New paint can't hide old enemy Hagerstown blue over new Jays


Hagerstown -- Old Municipal Stadium has been spruced up in bright blue, with a play area for children, a picnic setting for families, renovated clubhouses and offices and new paint gleaming everywhere.

The fences on the right side of the outfield have been shortened and home runs have accumulated at three times the rate of last summer.

But Hagerstown, a city rich in its alliances with the Orioles, hasn't been sold on the face-lift.

Many of the natives still cannot embrace the Toronto Blue Jays, the new heads of their baseball family, nor forget that owner Peter Kirk pulled the Orioles' Double-A Eastern League franchise out of town rather than invest heavily in renovations for the stadium. The Double-A team is now the Bowie Baysox.

Attendance has dropped 620 fans per game in Hagerstown. The Single-A South Atlantic League Suns, owned by Baltimore native Winston Blenckstone, moved to Hagerstown from Myrtle Beach, S.C., where the team won the league title last summer but drew poorly (61,120 in 60 dates) to a poor facility.

The Suns have surpassed the Myrtle Beach total, attracting 81,314 in 60 dates, an average of 1,355. But they will fall far short of the franchise record 193,753 set in 1991 when the team made the Eastern League playoffs. Last year the team drew 130,331.

Six weeks ago, Blenckstone believed "our goal of 110,000 is still attainable. There is an outside shot we can do that." With six home dates remaining, that shot is now shot.

The franchise has had a hard time winning fans who were loyal to Orioles farm teams for years.

"There's still a lot of bitterness over losing the Double-A fran

chise and how it was handled," said longtime Suns general manager Bob Miller. "And everybody is looking for orange and black and it's not here.

"But I'm happy with the owner I have. This is a first-class organization and the quality of baseball has been excellent. That's what we have to sell."

The Suns went into last night leading the Northern Division of the South Atlantic League by one game in the second-half standings, but winning hasn't boosted attendance.

A promotion during which Ewing Oil distributed free tickets and $10 food vouchers for the stadium attracted 4,968, the largest crowd of the season. More commonplace -- especially during the first half of the season -- were audiences of 400 and 500. Season-ticket sales fell by approximately 33 percent, and reserved grandstand seats priced at $5 -- $1 higher than last season -- have not been popular.

Betty Banzhoff was a charter box-seat holder in 1981 who occasionally took bus trips to see the team play on the road. She has surrendered her season tickets and has attended only two games this year.

"I just couldn't get into it anymore," she said. "My husband got sick and that slowed me down, but when Toronto came in that helped me say, 'I'm just not interested anymore.'

"A lot of people up here regard Toronto as the opposition," Banzhoff added. "It's been a nice feeling to be able to say, 'I watched that kid play in the minor leagues,' when he gets to the Orioles. We can't do that anymore."

Bob Parasiliti covers the Suns daily for the Hagerstown Herald. He said he has seen one radical fan come to the park, jeering "to get the Blue Jays out of town," and others complain about the differences in reserved seating, the addition of blaring music and other changes.

"I think more people are checking out the team lately," Parasiliti said. "But a lot still think about why they should pay to see players who are going to beat the Orioles in the future."

A hands-on owner, Blenckstone has purchased a home in the Hagerstown area and is involved heavily in the day-to-day operation of the club. He has a five-year agreement, with an option, to stay in Hagerstown. He said he believes the marriage will work eventually.

"Basically, everything has been good here," he said. "There is no comparison regarding facilities [to Myrtle Beach] and the market is a lot more stable.

"We came in touted as saving baseball here. I think this is a good enough area to support Class A. I think we can be one of the better markets in the South Atlantic League."

So far, it hasn't happened. Suns officials are frustrated, trying to figure out how to persuade fans to watch what Blenckstone calls "one of the more talented clubs we've had in seven years.

"It shouldn't matter whether we're Orioles, Padres or Blue Jays," he said. "There are five minor-league clubs in Georgia and only one can be with the Braves. Elsewhere, they live with other affiliates."

Gaining the confidence of die-hard Orioles backers is a challenge to Blenckstone, who has not dispensed with discount nights, family nights and corporate sponsorship nights. But the Suns are not giving away tickets as they did in years past.

"We're just not going to put a bunch of tickets in stores and say 'Come in,' " he said. "In the short term, maybe that will hurt us. But we think every ticket has value.

"There have been some adjustments for everyone and we still have a lot to do to get the fans back. But I don't think it's an insurmountable task."

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