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Suns future grows dim in Hagerstown

MORE: Read more news from Fredericksburg

COMPLETE COVERAGE: View all related stories and images on the Fredericksburg baseball proposal

Photos by Kelly Hahn Johnson / The Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Photo by Ric Dugan / The Hagerstown Herald-Mail

RELATED: Fredericksburg stadium plan calls for pool, kids’ zone, party deck

HAGERSTOWN, Md.—A series of plaques hanging on the Municipal Stadium grandstand boast of the legends of baseball who have swung a bat or thrown a pitch in this city.

Lefty Grove and Hack Wilson made stops in Hagerstown in the early 1920s. Willie Mays played a minor league game at the stadium in 1950. Jim Palmer was asked to rehabilitate his injuries here in the mid-1980s.

But a century after professional baseball was first played in Hagerstown, it could depart.

Bruce Quinn, the principal owner of the Hagerstown Suns, said recently that he intends to move the Class-A minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals to Fredericksburg for the start of the 2015 season.

Photo by Ric Dugan / The Hagerstown Herald-Mail

That decision may hang on the outcome of a public hearing on July 9, when the Fredericksburg City Council will weigh issuing $30 million in bonds to construct a proposed 5,000-seat, multi-use stadium.

Hagerstown can trace a history of organized baseball back to 1915, when the Hagerstown Hubs played in the Blue Ridge League. Teams have made the city their home off and on in the nearly 100 years since, but none have held as steady a presence as the Suns, who have played baseball at some level since 1981.

“People will cry,” said John Baker, an avid baseball fan who once left work to watch the Suns play a rare morning game. “This town was always a baseball town. It always was.”

AN UNFULFILLED HOPE

Photo by Ric Dugan / The Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Quinn knew Municipal Stadium was not a suitable home for a minor league baseball team when he led a handful of investors in purchasing the Hagerstown Suns from Los Angeles-based Mandalay Entertainment Group for $6.7 million in September 2010.

But Quinn, a Florida businessman who had never visited Hagerstown before inquiring about buying the team, didn’t realize how much of a burden trying to negotiate a new home for the team would be.

“When we bought the [team], we were under the impression, under the hope, that a new stadium would be constructed there,” Quinn said in a telephone interview. “I know the Nationals, when we bought the team, were under the same hope.

“We need a facility that meets minimum requirements, and this one doesn’t.”


COMPLETE COVERAGE: View related stories and images on Fredericksburg’s pursuit of the Suns and a new stadium.


Finding a suitable home for the Suns has been a problem since the first incarnation of the franchise left for a new stadium in nearby Frederick in 1989. A new team moved in the following season and adopted the Suns name, but it, too, left for a new stadium, heading across the state to Bowie in 1993.

Winston Blenckstone, a Maryland native, thought he could make Hagerstown work. The owner of the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes was constrained by his own stadium issues—the team shared facilities with what was then known as Coastal Carolina College—and he thought he could capitalize on the Suns’ departure by moving the team north and getting a stadium deal.

The new stadium never happened. Blenckstone gave up his fight after eight years in Hagerstown and sold the team in 2001 to Andrew Rayburn, an Ohio-based investor. Eighteen months later, Rayburn sold the team to Mandalay, citing the lack of a stadium deal as part of the reason.

Mandalay, an entertainment conglomerate that also owns the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and four other minor league baseball teams, sold the Suns to Quinn in 2010 to fund the purchase of the Oklahoma City RedHawks.

Studies authorized by the team and the city have identified a site a mile away from Municipal Stadium and near the office of The Herald-Mail, Hagerstown’s daily newspaper, as the best location. Some City Council members remain interested in pursuing other sites, including one immediately adjacent to the current stadium and another on a former hospital site blocks away.

Kristin B. Aleshire, one of five Hagerstown council members, said he favors building a new stadium in the city only if it makes financial sense to do so. Thus far, Aleshire hasn’t heard a convincing argument.

“[Residents] are equally opposed to the thought of spending $35 million on that type of ‘luxury item’ when we are struggling to adequately staff our police force and struggling to adequately maintain our streets and struggling to expand educational opportunities for our kids,” Aleshire said. “No matter how much people say you can’t compare one to the other, you have to when it includes an expense of that level.

“If it were $200,000 or $300,000, or even a $1 million cost, sure, the comparison would be hard. But if you were talking about wrapping up $6 million to $10 million in local bond debt capacity for 30 years, then you’ve got to put it in that context.”

