HAGERSTOWN -- Two months after they learned they would lose their Double-A baseball team at the end of this season, fans of the Hagerstown Suns finally were heard.
In what sounded like the release of frustration, they booed during pre-game ceremonies for last night's season opener against the Canton-Akron Indians.
In particular, they booed Peter Kirk, principal owner of the Suns, and they booed Steven Sager, mayor of Hagerstown.
By the end of the night, the crowd of 3,632 had something to cheer about -- a 4-2 Eastern League victory. Paul Williams broke a 1-1 tie in the fourth inning with a two-run double for the Suns.
Kirk, who is joining forces with Sager in trying to bring a Single-A franchise to Hagerstown in 1993, said of his reception, "These are very difficult times and people are frustrated."
Kirk, chairman of Maryland Baseball, which operates both the Suns and the Single-A Frederick Keys, drew the strongest reaction. He announced in February that he will move the Suns after this season. It's expected that the team will relocate either in a new, $9 million stadium in Prince George's County or in Wilmington, Del.
Hagerstown was left with uncertainty and suspicion. The last time the city lost a minor-league franchise, in 1955, it took 26 years to bring back professional baseball.
"Fans here feel like they were sold down the road," said Ralph Bobo, a Hagerstown native and longtime season-ticket holder.
Bob Sember, another season-ticket holder, said: "The majority of the people around town know they've been taken."
The facts, however, do not necessarily support a conspiracy theory. Hagerstown is the smallest market of the 26 Double-A franchises, and it has struggled in each of its three preceding Double-A seasons.
"We have 117,000 people in a 25-mile radius," general manager Bob Miller said. "That's not a Double-A market. We can draw the 180,000 to 200,000 you need for Single-A ball, no matter what. But we can't draw the 300,000 to 400,000 you need to make it at Double-A."
Miller said the Suns have lost money in two of three Double-A seasons, but "always made a little money" when they competed in the Single-A Carolina League from 1981 to 1988.
What changed Hagerstown's situation was a change in the operating agreement between Major League Baseball and the minor-league owners. Every minor-league team must turn over 5 percent of its gross ticket receipts to Major League Baseball. It is a costly tariff that is forcing minor-league baseball to adjust. The change also means that each minor-league stadium has to be meet certain criteria, depending on its classification.
To meet the Double-A standard, Hagerstown's stadium would need $2 million in renovations. To meet Single-A requirements, the team still would need to pump up to $500,000 into 60-year-old Municipal Stadium.
While Kirk tries to find a new home for the Suns, he says that his first priority is to make sure baseball stays in Hagerstown.
"It's a great baseball community with very knowledgeable fans," Kirk said. "They supported us very well over the years."
Because of the market and the operating changes, Kirk said that running a Double-A team in Hagerstown "was always going to be a struggle.
Kirk, nevertheless, holds fast to the idea of developing an all-Maryland minor-league system for the Orioles. His first preference is to put the Suns in Bowie, along the Route 50 corridor. He also says the Orioles would welcome a Single-A franchise in Hagerstown.
Hagerstown could possibly replace the Orioles' Single-A team based in Geneva, Ill., the Kane County Cougars.
Sager and Kirk are attempting to purchase either an existing franchise in the Single-A South Atlantic League or an expansion team, if the league adds two teams for the 1993 season.
"I have a great deal of confidence baseball will stay in Hagerstown," said Kirk, who had a productive 70-minute meeting with Sager before last night's game to set up the machinery for purchasing a team.
Kirk's vision for Hagerstown is a community-owned franchise in which no one owned more than 10 percent of the club.
"Am I confident we can do it? Yes," said Sager. "One hundred percent confident? Not quite."