Facing bias case, team tries to rally Hagerstown Suns fight ruling on discounts for church bulletins

August 16, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- Minor league baseball's Hagerstown Suns have tried all sorts of promotions to get fans to the ballpark. The team has held Ball Day, Bat Day, Can Huggie Day and a night with the Dynamite Lady. Still to come is Pony Ride Day and Back Massage Day.

Gimmicks are staples of the minor league world, and all the efforts in Hagerstown were going off without a hitch. Then the team called on the power of God to lure fans, and the trouble began.

Maryland officials have told the Suns that their weekly Sunday promotion -- which gives a discount to fans bearing church bulletins -- may be as illegal as spitballs and cork-filled bats. The deal for churchgoing fans may discriminate against atheists, the Maryland Human Relations Commission says, and God could be tossed out of the promotional ballgame.

In the finest mix of baseball and gimmickry, the team has reacted by building a promotion around the state's decision, urging its religious fans to flock to the ballpark tomorrow night to show their support for the team and for God.

"The bulletin promotion is nothing more than promoting going to church and then to a ballgame," says team owner Winston Blenckstone. "It's a perfect match for us. For the life of me, I can't see what's wrong with that."

The dust-up began on Easter Sunday, when Carl Silverman, an atheist from Waynesboro, Pa., arrived at Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium to see the Suns take on the Piedmont Boll Weevils. The bulletin promotion, which had been going on for five years, was under way, as was Easter Egg Hunt Day.

Silverman, who has angered other believers with his diligence against the mingling of church and state, was offended. Fans presenting bulletins were allowed to pass through the turnstiles at a rate of six family members for $6, but Silverman had to pay $5 for himself and $3 for one of his children.

"What if they had a half-off night only for white people?" asks Silverman, 42. "This is no different. There are laws against discriminating based on religion, and that extends to people who don't believe."

The state commission has agreed with him, issuing an opinion recently that there is "probable cause" to believe the Suns are violating state law and the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating based on religion -- or lack of it. The Suns, though privately owned, are covered by the laws because their games are open to the public.

Procedures call for the commission to try to settle the dispute through negotiations.

If that does not work -- and there is little hope that it will -- the commission will file charges with an administrative law judge, who will hear the case and issue a finding along with an order. The case could wind up in the state Court of Appeals.

That could lead to more promotions connected to the dispute. While baseball between the chalk lines for minor league clubs is exactly the same as in the major leagues, promotions are quite different.

For many lovers of the game who are in awe of major league baseball, minor league baseball is the ugly little cousin that wins over fans purely on charm. Fielding in the lower leagues can be spotty, fundamentals are still being honed, and pitchers do not try to set up hitters as often as they try to mow them down.

Variety of gimmicks

Then there are the gimmicks, as common in the minor leagues as errors on T-ball fields. Between innings, children race fluffy mascots around the bases, contests are held to chip golf balls into baby pools, sumo wrestling has become common, and fans saddle up on big rubber balls for races down the first-base line.

All of that is designed to sell tickets, and the Suns, whose attendance ranks 11th out of 14 teams in the South Atlantic League, have gone all out to draw fans to their ballpark, with its roller-coaster-like outfield where Willie Mays played his first professional baseball game, for the Trenton Giants.

"The Sunday promotion undoubtedly has brought us fans," says Blenckstone. "We are promoting baseball and family values, and I just can't see how anybody can be against that."

For the American Civil Liberties Union, which is providing legal assistance to Silverman, the dispute is not a strike against baseball or a case of God being caught in a rundown between saints and infidels, or between believers and nonbelievers. It is a case based purely on discrimination, says Dwight Sullivan, an attorney in the ACLU's Baltimore office.

"In a way, it's very simple. It's illegal," he says. "Look at it as if they held a 'half off for Baptists' promotion. People would look at that differently because other religions would be discriminated against. Why would it be acceptable, then, to discriminate against people who don't believe?"

The answer, the Suns owner says, is that he is not requiring that people go to church to be entitled to the promotion; fans are required only to present a church bulletin. It's like a coupon, Blenckstone argues.

The team runs all kinds of promotions, he says, and if atheists don't like the church promotion, they can attend any Family Night game, where the deal is the same as on bulletin day. They can even attend tomorrow night's Faith Community Night, which the team is promoting to pay its legal bills in its holy war with Silverman.

"People like it that we're not backing down," says Blenckstone. "We want that hearing before the judge." If the team loses before the judge, he says, it will have to decide whether to pursue the case in circuit court.

A swing at politics

In the meantime, the team has come up with a new promotion that has nothing to do with race, religion or gender, all of which are protected from discrimination under state and federal laws.

Perhaps fed up with politics and bureaucracies, the team has announced that on Aug. 28, all fans who say they're not in the race for Washington County commissioner get into the ballpark half-price.

Anybody who's running pays double.

Pub Date: 8/16/98

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