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3rd strike for Hagerstown?; Ballpark: The Suns want a new place to play and are hinting that they will leave town unless a stadium is built for them.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAGERSTOWN -- Not all that long ago, dogs that caught Frisbees between innings and pregame pony rides for children drew enough people to ballparks for minor league baseball club owners to survive. And survival, it seemed, was enough.

But even here in the mountains, where entertainment can be difficult to come by, the dog and pony shows -- and professional baseball games themselves, incidentally -- just haven't been cutting it.

So, following a major-league trend that has had major implications for small towns across the country, the Hagerstown Suns are hinting heavily at this: Unless millions of taxpayer dollars are spent for a new stadium, they're outta' here.

The threat has been implicit for years, but the Suns' lease is up after this season, giving the supporters of the Toronto Blue Jays' single-A affiliate the jitters.

Raising the tensions, Washington County officials have balked at paying for the stadium. While the city of Hagerstown has joined state officials in agreeing to help finance a $14.5 million complex that combines a 4,500-seat stadium and business park, county officials are holding out.

"We're not unaware of the risk of the Suns leaving," says Greg Snook, the county commission's president. "We have never publicly financed a business. I don't think it's government's place to finance a private business. When you have to prioritize how to finance what's needed for the county, I'm not sure building a baseball stadium ranks up there."

The proposition of staying in town in exchange for new stadiums used to be all but unheard of, even among Major League Baseball teams and in the National Football League.

Tactic spreading

But with top-level owners following through on threats to move their franchises, lower-level teams like the Suns have taken to using similar threats to win stadiums. And when they haven't gotten them, they've moved.

Hagerstown has already lost two minor-league teams to other cities -- Frederick and Bowie -- that agreed to pitch in for new stadiums.

The Orioles' single-A team, the Keys, opened Frederick's Harry Grove stadium in 1990 at a cost of about $5.5 million, including about $4 million from the state, Frederick and Frederick County.

The Baysox, the O's double-A club, began play in Bowie in 1994 in a new facility that cost about $10.5 million, with about $8.5 million coming from the state and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The state's third minor-league park, in Salisbury, opened in 1996 for the Delmarva Shorebirds, a single-A team, at a cost of about $10 million, including about $4.5 million from the state and Wicomico County. A new ballpark, for a team that doesn't yet exist, is also planned for Aberdeen.

Now, with their rickety 68-year-old Municipal Stadium as the oldest in Maryland, Suns' officials say surviving is tough.

No shortage of gimmicks

Like many of the approximately 160 minor-league teams across the country, the Suns offer no shortage of gimmicks to draw fans: Ball Day, Bat Day, Can Huggie Day, a night with Dynamite Lady, Pony Ride Day, Back Massage Day. The team even tried to give discounts to churchgoers -- stirring up a discrimination complaint from a local atheist.

But the club drew only about 110,000 fans last year, or about 1,800 a home game, while the other three Maryland minor-league clubs -- all owned by Peter Kirk's Maryland Baseball partnership -- attracted a combined record of more than 1 million spectators.

A study commissioned by the city last year concluded that the proposed ballpark -- replete with as many as a dozen luxury suites -- would almost double the Suns' average game attendance to 3,200 fans.

The Suns' owner, Winston Blenckstone, has been careful not to make explicit demands. But, he says, other cities have new stadiums and he needs one, too, if the Suns are to expand their appeal beyond the dog-and-pony crowd as have other minor-league teams.

"We're hoping a ninth-inning rally can bring us a new stadium, and with a new stadium we think we can double attendance," Blenckstone says. "All we're looking for is equity with the other teams in Maryland, and if we don't have a new stadium, we don't have equity."

Blenckstone says he has no interest in moving the Suns to another city. But if the stadium is not built, he adds, he'll "consider all our options." Translation: The team would almost certainly be sold to somebody who would move it out of Hagerstown, out of Washington County and out of Maryland.

"We've seen what's happened twice in the past because we didn't pay to keep our teams here," says Robert Buchey, Hagerstown's mayor, who supports a new stadium. "I'm afraid three strikes and we'll be completely out of the ballgame. And to lose the Suns, that would be devastating to the area."

Outside of Maryland, many cities have heard the threats and capitulated in recent years. In 1994, North Carolina and the city of Durham pooled their money to build a new home for the Bulls, perhaps the minors' best-known team because of the movie "Bull Durham." Among the many other towns with new ballparks are: Wilmington, Del.; Augusta, Ga.; and Myrtle Beach and Charleston, S.C. In Alabama, Montgomery is poised to seize the next available team.

Kirk -- owner of the Bowie, Frederick and Salisbury teams -- says league baseball has evolved into more than just a game with a few cheap gimmicks: "I'd say in the mid-'80s a lot of business people got involved in the game and began saying, 'This could be more entertainment than just baseball.'

"You need the restaurants and the playgrounds that the new stadiums have to attract the casual fan," he says. "And owners won't build these places on their own. For the most part, they couldn't if they wanted to."

No sports palace

Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium is the antithesis of the new sports palaces.

Restrooms at the ballpark are about the quality of the outhouses found in state parks. Only a handful of the stadium's seats have backs. The outfield undulates like a dragon's back, with a rise of nearly 3 feet in left field that makes circling under fly balls akin to dancing on a beach dune.

Hagerstown has agreed to contribute about $3.2 million to the stadium complex, which would be built next to Interstate 81. But Washington County commissioners have not come up with their share of the construction costs, $4.2 million. The state has agreed to help out with $5.1 million, but only if the county pays up.

If the commissioners don't agree to provide the money by the time the General Assembly adjourns in April -- which would preclude the state from budgeting its share -- the Suns likely will shine in Hagerstown no more.

Snook, the commission president, says the idea of a business park built in conjunction with the stadium could help sway him to support the project. The presence of baseball teams is not often a deciding factor for companies contemplating a move to his county, he says, but a team could be part of that decision.

Uncertain status

Commissioners last year voted down funding a new stadium, 3-2, but four of the present commissioners were elected after that vote. One is against the stadium, one is for it. Counting Snook, three are undecided. Another vote has not been scheduled.

"It comes down to wants vs. needs," Snook says. "Do we need a baseball team? We'll either have one or we won't, and then maybe we'll see."

Pub Date: 2/19/99

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