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Is the Sun Setting on Hagerstown's Baseball Days?

MLB May Contract Hagerstown’s Beloved Team

By David Gignilliat

Baseball has long been known as America’s pastime, the subject of countless elegies about its verdant fields, pastoral charms, outsized comic book heroes, and its build-it-and-they-will come virtues.

But if efforts by Major League Baseball (MLB) to contract over one-quarter of its minor league system are successful, baseball may actually be a thing of the past in Hagerstown after the 2020 season.

Leaders from MLB and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues are in ongoing negotiations to replace the current minor league agreement that expires after this upcoming season. In an effort to streamline its professional feeder system, MLB is proposing to cut 42 of its 160 affiliates, including the Hagerstown Suns, citing concerns over the quality of facilities, travel, and player salaries.

“That's why we subsidize to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every single year the operations of Minor League Baseball. Having said that, our players deserve to play in facilities that are up to grade. They deserve to have reasonable travel limitations. They deserve to be paid fairly,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in a December press conference in San Diego.

A Political (Base)ball

But the minor league affiliates will not disappear without a fight, with strong opposition both locally and nationally. On Jan. 28, congressional representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution advocating that “Major League Baseball (MLB) should maintain the current minor league structure rather than proceed with its plan to eliminate” the affected clubs.

“We launched the Save Minor League Baseball Task Force for a simple purpose — to help ensure a level playing field in the negotiations between MLB and Minor League Baseball so that they yield a fair resolution and protect minor league baseball in communities across the country,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, a Democrat from Lowell, Mass., home to one of the compromised minor league teams. “Congress has long been a partner to the league in protecting and expanding America’s favorite pastime. We deserve to have our voices heard in any conversation with such potentially devastating consequences. This resolution makes our position clear, and I am grateful to my fellow co-chairs and colleagues for their continued support of this effort.”

The issue has become a rarity — a sports hot-button issue for mayors, city councils, Congress, and presidential candidates alike in an election year. Late last year, three members of Congress — Trahan, David McKinley (R-W. Va.), and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) — announced the formation of the bipartisan task force; and in November, more than 100 members of Congress wrote a letter to MLB expressing “our unified opposition to the MLB plan” and advocating for fair negotiations between the two governing bodies. Also, in late January, a task force of over 30 U.S. mayors announced the official formation of the Mayors’ Task Force to Save Minor League Baseball. Led by Chattanooga (Tenn.) Mayor Andy Berke, Dayton (Ohio) Mayor Nan Whaley, and Columbia (S.C.) Mayor Steve Benjamin, it was announced during  a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C.

Negotiations have been up to this point contentious, fraught with finger-pointing, intractability and media leaks.

“I think in contrast, I think some of the activities that have been undertaken by the leadership of Minor League Baseball have been polarizing in terms of the relationship with the owners,” added Manfred, a former labor lawyer with a degree from Harvard Law School. “I think they've done damage to the relationship with Major League Baseball, and I'm hopeful that we will be able to work through that damage in the negotiating room and reach a new agreement. You know, when people publicly attack a long-time partner after they've committed to confidentiality in the negotiating process, usually people don't feel so good about that.”

Though the upcoming season is safe, the fate of Washington County’s only minor league team looms ominously in the air like a rapidly descending high fly ball. 

“Minor League Baseball teams like the Hagerstown Suns and the Lowell [Mass.] Spinners provide critical economic and cultural benefits to the communities they call home,” said Rep. Trahan, in a statement to Hagerstown Magazine. “Beyond instilling a sense of pride for the fans and families that fill the seats on a summer’s night, oftentimes these teams serve as anchors for economic development in downtown districts that need [a] boost.”

The task force will closely monitor ongoing negotiations between MLB and MiLB as well as discuss potential legislative action if and when such a remedy becomes necessary.

“There has been tremendous support from members of Congress and even presidential candidates. It seems that nobody wants to see this happen except for MLB and a handful of MLB team owners,” said Minor League Baseball’s senior director of communications Jeff Lantz. “We are trying to generate as much public support as possible and show that this plan is very shortsighted and will end up hurting baseball in the long run.”

