Ballpark plan is out at home Stadium: Washington County commissioners oppose a new site for the Hagerstown Suns, even if it means losing the minor-league team.

March 04, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- The playing field's in a flood plain. The bathrooms have the appeal of a turnpike rest stop. There isn't much in the way of concessions. Most of the seats have no backs.

And here's a particularly charming detail you don't see in most ballparks: An underground shale deposit gives left field a 39-inch rise, a veritable mountain climb for an outfielder chasing a deep fly ball.

There's nothing quite like 68-year-old Municipal Stadium, home of the minor-league Hagerstown Suns. For all its shortcomings, the ballpark has achieved an unexpected status: Maryland's only professional sports stadium that predates the Clinton White House.

The '90s mania for shiny new sports palaces -- a building frenzy that swept major and minor leagues and gave new homes to the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, Washington Redskins, Bowie Baysox, and Delmarva Shorebirds -- stalled at the Appalachians.

Last month, Washington County's Board of Commissioners did something that elected leaders from Salisbury to Annapolis couldn't bear to do: They voted not to spend tax dollars to build a another ballpark.

That decision may only delay efforts to build a new facility, but it also could cause the Suns to move after this season and leave Municipal Stadium vacant, with poor prospects of ever finding a replacement team.

Whatever the outcome, the Western Maryland county has set itself apart from the rest of the state in one fundamental way: It wouldn't make professional sports its highest priority.

"In my mind, we're right, and the rest of the state is wrong," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat. "I'm proud of the way our community has approached this. We decided on the pecking order, this ranks kind of low."

The reasons behind the decision could fill a batting lineup. The team attracted an average of 1,700 to its home games last year -- below-average for Single-A ballclubs and about one-third the attendance of South Atlantic League rival Delmarva.

In part, that's because the Suns are affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays. While Maryland's three other minor-league clubs benefit from an Orioles connection, fans in this blue-collar city find themselves in the uncomfortable position of cheering players on a Canadian payroll.

"People say they won't support a foreign team," said Les "Rico" Seville, a Hagerstown native and part-time Suns ticket-seller. "It ticks me off."

Washington County residents have long been wary of government spending of most any kind. And money is a sensitive point these days: The county is saddled with a $55 million public works debt -- the legacy of some unwise sewer expansion.

Nor does it help that Hagerstown politicians were among the General Assembly's most vocal critics of the state-financed, $200 million Baltimore Ravens stadium -- Poole chief among them -- and have no desire to be seen as reversing themselves just months before voters go to the polls.

"It's an election year," said Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey, a stadium supporter. "It's disheartening, but nothing will happen this year that could compromise anybody's chances for re-election."

No one was more disheartened than Winston Blenckstone, the Suns owner. A Ruxton native and former college pitcher, Blenckstone bought into in the minor leagues in 1986 when he sold his family's oxygen business in Linthicum.

After six years in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he brought his team to Hagerstown in 1992. His arrival marked the third incarnation of the Suns since 1981. The original Class A team became the Frederick Keys in 1989, and its replacement evolved into the Bowie Baysox three years later, when baseball deemed Municipal Stadium unfit for a Class AA team.

But while the Suns under Blenckstone sell only about 115,000 seats each season, the Keys, Baysox and Shorebirds (all owned by one partnership) have a combined 1 million attendance in their new ballparks. Even tiny Aberdeen is poised to spend millions of dollars on a ballpark -- although no club has committed to moving there.

"We're looked at as this state's stepchild of a team," said Blenckstone. "We work as hard as anybody to put fans in the stands. We get no real credit for that."

Blenckstone's proposal would have created a $10 million, amenity-filled 4,500-seat ballpark on a 68-acre chunk of farmland along Interstate 81 on the west side of Hagerstown. It would have cost the county $1.8 million, Hagerstown $2.5 million, and the state $4.4 million.

In addition, a local utility agreed to pay $1 million to name the PTC new stadium Allegheny Energy Field, and Blenckstone offered to sign a 10-year, $1 million lease and contribute $300,000 to add a handful of luxury suites.

Business leaders liked the idea, as did Mayor Bruchey. But on Feb. 10, the commissioners voted 3-2 against county involvement. Without county money, the project's financing plan fell apart.

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