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February 21, 2011

The Keys to The Stadium

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Motherhood, baseball, and apple pie. These three things nurture us, sustain us and entertain us. It seems our entire national ethos revolves around these things. How, then, accepting the role each plays in defining our character, could any of these become the basis for a local political controversy?


The answer is money, plain and simple, yet the center of much less worthy political arguments. Somebody has something they want, at a price they like paying. Somebody else believes the value of that something (in this case, a baseball stadium) is much higher than the other wishes to pay.


If this were a landfill we were talking about, nobody would care except the accountants. The center of this argument is a baseball diamond, summer nights, freshly mown, lush green grass, hot dogs, and peanuts. The players in this drama are hustling infielders, power-hitting outfielders, and flame-throwing pitchers. The villains are government officials, team owners, and sportswriters.


This is about much more than baseball, though. This is about budget cuts, corporate profits, professional sports franchises, and most importantly, this is about fans and taxpayers.


First, in the interest of complete disclosure, this writer was directly involved in the early stages of the drama unfolding at Harry Grove Stadium. As the mayor of Frederick’s executive assistant, the ballpark was one of my major responsibilities. Long before that, I was a true fan of the Frederick Keys. Not the casual, once-a-year type fan that goes to the park because they get somebody else’s tickets, but a regular, walk-up to the ticket booth and plunk-down-cash-for-two-seats fan.


No one enjoys a great game of baseball more than me, played with the kind of desperate enthusiasm we see from the High Class A young men who make up the Keys roster. Having played a lot of Little League baseball as a child, it’s possible to live vicariously through these guys. They all know they’re just one or two great minor league seasons away from the big leagues.


Sitting in the lower box seats, or sharing a bench in general admission, one cannot escape the rapt faces of the little boys who see the Keys players as their own heroes, as real as a Robinson, Mays, or Ruth to a 10 year old. Glove at the ready, little league cap squarely affixed, these boys hang on every pitch and swing. The food, the between-inning hijinks, and the fireworks keep some people at the park, but it’s the pure unadulterated baseball action that secures that age-old bond between father and sons.


It’s that emotion-fueled sentiment that local Frederick News-Post sportswriters like Stan Goldberg and Greg Swatek are playing on to compel the City of Frederick to quickly ink a deal with Ken Young (no relation to the local Young political dynasty), owner of the Frederick Keys. Both Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Swatek opine that baseball, Frederick Keys baseball, is too important a local amenity to let slip away. They suggest that we should be more concerned with keeping a Baltimore Orioles minor league franchise in Frederick than we should be worried about the huge cost burden of maintaining a professional ball park at local taxpayer expense.


Wish it was that simple! People love baseball, local people love the Orioles, and hence it makes sense to do whatever it takes to keep the team in Frederick. That means money…your money!


Mr. Young has a good deal, in spite of the arguments to the contrary. Keys local General Manager (and truly a very good guy) Dave Ziedelis argues that the Keys pay the second highest overall cost to use a stadium in the Carolina League. He complains about the $30,000 annual rent, the requirement to pay admissions and amusement tax (a state levy, not a local option), and the cost to maintain the playing surface.


He fails to mention the fact that Mr. Young also owns the concession company that sells all food at the stadium, and a recent comparison of pricing suggests that while still cheaper than ballpark eats at a big league park, a family will shell out a pile of cash for food and drink at a Keys game.


That said, no one disputes that there is an intrinsic value to having a minor league franchise of the Orioles playing here in Frederick. Certainly, since they first came over 20 years ago, the Keys have become a part of our local lexicon, an important recreational and entertainment outlet for Fredericktonians and others from Montgomery, Carroll, and Washington counties in Maryland and for fans from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia.


Valuations of the lease suggest that $30,000 is low, based on the demographics, attendance, and other factors associated with the overall profitability of Harry Grove Stadium. Of course, Messrs Young and Ziedelis will argue the opposite. Wouldn’t you if you owned the team?


Having spoken to counterparts in county and local governments that also host minor league teams, including three other Carolina League teams, the most oft-repeated excuse for lowered rent expectations is the threat of the owner moving the team. It seems a fairly consistent negotiating tactic on the part of ownership: If you raise our rent, we’ll probably have to move the team.


Everywhere it’s been tried, it has worked. No local elected official wants to face that eventuality, to be the administration that lost a minor league franchise. Even the local sports writers get in on the act, with the questionable argument that money shouldn’t matter, that baseball is more important than local tax rates. Yeah, sure it is!


The game-changing moment came when another entity, the Atlantic League of Independent Baseball, expressed an interest in competing for the use of the stadium. Keyword here: competing. They were not seeking a sweetheart deal; they were willing to pay the market rate.


Independent baseball is not the same as minor league professional baseball. Team owners are not linked to major league franchises, and the players are a mix of big leaguers who were cut from the majors and young guys who weren’t able to sign with a major league franchise.


Frederick News-Post sports page and editorial letter writers suggest that the play is sloppy, and Mr. Swatek goes so far as to claim the level of play is simply not competitive. Not sure if Greg has ever seen an Independent League game, but if he has and still maintains that assertion, then the problem may well be with the quality of the writer, not the baseball.


Without disclosing confidential details, it’s safe to suggest that the value of the facility held by the Keys and the perceived value held by the Atlantic League are as far apart as the two edges of the Grand Canyon.


A well-designed procurement process can test all of the pertinent factors, and will lead to an objective assessment in a wide range of metrics. It doesn’t have to be limited to how much more one user can pay, and it shouldn’t be.


Unbeknownst to many here, at various times in the past, Keys ownership were actively seeking buyers for the team. Mr. Young asserts that the team in not currently seeking a buyer, but that they would consider purchase offers if forthcoming. Seems reasonable, a position any responsible owner might take.


Should this be the sole reason to pursue offers from others to use the stadium? Of course not, no more than the idea that we all love the Keys/Orioles so much that we shouldn’t, after 20 years, insure that their deal reflects the market value of the facility and a fair return for city taxpayers.


One important point bears repeating. Not all Frederick City taxpayers are Keys fans, but every city taxpayer helps to subsidize the team. If it’s a fair deal, no sweat. If not, then those no-fan taxpayers have a legitimate gripe.


The city should prepare a Request for Proposals and accept offers from all comers. The value of a major league baseball affiliation can be factored in, as well the additional revenue-generating potential from a more flexible stadium usage strategy than the Keys might allow or encourage.


Frederick loves the Keys. The region loves coming to Harry Grove Stadium on a warm summer’s eve to watch young men play the national pastime. Frederick taxpayers also want to limit the damage to their wallets from a tax structure that unnecessarily subsidizes millionaire sports franchise owners.


It seems responsible that Mayor Randy McClement and the Board of Aldermen are committed to both preserving an important community amenity and providing the services their citizens demand at a reasonable tax rate.


Having a minor league team, with or without a major league affiliation, and getting the best lease rate on behalf of taxpayers-fans, or not, is exactly what the elected officials should be doing. Whether a sports journalist likes that or not is a moot point. If the deals stink, the editorial page will excoriate city officials. Since they can’t ever have it both ways, better to err on the side of the taxpayer.


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