Minor-league baseball officially returned to Hagerstown yesterday with a Baltimore-born owner and a new major-league affiliation, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Winston Blenckstone, owner of the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Hurricanes, announced at a news conference that the franchise will move to Hagerstown next season to compete in the Northern Division of the Single-A South Atlantic League.
The team -- which recently won the league title for the third time in eight years -- will continue as a farm club of the Blue Jays for at least two more years, severing Hagerstown's 12-year relationship with the Orioles.
"It was Toronto ball or no ball," said Hagerstown general &L; manager Bob Miller. "You have to take what's available and do what you can.
"Without the Orioles, it won't be as easy to market, so things will be different. What we've got to sell is the Hagerstown Suns."
On paper, Hagerstown has been without baseball for two weeks after the Double-A franchise completed its regular season in the Eastern League. It is moving in 1993 to Bowie, where groundbreaking for an 8,000-seat stadium is scheduled to begin in a week or two.
"We're pleased that we still have two pro teams in Maryland," said Doug Melvin, Orioles assistant general manager. "And we're happy to see Hagerstown will continue to have baseball, although we're a little saddened that the city won't be with us. We've had a good relationship there."
The prohibitive cost of upgrading 60-year-old Municipal Stadium to conform to new Double-A standards precipitated the shift of the franchise to Bowie by Maryland Baseball Limited Partnership Inc., former owner of the Suns.
Only about $500,000 is required to renovate the Hagerstown stadium to meet Single-A requirements.
"Maybe they'll keep the Orioles on their toes as a Blue Jay team," said Peter Kirk, the ex-Suns owner. "Hagerstown has another opportunity to show people they are committed to keeping baseball.
"I'm sure after their two-year agreement with the Blue Jays expires, the situation will be looked at again. The main thing is Hagerstown has kept baseball, and we couldn't be more pleased."
The city, 75 miles from Baltimore, is overwhelmingly populated by Orioles fans, but Melvin said the focus of the Orioles system is a commitment by affiliates to modern parks.
"We're in a time of new and upgraded facilities," he said. "That is most attractive to us. We have Frederick [Grove Stadium]. Kane County's park is 2 years old. In the ideal system they would all be like that."
Blenckstone has consented to a 10-year lease with the city to play at Municipal Stadium. He is leaving a poor facility in Myrtle Beach, where the team received minimal support.
"This was the goal and we achieved it, although it took a little time," said Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager.
Blenckstone was born and raised in Baltimore and still has Maryland ties. . His father has been an Orioles season-ticket holder since 1957, and his son, David, who will have a role in the operation, graduated from St. Paul's School and the University of Delaware.
Miller and his assistant, Carol Gehr, will be retained by the new owner, but the status of the other Suns employees is unclear.