Quinn’s pitch to Fredericksburg includes spending $3 million of his money for land acquisition, but the city would finance up to $30 million in bonds for stadium construction.

“I like Hagerstown,” Quinn said. “I think there’s a lot of good people in Hagerstown. Is there an ability to support baseball in Hagerstown? The potential’s there if they pick the right site, but that’s up to them.”

A HOLE IN THE WALL

Andrew Kirsch was working in the Hagerstown area when he decided to head to Municipal Stadium and purchase a $4 ticket for the Suns’ June 4 game against Kannapolis.

Kirsch, a resident of Charleston, W.Va., attends between 30 and 40 games a year for the West Virginia Power, which plays in the same league as the Suns. Last year, his family hosted Josh Bell, one of the top young outfielders in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system.

After taking his seat in the top row of the metal bleachers on the first-base line, Kirsch took out his cell phone and sent Bell a text message.

“So, what’s your favorite ballpark?” Kirsch asked. “Because I’m in Hagerstown, and this place is not nice.”

Built in 1930, Municipal Stadium certainly has its quirks. The press box, basically a storage shed, hangs on the top of a slanted grandstand roof. A section of the center field fence is missing, so pitchers in the visiting bullpen can see the game. Left field juts 40 feet deeper than the rest of the park, molded around South Cannon Street.

Last month, the Suns were forced to postpone two games of a weekend series against Delmarva. A steady rain wiped out Friday’s game, and because left field rises 18 inches higher than right field, water collected in the outfield and would not drain. The team had to call off Saturday’s game, as well.

“That was frustrating,” Suns manager Tripp Keister said. “It was 6:30 on a Saturday night and it’s like, [the weather is] gorgeous. I remember thinking that. There were puddles in a bunch of places.”

It is customary in minor league baseball to reschedule postponements as part of a single-admission doubleheader, so the team pays operating costs and loses revenue each time a home game is called off.

Bob Bruchey, a former mayor of Hagerstown hired by the team in January as its interim general manager, estimated the consecutive postponements in May cost the team between $30,000 and $40,000.

Every opportunity to play is important. Through Monday, the Suns’ paid attendance averaged just 1,015 fans a game, the fewest of the 14 teams in the South Atlantic League. The season opener on April 11 drew a season-high 2,650 to Municipal Stadium, but only 504 were in the stands a week later for a Wednesday night game against Lakewood.

In 2011, the first full season Quinn owned the team, average attendance dropped slightly to 1,931, down from 2,058 the year before. Last season, an average of only 1,366 went through the turnstiles each night.

The team would not reveal its number of season-ticket holders.

“We’re not worried about what’s going on in the stands,” said Matt Purke, the Nationals’ top pitching prospect, who is playing for the Suns for the second consecutive season. “We’re worrying about baseball. Wherever they tell us to play, we’ll play.”

Yet when a foul ball looped into the bleachers behind third base in the eighth inning that Tuesday night, a loud metallic thud was followed by a voice booming from the other side of the field.

“You mean to tell me that of the six people over there, y’all couldn’t catch that ball?” someone yelled.

AMENITY OR NECESSITY?

If the Fredericksburg City Council approves the construction of a new stadium after the public hearing on July 9, all signs indicate the Suns will be on their way.

“I think that if anybody in Fredericksburg is a baseball fan, they’re going to love having a minor league team,” said Jeff Nelson, a former major-league pitcher and Quinn’s brother-in-law. “Seeing Hagerstown—I don’t want to trash-talk the city. It’s just the facilities are not up to par, and it’s been very tough to try to get people to understand what a baseball team means to the town.”

Joe Sappey knows. A retiree in his mid-70s, Sappey makes the 30-minute drive from nearby Martinsburg, W.Va., a few times a year to watch the Suns. He places the blame for the stalled negotiations on the local government.

“I’d hate to see this area lose the team because of the elected officials,” Sappey said at a game earlier this month. “I understand their concern for the public funds and all, but there’s a good chance that this team could get away.”

Hagerstown council members said they’d be willing to pay closer attention to proposals if there were a greater investment from Quinn, his partners or the city’s business community. The ownership group, citing feasibility issues, has likewise ruled out renovation of the current stadium.

And while former mayor Bruchey believes that the residents of the city are 60 percent in favor of keeping the team, they understand the priorities.

“Baseball it’s an amenity,” Bruchey said. “It’s not a necessity.”

Zac Boyer: 540/374-5440

zboyer@freelancestar.com

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