Suns' Blenckstone embraces Hagerstown, finding S.C. no day at minor-league beach

John Steadman

February 22, 1993|By John Steadman

HAGERSTOWN -- When the vacancy sign went up outside Municipal Stadium, a man in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was paying attention. He quickly gathered balls, bats, caps, uniforms, and, yes, his entire franchise, and moved it here in one swift, unimpeded motion.

For Winston Blenckstone it was a chance to transfer from a place where it was a constant struggle for acceptance to one that had established itself as a strong base for minor-league baseball. The Myrtle Beach Hurricanes became the Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic League under the auspices of Blenckstone, who craved the opportunity to return to his home state.

Blenckstone had graduated from St. Paul's School in 1962, later the University of Richmond and then operated the business his father founded, the Baltimore Oxygen Supply Co. There was a desire to do something different. Owning a minor-league team had appeal, so he went shopping, buying the Florence (S.C.) club six years ago and transferring it to Myrtle Beach.

There's a long history of teams based in summer resorts, such as Myrtle Beach, Rehoboth Beach, Del., and Old Orchard Beach, Maine, not being able to generate adequate support. The crowds are there to take the sun, enjoy the surf and do things on a family basis -- not to watch baseball.

The team had to play in Conway, 12 miles away, utilizing the field of Coastal Carolina College.

"I tried hard to work a deal in Myrtle Beach," Blenckstone says. "But the city officials weren't going to build a new stadium. We talked about a basic design, costing about $2 million, and I was willing to contribute part of the cost."

When he realized there was no chance of it becoming a reality, the idea of moving to Hagerstown became instantly attractive. There also appears to be no lingering grief over the Orioles' departure. This has to do with the way the Toronto Blue Jays, the parent organization that replaced the Orioles, has demonstrated to the community how pleased it is to be here and has gone out of its way to establish a relationship.

The club that had operated in Hagerstown as an Eastern League affiliate of the Orioles pulled out in hopes of finding a home in Bowie at the end of the 1992 season. Promises have yet to materialize on park construction, so the "old" Hagerstown Suns, making the best of a bad situation, will be playing in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium this season.

Hagerstown, now flying the Blue Jays' flag, will be a member of the 14-city Single-A South Atlantic League. To Blenckstone, the Hagerstown opportunity surpasses anything Myrtle Beach could offer. "The best we ever drew there in a season was 79,000," he points out. "And Hagerstown, in 12 years, shows an average of 144,000."

The minor-league operational agreement means the major-league team must pay the players, manager, coaches and trainer. Blenckstone, in turn, is responsible for the salaries of the office staff, bus transportation and hotels for the team when it's on the road.

"We will be promoting in a four-state area -- Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania," Blenckstone says. "What we're selling is a memory, the chance to see what an old ballpark, one built over 50 years ago, looks like. From my association with the Blue Jays since 1987, I'm convinced they have the best player development system in all of baseball."

With Baltimore's having the Orioles and now the minor-league Bowie (nee Hagerstown) club, there'll be a conflict on 33 home dates. How many spectators will travel to Hagerstown from Baltimore? "We have no way of predicting," answers Blenckstone. "Bob Miller, our general manager, believes we'll continue to do well."

How Blenckstone managed not to take a financial lacing in Myrtle Beach, especially since the highest seasonal crowd count in six years was 79,000, remains a mystery. Maybe he ought to be working on the national debt.

"We took some losses," he says, "but they weren't major. By necessity, it was a bare-bones operation in Myrtle Beach."

The plan in Hagerstown is to sell 1,000 season tickets, to sign up advertisers for space in the score card and also get businesses to subscribe to signs across the outfield fences. That's life in the minor leagues.

For Hagerstown, it's a new owner who is happy to be on home turf, in Maryland, and also a different affiliation, the Blue Jays, providing on-the-field personnel. Hagerstown has had a longer association with professional baseball than any other city in Maryland, excluding Baltimore, so, bottom line, has nothing to prove when it comes to showing its interest in the game.

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