How long will Suns shine?

Hagerstown: The owner of the minor league baseball team says an old stadium, a recent lawsuit and fan indifference is making the team unprofitable.

May 20, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- The skies were crystal blue, just a couple of cottony clouds snoozing above the mountains, sunshine dripping everywhere, temperatures cruising to 80, a perfect evening to watch the Hagerstown Suns baseball club, in first place with religion on their side.

One problem: Almost nobody showed up for the game.

The pretzel man resigned himself to serving a dozen pretzels. The pizza woman rang up 15 customers. The souvenir girl sold one hat, one ball, a couple of 50-cent score cards -- that's it.

Never has the future looked so bleak for the future of professional baseball in Hagerstown. With the team's owner now taking offers from potential out-of-state buyers, the single-A Suns are likely to be swept out of Maryland by an increasingly rapid confluence of politics, economics, apathy and just a touch of God.

Winston Blenckstone, the Suns' owner, is caught in a financial squeeze play. Local politicians won't agree to help pay for a new stadium, and the people of Washington County and the surrounding hills won't come to the old one.

Adding to the insult, a mainstay of minor league baseball -- the gimmick -- is costing Blenckstone more money than it's bringing him. His attorneys have had to face a legal challenge to the team's "Church Bulletin Day," a lawsuit brought by an agnostic who says giving fans discounts if they have a bulletin from a church discriminates against him because he is not religious.

A hearing on the suit is scheduled for June 28 in Washington County before an administrative law judge.

"Financially, if we lose that hearing, I can't afford to fight it out any more," Blenckstone said Tuesday from his stadium seat behind home plate. "Right now our whole future is really up in the air, and this is just another part of that,

I guess."

Blenckstone's team, a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, ranked No. 11 out of 14 teams in the South Atlantic League last season, and like other minor league teams, it lives by the gimmick. So when the state Human Relations Commission issued an opinion last July that the church bulletin promotion was indeed discriminatory, the Suns went on the offensive -- urging fans to flock to the ballpark to support both the promotion and family values.

This season, with the hearing still pending, the team also decided that its players would wear religion on their sleeves -- a halo adorns their uniforms atop the right bicep.

So far, though, even heaven hasn't helped them, and Blenckstone -- at least publicly -- is increasingly pessimistic that nothing but a new stadium will generate the kind of attendance he needs to keep the team in Hagerstown or even Maryland.

That stadium doesn't appear to be coming.

"My guess is that professional baseball could be in its last year here," he said. "But it ain't over till it's over. I've been asked to be patient and I've been patient. That's not to say I haven't been accepting phone calls from other cities. I have."

Despite the gimmicks, team officials say average attendance at this year's home games is slightly behind last year's. At Tuesday evening's game, even with such fine weather, attendance was announced at 625.

No fair kicking a team when it's down, but even that paltry number was almost certainly inflated: by the third inning the fans could still be counted by hand, and one hand counted them at 214.

The Suns maintain that they need more than gimmicks. Like their big-league counterparts, even lower-level teams have increasingly gone to comfortable new stadiums, with play areas for kids, seats with back supports for adults and stocked-bar loges for corporate fat cats.

Nowhere is the contrast more apparent than at Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium, a 68-year-old wreck of a place, with an undulating outfield, dugouts that flood regularly and not much in the way of accommodations for fans.

"This place was nice back in the Dark Ages," said Marge Crapoff, 55, a diehard fan surrounded Tuesday by empty grandstands as the Suns lost to the Savannah Sand Gnats, 4-1. "I mean, we're in the '90s now. I'm scared to death that we're going to lose the team, and if we lose them, we're not going to get another one."

New stadiums, though, require money to build. Washington County commissioners have balked at providing any cash. The Suns had asked the county to pitch in about $4 million of $14.5 million needed for a 4,500-seat stadium and business park, to be located off Interstate 81. (The state and city would join private business in ponying up the rest.)

The commissioners responded by forming a committee.

Yesterday, Greg Snook, president of the Washington County Commissioners, said the county might be willing to pitch in $1 million "over a number of years." But, he said, he is still waiting for the committee to report back to him.

"Right now, the county has to consider all economic development in the city and the county, and I think $4 million to keep a baseball team here -- I'm not sure that money couldn't be better spent on roads, water and sewer, that sort of thing."

Blenckstone said he's not sure how long he can wait. More than $17 million in tax dollars from the state and various counties has been used since 1990 to fund new minor league parks in Frederick, Bowie and Salisbury, all Orioles' affiliates. Those three teams drew more than a million fans combined last season.

"If something doesn't happen, then there's probably not going to be professional baseball around here again," he said. "It's obviously an economic situation with us. We came here thinking it had potential to be a good baseball town. We still think that."

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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