Gen. George Armstrong Custer, the former Civil War general so often associated with military hubris and lost causes after his death in the Battle of the Little Big Horn, reappeared last month at a Hagerstown Suns game — as a bobblehead giveaway.
It was entirely fitting. And not only because his Civil War record included defending Hagerstown 150 years ago when he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
The Hagerstown Suns may soon be leaving town, lured by a new stadium and a more robust revenue stream in Fredericksburg, Va. That's not a sure bet — at least not yet — but it's looking increasingly likely. Like a military stratagem gone bad, Hagerstown's efforts to retain the Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, has potential disaster spelled all over it.
It wasn't always so. Last year, Hagerstown appeared to be moving toward an ambitious plan to build a "Multi-Use Outdoor Sports and Events Center" in the downtown to replace the aging Municipal Stadium. It was hoped the $37 million project might jump-start a downtown that has lost much economic vitality in recent years.
But the project faced opposition, and much of its financing was a mystery — including the unnamed benefactor who allegedly was willing to front half the project's cost (but no longer appears to be part of the picture). In November, some of the project's leading supporters, including Hagerstown's mayor, were voted out of office.
That caused newly elected city officials to expand their horizons toward several other sites, including renovating Municipal Stadium. But renovations struck many as absurd, particularly at an 83-year-old ballpark as deeply flawed as Hagerstown's.
How bad is it? Well, the playing field is a flood plain built on top of a shale deposit that gives left fielders an uphill climb of about three feet rather than the customary level field. The concession space is modest, as are the restrooms. It no longer fits the standards of Major League Baseball, so if the Suns ever move, it's unlikely they'll be replaced by another team.
This also isn't the first time the Suns have threatened to leave. An earlier Suns team (then affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles) chose to move to Bowie in 1993 and became the Baysox. During the minor league ballpark building boom of the 1990s, when Maryland saw new facilities built in Aberdeen, Bowie and Salisbury (not to mention the new stadiums built for the Orioles, Ravens and Redskins), Hagerstown was content to stand pat.
Current Mayor David S. Gysberts says he's confident that a deal will be reached with Suns owner Bruce Quinn by the end of August to build a new stadium in Hagerstown through a private-public partnership. That would likely involve Hagerstown, Washington County, the state of Maryland and the Suns each footing one-quarter of the cost.
But that's easier said than done. How to pay for it remains in the air. So do details of a potential lease agreement. And then there's still the matter of a location — building it downtown or four blocks away at the site of a former hospital appear to be the leading contenders. Some people worry about crime, others about traffic.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Last week, the Fredericksburg City Council heard from supporters of the plan to build a $30 million stadium just off Interstate 95. They, too, are negotiating with the Suns and expect to have a deal in hand by Aug. 13.
Much is at stake. Team officials want a new facility by the 2015 season. Should the team move, Hagerstown would be out 150 seasonal jobs and about $700,000 in annual spending. That may seem a modest impact to some, but not in a city of 40,638 struggling with a nearly 10 percent unemployment rate.
Worse, proponents say the new stadium would host much more than 70 ballgames per year and envision it as a place for concerts, shows and other sporting events. That could give the downtown a multimillion-dollar boost. As noted in a feasibility study done by Ripken Design, communities that have built downtown ballparks such as Greenville, S.C., Durham, N.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn. have experienced considerable growth (and increased property values) as nearby businesses and neighborhoods prospered.
But here's what the people of Hagerstown truly must ask themselves: Do they want to have a minor league team? Is it an amenity that people living in that community cherish? If so, the mayor and council ought to get down to business and agree to a new stadium before the team moves. If not, then perhaps they should focus redevelopment efforts elsewhere.
Unfortunately, losing the Suns would do little for Hagerstown's public image. A baseball stadium might not be all that's needed to save the ailing downtown, but it would be a sign that the city wasn't satisfied with the status quo and economic stagnation. General Custer's mistake was not realizing how dire his circumstances were. Hagerstown should not do the same.