Hagerstown Suns dilemma reveals political motives and diluted interest in baseball

Pepper Martin’s 1930s baseball is not Miami Marlins’ 2012 baseball.

Baseball was king from the late 1800s until NFL football came to your television and the Green Bay Packers moved professional football to the forefront of people’s interest. And then college basketball and college football could be easily found on television about that same time. Once professional basketball showed its world-class athletes, it joined the other sports in chipping away the attention once showed only to the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and scattered other major league teams.

Baseball eventually lost its grip of monopoly on the public’s interest.

Photo shows the many backless seats at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium.

Football and basketball crept ahead in overall interest. As the country became further diversified in population, then soccer appeared on more and more television sets.

Where baseball was once so popular there were hundreds of towns and cities with minor league teams the sport’s influence has waned considerably. Minor league baseball still thrives and flourishes in some places. But too many small towns that have franchises are not thriving. They are barely treading the deep well of red ink that fills their accountant’s books.

In too many places, minor league baseball is not well. It is barely alive.

Hagerstown, Maryland is one of those smaller cities where a minor league baseball owner survives on his Fireworks Nights and other promotions and not because of any wide community interest or loyalty to baseball.

The Hagerstown Suns. Tenants whose rent allows them to play in one of the country’s three oldest minor league ball parks.

Built in 1930, Municipal Stadium isn’t a satifactory facility for anybody connected with the Class A South Atlantic League team.

The majority of the seats don’t have backs. Many regular customers bring their own back rests. But there are not enough regular customers. Comfort can be hard to find for all of them.

A few dozen more customers would probably visit old Municipal Stadium if the Suns were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles like they once were.

When minor league baseball left town in the 1930s, Hagerstown was without a professional team for about 45 years. A franchise came to the city in 1981. It was a so-called “independent” team because it had players from about five different major league organizations. Some of that team’s players were farm hands placed in Hagerstown by the Orioles. With a full taste of irony, that team of many various pieces and philosophies won the league championship.

In rapid succession, the Suns became a repository of lower minor league farmhands for Baltimore, and Toronto, and San Francisco, and the New York Mets . . . and now days, the Washington Nationals.

Once Baltimore started sending its players to Bowie, Frederick, and Delmarva the attendance at Suns’ games moved downward.

And then Baltimore and its farm hands were gone altogether.

With no might-be Orioles as attractions, attendance fell off at Suns games. From 1981, through the close of the 2011 season, the Suns rarely contended. There was a season when they had Giants’ farmhands that the Suns won the first half of a split season. But they faltered in the second half when some of the team’s more capable players went elsewhere in the San Francisco food chain.

The mostly uncomfortable seats are not the only reasons Municipal Stadium isn’t a place professional baseball wants its players learning the game.

The dugouts are too small. The playing surface, despite the city spending $500,000 in 2010 for upgrades on the infield and outfield grass and dirt portions, is not considered adequate by major league baseball.

The clubhouses have been shown attention. But not enough has been done to satisfy major league types.

Creature comforts are hard to find at Municipal Stadium.

If a crowd of 2,500 comes for a Fireworks Night, they scramble to find parking in a stadium lot that might hold 500 vehicles. Vehicles spill over into spaces at a defunct electric plant, businesses that do body work on cars and trucks and are closed for the night, and a residential street beyond the wall in right field.

Minor league teams want crowds of 2,500. To have such a crowd have to park in areas not owned by the Suns is not an attraction that rivals any of the 15 Fireworks Nights.

The Washington Nationals have not renewed Hagerstown’s player development contract beyond this season.

Even more troubling to the city of Hagerstown have been overtures made to have the Suns move to Virginia by the city of Winchester. But Winchester does not have a stadium in place, and a proposed site in a city park was nixed by the city council.

Jolted into leaving its sideline seat, the Hagerstown city council floated an architectural plan that called for building a multi-purpose stadium in the downtown area.

Much of interior Hagerstown has been blighted by scads of emptry storefronts, streets with lines of decrepit buildings leading to nowhere, and seedy neighborhoods troubled by drug activity, unemployment, and litter.

The proposed site of the new stadium is across Baltimore Street from a large senior citizen complex that is one of the city’s tallest buildings. The site has a pair of car washes and several alleys as well as a portion of the Herald-Mail newspaper’s parking lot off Summit Avenue.

The city council tells of building another multi-tier parking deck to hold the vehicles of those attending events at the new stadium.

The city fathers want the new place to be home to other events when the Suns are not holding court in the downtown.

But the city already has two underused parking decks built by the taxes of those that rarely attend a Suns game.

Minor league baseball is well-attended in cities like Lexington, Kentucky and Lakewood, New Jersey. But too many towns and their red-ink franchises like Potomac in Prince William County, Virginia and Delmarva on Maryland’s Eastern Shore suffer when crowds drift in with only 400 people.

What would happen if a multi-million dollar stadium were built in Hagerstown and attendance wasn’t boosted even by the novelty of the place? The seats would be more comfortable. The concessions would be more accessible. The dugouts and clubhouses would be improvements.

But the players would not be Baltimore Oriole farmhands. The desired fans coming via Interstate-81 from Pennsylvania and West Virginia wouldn’t be many more in number. Those traveling to Hagerstown on Interstate-70 to find minor league baseball are now few in number. Those people wouldn’t stampede the gates, either

People living in towns all over Washington County won’t respond to a new facility in any large numbers.

And those living in the areas nearby will be inconvenienced by the ball park lights, noise from fireworks that now comes at 9:30 p.m. or later, and traffic leaving the deck at 10 p.m. or later.

What happens when the novelty of the stadium wears thin and a mid-week crowd of 1,550 attends a game?

What happens when the Orioles still aren’t the franchise supplying the players?

What voice or businesses can guarantee that concerts, festivals, or car shows will be well attended? Can football be played inside a made-for-baseball facility?

Are there too many unanswered questions and variables to spend millions on a stadium that won’t necessarily change the community’s perception of the Hagerstown Suns?

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