At home plate

Closer to home, Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey agrees.

 “When we talk about Minor League Baseball, and when we talk about community support and involvement, and [teams] being a staple in the community, of course our congressmen are behind it,” said Bruchey. “Their support and interest is very much appreciated. They see this as an attack on their community and their consti-tuents and the quality of life in those cities. MLB seems to pay attention when the government gets involved, so in that regard, their support has been very helpful,” Bruchey added.

Bruchey is in a unique position to comment about the past, present, and future of the Suns, as he has a place in all three eras. He has lived nearly all his life in Hagerstown, and attended the Suns’ first game on April 10, 1981, a 6-2 win over the Peninsula Pilots, led by future MLB manager Grady Little. As a four-time mayor in Hagerstown, he has been a strong proponent of replacing Municipal Stadium and has helped spearhead council efforts in this area over the years, including an increase in the county’s hotel/motel tax in 2000. And from 2013 to 2016, he was a member of the Suns front office, serving as assistant general manager and interim general manager, among other roles.

“Spending four years with the Hagerstown Suns as I did, from 2013 to 2016, I managed to develop some good relationships with people in MLB and MiLB that I trust, so I am listening to them. I’m not listening to anybody else,” said Bruchey. “So far, what I’ve heard from them is … that MLB made the same move about two years ago. It didn’t make the papers, but it didn’t go anywhere back then. It has a little bit more legs this time, but I still think of when you talk about eliminating half of the New York Yankees prospects, you’re going to get a lot of pushback.”

A change of venue?

The biggest force working against efforts to stave off the Suns’ extinction is its venue, Municipal Stadium. Having the country’s third-oldest minor league stadium (90 years and counting) is both a source of charm and obsolescence.

Built in 1930 over six weeks at a cost of $14,000, the stadium currently holds 4,600 people. Comprised of mostly bleachers and a few sections of box seats, it still uses a hand-operated scoreboard. A small press box sits above a covered grand-stand behind home plate, and renovated grand-stands line both base- lines, with a field-level suite along the right field line for better sightlines. And yet the ballpark has few of the modern features that populate its more modern minor-league contemporary stadiums. There have been renovations over the years, in 1981 and 1995, adding seats, new lighting, and a public address system, but they are mostly cosmetic. An irregular, slightly sloped outfield gives Major League Baseball pause in terms of player safety, which may partly explain why the Nationals’ elite talent of recent vintage (Harper and Strasburg, notably) have had relatively brief stays in Washington County.

The team has come close to moving to Fredericksburg, Va., a few times in the recent past, though that southern exodus is now no longer viable as Fredericksburg (and its new stadium) will be the 2020 home of the formerly Woodbridge, Va.-based Potomac Nationals.

“The biggest strike against us is that facility. It doesn’t have the amenities, or the room for growth, for both the players and the fans, which is exactly why in 2012, there was a push to put a new facility downtown,” said Bruchey. “Then an election happened, and that administration came in and killed it. ... We’re currently in that same kind of situation again. We’re in an election year in November.”

Officials from the Suns front office declined to comment for this article, deferring to those working on their behalf at the minor league governing body level.

In late August, Hagerstown City Council authorized a $300,000 expenditure for a Phase 2 study of building a facility in the heart of downtown Hagerstown, a contrast to its current mostly residential locale.

“We’re moving in the right direction to give the owners of the Washington Nationals, in particular, pause, to think that maybe this time it will happen, and we’ll have a facility that is more up-to-date,” said Bruchey.

Bruchey is a strong advocate of having a team (and better venue in place) as a driver of economic development.

“When you look at Minor League Baseball stadiums that [are situated] in downtown areas, they are very successful, and not just for the team, but for the community as a whole,” said Bruchey. “We want to be a community that attracts people with expendable income, and you’re not going to attract people with expendable income into a community when there’s no amenities for you to spend your income on. It costs less for a family of four to go to a Minor League Baseball game than it does to go to a movie. When we talk about how do you change a city, you change a city by implementing a catalyst of some sort. If you want to change Hagerstown and make this a destination, this is it.”

