Field Of Dreams A Nostalgic Ballpark And New Team For Wilmington

Posted: April 05, 1993

Matt Minker is building it, and the city of Wilmington is hoping people will come.

Minker is the president of the firm building a new, 5,500-seat stadium just off Interstate 95 near the center of Delaware's largest city. It will be the home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks, the Class A Carolina League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

Will there be interest in minor-league baseball in a city nestled between major-league markets in Philadelphia and Baltimore?

The April 16 season home opener sold out six hours after tickets went on sale March 15, and more than 950 season tickets have been purchased. So Minker, also a part owner of the team, has every reason to think minor-league ball in the Diamond State will be a major-league hit.

"What's it cost, about $100 to go to (Veterans Stadium) for a night for four people?" Minker asked. "We're trying to pull it off for $25 or $30. There's no charge for parking. Reasonable concession prices. We're trying to present value to people to bring them in."

That's Minker the businessman talking. After a few minutes, though, the other Matt Minker starts talking, the one who probably was born wearing sanitary socks. The one who was an outfielder at the University of Delaware in the mid-1960s. The one who built a new wing in his Wilmington home to display his extensive collection of baseball memorabilia.

"I'm just about as thrilled as I can be about this whole thing," Minker said. "This is a labor of love for me. I absolutely love baseball. When I talk about the Vet, don't get me wrong. I'll be at 50 Phillies games this season. I love my Phillies."

The Blue Rocks, a play on Delaware's state moniker, was the name of a Phillies minor-league affiliate that played in Wilmington in the '40s and early '50s. The state and city committed the funding to build the still- unnamed stadium last spring, and Minker came in as low bidder for the $4.6 million project, though he said he's not going to make much money on the project. "It's not the money," he said. "I just couldn't pass up the opportunity."

But why Wilmington, so close to the Vet and little more than an hour from Baltimore's much-hyped Oriole Park at Camden Yards? Besides, the Blue Rocks are an affiliate of an American League West club halfway across the country. Who will care?

Team officials say they don't consider major-league franchises as competition. They worry about competing with other forms of entertainment.

"We purposely keep our ticket prices at or below that of a movie theater," said Chris Kemple, Blue Rocks general manager. "We don't view being located between two major-league stadiums as competition. We look at the movie theater as competition for the Blue Rocks."

Judge for yourself. Box seats will be $6 apiece, reserved seats will be $5 and adult general admission is $4. Children under 12, senior citizens and military personnel may purchase general admission seats for $2.

Minker said nostalgia - the feeling of an old-time ballpark - was his prime consideration when he began sculpting his dream yard. He did a little borrowing, primarily from two sources: Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick, Md., and - you guessed it - Camden Yards.

Frederick is the home of the soon-to-be-rival Frederick Keys, the Carolina League affiliate of the Orioles. Majestic Grove Stadium proved to have the most influence on Wilmington's construction, Minker said.

"We went down, spent some time in Frederick and studied what they did, not just aesthetically, but we looked over their skyboxes and their stadium club," Minker said. "We really liked both, and we especially thought the stadium club was a real nice feature for people to go have dinner and watch a ballgame. We felt Frederick had a nice stadium club. We took that same concept and, I don't want to be derogatory, but we're dressing it up."

Another modification is seating. Frederick has two tiers of seats, with the field actually below ground level. Wilmington, Minker noted, will have three levels of seating and the field will be at ground level.

Minker said the overall nostalgic design of Camden Yards - subtle things like the shape of the stadium, color of the masonry, pillars along the front facade - influenced his thinking.

"We're doing some fine-tuning now to bring back that old feeling," he said.

On Feb. 18, Minker said construction of the stadium was on schedule and that only one thing could keep the Blue Rocks from their date with the Winston-Salem Spirits on April 16.

"The weather is the only thing that could prevent us from playing baseball in Wilmington on April 16," Minker said.

On March 13, Mother Nature dumped 12 inches of snow on the city. Still, team officials are saying construction is still on schedule and that Opening Day should not be affected. If it is, however, management has made arrangements with the University of Delaware, in Newark, to open the season there until the stadium is complete.

Baseball's road back to Wilmington was rather circuitous. About a year and a half ago, a group headed by Frank Boulton - owner of the Double A Eastern League's Albany-Colonie Yankees - and ex-major league player and manager Bud Harrelson bought the Peninsula Pilots, the Carolina League affiliate of the Seattle Mariners based in Hampton, Va. Poor attendance, an uncooperative local business community and a deteriorating stadium led to the decision to move.

The group began looking for new sites. Kemple, also the GM in Hampton, said Wilmington was the first choice, since the business community appeared eager for baseball and local government officials agreed to build a stadium.

"What was most appealing to us was that we were going to play in a new facility," Kemple said. "That was very exciting to us. In Peninsula, it was just a bad situation and we felt it was time to make a change. We were presented with an opportunity to move and we jumped on it."

When the Boulton-Harrelson group relocated in Wilmington, Seattle decided to move its Class A affiliate to the Midwest League, at Appleton, Wis. That left an opening in the Carolina League, and the Royals jumped at the opportunity to join because they wanted to move their Class A affiliate from Baseball City, Fla., a Florida State League franchise.

Baseball City, according to Royals minor league director Bob Hegman, had become a ghost town after Boardwalk and Baseball, a local amusement park, was

closed.

"We wanted a new area, we wanted a new stadium and we wanted to get out of Baseball City," Hegman said. "We were looking for a prime area and this area (Wilmington) more than meets the situation we were looking for. We wanted to be the game in town. That's the best situation for young players, because they're going to be excited about playing there."

Coming north to manage the Blue Rocks is Ron Johnson, who managed the Baseball City Royals to a 71-60 record last season. A former first baseman who made brief stops with the Royals in 1982 and '83 and Montreal in 1984, Johnson also coached at Baseball City from 1988-91. At age 37, he talks with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old who just got his first autograph.

"To me, this is great," he said of the move. "We have press, we have a new stadium, we have a town that's excited about it. I know I'm fired up. And we'll have 25 guys this year who are ready to go. Whether we start at the University of Delaware or out in the parking lot, we'll be ready. Outside of that, if I could find a country-and-western place around here, I really could call this home."

So baseball is coming to Wilmington. It's minor-league ball, and the minor leagues exist for one reason: as a proving ground for the players, coaches, management. Even a city.

"The difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues is that this is a testing site," Johnson said. "I've managed one year and coached a couple of years and I'm learning every day. I'm going to try different strategies, and the players are going to try different things, too, because they're here to prove themselves.

"My goal is to manage or coach in the major leagues," he continued, drawing an invisible line with his hand. "No bones about it. That's what I want to do."

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