With the accent on speed in their lineup, the Hagerstown Suns will launch their final Eastern League season tonight in the hopes of departing Double-A baseball with a flourish.
The Suns drew a record 193,753 fans to Municipal Stadium last summer, and new manager Don Buford hopes the team's playing style "will make them want to continue to support us. We hope to break the record again."
After deciding not to invest $2 million to refurbish Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium to meet Double-A standards imposed by Major League Baseball, Suns management is striving to enter the Single-A South Atlantic League with an expansion franchise in 1993.
Expansion plans are on hold for the league until the South Atlantic season begins. New teams probably will not be selected until June at the earliest.
The Suns open 1992 for Buford with only three players who were on last year's Opening Day roster -- infielders Rodney Lofton and Tim Holland and pitcher Jeff Bumgarner.
Buford assumes the job from Jerry Narron, who was promoted to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings after leading the Suns to an 81-59 record and into the Eastern League playoffs for the first time.
"We had a good spring training and we don't have any major injuries," said the former Orioles left fielder. "They should all be in top shape."
Buford takes his first managing job after serving as Orioles director of field operations in the minor-league system for three years.
"I had a big desire to manage," he said. "My relationship with the [Orioles] front office is very friendly. I just look forward to this opportunity."
The major question centers on the pitching rotation, the responsibility of one of Buford's former Orioles teammates, Moe Drabowsky.
All the projected starters -- Erik Schullstrom, Mark Carper (Atholton High), Kip Yaughn and left-handers John O'Donoghue and Mike Hook -- played for the Single-A Frederick Keys last season.
Schullstrom later advanced to the Suns after pitching a no-hitter at Frederick. He gets the assignment against the Canton-Akron Indians in tonight's opener.
"Jeff Williams [6 feet 4, 230 pounds] will be our closer," said Buford. "But nothing is etched in stone otherwise. Several other pitchers could wind up in the rotation."
The starting lineup will showcase four players who combined for 195 stolen bases last season -- Lofton, shortstop Manny Alexander, outfielder Steve Martin and outfielder Damon Buford, the manager's son.
Buford will lead off followed by Alexander and Lofton probably will bat ninth to keep the speed coming.