost of Francis Scott would approve. What to Eat: In Frederick, it’s all about the beer, and the Brewer’s Alley brewpub stand delivers. Nothing washes down a Keys’ win like an ice-cold Brewer’s Alley Kölsch. Can’t-Miss Promo: Guaranteed Win Tuesdays (how’s that for confidence?)—if the Keys lose on a Tuesday, fans can come back for a free future Monday through Thursday game. Famous Alumni: Orioles Hall of Famer Brady Anderson donned a Keys cap back in 1990, the team’s second season. Tip From a Super Fan: Cross your fingers that they’ll bring back the Dizzy Bat races—in which fans stand on the field, spin around a bat, then race down the line. If they do, “Go slow,” says Santos, who speaks from experience. “[On one occasion], I was sure I was going to win, but halfway through, I did a face-plant in the grass.” 21 Stadium Dr., Frederick, 301-662-0013
→ Bowie Baysox
Double-A, Eastern League. Venue: Prince George’s Stadium, Bowie. First Season: 1994. Stadium Capacity: 10,000. Distance From Camden Yards: 28 miles. If the Baysox look familiar, that’s because they played their first season at old Memorial Stadium while they waited for their new digs to be built—and what digs they are. Sightlines from the left-field picnic pavilion can’t be beat, and having a roof makes this an ideal spot to wait out rain delays. If you’re feeling fancy, try the Diamond View Restaurant on the club level right behind home plate. The stadium boasts a carousel, a bounce house, and games. Prince George’s Stadium is nestled into the forest, and a line of beautiful old trees backs up to the outfield wall. On hot summer nights, you’ll swear the cicadas are singing, “Let’s play two!” Know Before You Go: Bowie is where you’ll find the brightest young Orioles stars. Hot prospect Christian Walker was a fixture on the team in 2014 and fire-balling future ace Kevin Gausman anchored the rotation in 2013. If you want to know who the Orioles’ next big hero is going to be, the Baysox are just a quick trip down I-97. What to Eat: Try the black Angus pit-beef sandwich, the Baysox’s take on this classic Maryland favorite. Can’t-Miss Promo: The force will be with the Baysox when Darth Vader and Yoda are on hand for Star Wars Night on June 13. (Note: bunting with a light saber is not allowed.) Famous Alumni: Infielder Manny Machado holds down the hot corner in Baltimore now, but in 2012, he played 109 games for Bowie, mostly at shortstop. Tip From a Super Fan: Santos says if you’re planning to ball-hawk some homers, don’t forget to pack the bug spray. “Home runs land in the trees,” says Santos. “I went out to get Manny Machado’s first home-run ball, and I got eaten alive!” Of course, if you stay in the stadium, you’ll be fine. 4101 Crain Hwy., Bowie, 301-805-6000
→ Norfolk Tides
Triple A, International League. Venue: Harbor Park Stadium, Norfolk, VA. First Season: 1993. Stadium Capacity: 11,856. Distance From Camden Yards: 233 miles. Designed by Populous, the same firm that designed Camden Yards, Harbor Park Stadium was named the best minor-league stadium in the country by Baseball America in 1995. Two decades later, it remains a gem of a ballpark. Built on the shores of the Elizabeth River, water views and the lattice-trestle of an old train drawbridge rising behind the outfield fence make Harbor Park a standout stadium. Between its low brick and concrete façade and gray, steel ramps, Harbor Park feels like a cross between a major-league stadium and a battleship—the perfect fit for this scrappy Navy town. As the premier team of the parent club, Norfolk is often your last chance to see and interact with future Orioles stars, and big-leaguers coming back from injuries stop in for a few tune-up games before heading back to the show, too. Leave your car and take the light rail from downtown or a ferry from Portsmouth across the river to the game. Know Before You Go: Norfolk is home to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, so the National Anthem is even more special at Tides games. Local soldiers, sailors, and marines are often chosen to sing, so a word to visiting Orioles fans, leave your big “O!” in Baltimore. What to Eat: Take the Salute to Pork Challenge: Eat five pounds of pork in an hour and your meal is free, plus you get four tickets to a future game and your picture on the Wall of Fame. Can’t-Miss Promo: Navy Night in Norfolk is always special with great fireworks and the Tides wearing their special blue, digital-camo uniforms. Famous Alumni: 12-time All Star Mike Piazza played five games for the Tides in 2003. Tip From a Super Fan: The stadium restaurant, Hits at the Park, is open before games and has its own entrance to the park. “The food is awesome,” says Santos. “Skip the lines, grab a couple of beers, and be the first inside.” 150 Park Ave., Norfolk, VA, 757-622-9090