Losing a baseball team is not something that is easily replaced, he suggests.

“If you begin to chip away at the amenities that we have, people will eventually not want to move here. People are not going to look at us as a place to go or move to. If you want a vibrant community, you have to have the amenities in the community to make it vibrant,” said Bruchey. “We don’t have the Inner Harbor, or the Atlantic Ocean. We have Antietam, and we’re close to Gettysburg. But that only goes so far, and only to a certain amount of people. You need a mixture of amenities that make people want to come again and again and again.”

A Baseball Legacy

Hagerstown has a storied relationship with Minor League Baseball, dating back to 1896, when the Hagerstown Lions played for one season in the independent Cumberland Valley League. Starting in 1915, a Hagerstown team played for 16 seasons in the Blue Ridge League, winning five pennants. After a 10-year gap without a team, Hagerstown had baseball again in 1941, becoming Braves, Tigers, and Senators affiliates before the Piedmont League disbanded in 1955.

Twenty-six years later, baseball again returned to Washington County in 1981, when a Class A Carolina League franchise moved from Rocky Mount, N.C., north to Hagerstown. In that first season, the team was coached by Baltimore Orioles staff, and populated by players from several teams. That team, the 1981 Hagerstown Suns, won the Carolina League title in its first season, defeating the Hampton, Va.-based Peninsula Pilots. That has been the team’s only league title since its modern inception, but the team has won division titles as recently as 2013 and 2014. The very next season, the Suns began a long-term relationship with the Orioles MLB franchise, relationship with the Orioles (from 1981 to 1992), and then the Toronto Blue Jays (from 1993 to 2000), the San Francisco Giants (from 2001 to 2004), the New York Mets (from 2005 to 2006), and with the nearby Washington Nationals since 2007.

Over the years, the Hagerstown teams have seen a number of players pass through Municipal Stadium on their way to major league prominence. As a single-A team for most of its modern existence, Hagerstown has hosted many young players at, or near, the beginning of their professional baseball journey. Often, talented players are promoted quickly through a MLB team’s minor league affiliates, stopping briefly at an affiliate like Hagerstown on their way to the AA and AAA within the team’s system.

Notable players over the years include current Nationals Juan Soto. Former Orioles include Baltimore luminaries like Brady Anderson, Mike Flanagan, Steve Finley, Glenn Davis, and Arthur Rhodes. Hall of Fame pitchers Mike Mussina (1990) and Jim Palmer, who pitched for the Suns on a rehab stint for the O’s in July 1983. Notable Blue Jays and Giants players include Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, Shannon Stewart, Michael Young and Brian Wilson. In 1990, former President George H.W. Bush attended a game in Hagerstown, and Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays played in his first professional game at Municipal Stadium.

And since 2007, two years after the Washington Nationals relocated from Montreal, nearly every homegrown Nats young player of note has passed through Hagerstown, including former No. 1 overall MLB draft picks Bryce Harper (now with the Phillies) and Stephen Strasburg. Current players on the 2019 World Series winning team Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto are also former Suns alumni.

What If?

If Hagerstown were to lose its team, the nearest minor league ballpark is in Frederick (26.2 miles away), but the Keys are also on MLB’s reported list of potentially contracted minor league teams. Beyond Frederick, there are minor league teams in York, Pa., and Harrisburg, Pa., both over 65 miles away. The Orioles and Nationals are roughly 70 miles away, and both on the major league level.

If the team disappears, fan options in Hagerstown are limited, and expensive.

“It’s not that easy for a family of four to go to Camden Yards [in Baltimore] or Nationals Park [in DC] to go see a game five or six times a year. It’s just too darn expensive,” said Todd Bolton, a lifelong Suns fan from Smith-burg, who has been attending Suns games since their inaugural season in 1981. “My sons are pushing 40 now, but when they were younger, we took them to a lot of games. It was a great family outing, and it got them into baseball … I hope our leaders do everything they can to try to keep baseball in Hagerstown.”