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Year of the Suns

by Zach Spedden

Old Hagerstown Suns

Looking back at the year Hagerstown brought a ball team back to town.

On Friday, April 10, 1981 a new era of Hagerstown sports began, as the Hagerstown Suns played their first game in franchise history. The Suns, who in the months before had relocated from Rocky Mount, N.C., took on the Peninsula Pilots, beginning the community’s first season of professional baseball since 1955. The day also marked the return to hosting professional ball for Municipal Stadium — but not without some drama.

Before that first game, off-field distractions mounted quickly. Upgrades to Municipal Stadium — which had stood unused professionally for 26 years after the Hagerstown Packets disbanded — were still incomplete, including an important installation of new lights. As a result, all four games of the first home stand began in the afternoon. In addition, the team’s attempts to sign a five-year lease extension were vetoed by the mayor and city council only days before the game.

Despite the distractions, 2,463 fans attended opening day. Among them was Tom Caron who grew up in Waynesboro, Pa. as a rabid Philadelphia Phillies fan. Even today, he can recall his initial impression of the hastily-prepared Municipal Stadium. “In the first year, the so-called ‘box seats’ were four rows of wooden benches … they had the olden wooden bleachers on both sides — and the press box was a wooden shed on top of the third base grandstand.”

As the fans settled in, players were primed for a successful beginning. For Suns starting pitcher Dane Anthony, this game was particularly special. The former standout at nearby James Buchanan High School was a member of the Cleveland Indians farm system. The right-handed hurler joined the Suns

because of what was known as a co-op agreement, which meant the Baltimore Orioles supplied the coaching staff and most of the players, and minor leaguers from five other organizations — including the Indians — filled out the club. “They were the players that the organizations really didn’t want to get rid of yet,” says Dane. “But when a lot of baseball people looked at the roster, they thought it was going to be a weak team.”

Entering that first start, Dane was too excited to pay attention to the critics — especially in the moments leading to the game. “When I walked out to the bullpen to get loose, the stands were full and my family, my friends, and a lot of people I knew were there,” he vividly recalls. “I was hoping that I would have a good game, little did I know that I would have as good of a game as I did.”

In that start, Dane dominated the Pilots, carrying a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning. Despite surrendering two runs in the top of the ninth, he completed the 6–2 victory, hurling a three-hitter while striking out three. Starting with that win, the Suns were a force to be reckoned with. “We had some good ball players, and everyone really clicked,” he says.

The Suns won the Carolina League Northern Division First Half Championship with a 37-31 record, clinching a spot in the league’s playoffs. Before the beginning of the second half, Dane was promoted to the Indians Double-A team in Chattanooga, Tenn. Though he ultimately fell short of the major leagues in his career, he was named an All-Star that season and has fond memories of the Suns. “There weren’t a bunch of individualists on that team. Everyone was rooting for each other, and as a result, we got along well and we won.

Winning Games And Fans

As the team continued to win, Tom kept using his season tickets. Among his favorite memories from that season was that each player had their own nickname, including Matt “The Titanic” Tyner, who belted a franchise-record 31 home runs. Tom also says that the player’s fan-friendly demeanors created a special connection. He credits manager Grady Little with setting a positive example, saying that the future major league skipper was a “nice guy and very personable.”

“They [the fans] treated us like kings,” says Dane. Whether it was through post-game clubhouse meals, or helping players find places to live as they arrived in Hagerstown, fans eased what is typically a hard transition for minor league players. Dane says that as a minor leaguer, “You go to your assigned city and you’re lost. Chances are you’ve never been there before, you don’t know anybody, and you need to find a place to live. They really took us under their wings, and made us feel like family.”

The bond between the players and the community hit a pinnacle the night the Suns clinched the Carolina League title by once again defeating the Peninsula Pilots. Though the third, and final game of the series was played at the Pilots home field in Hampton, Va., the Suns worked with city officials to ensure that there would be a hometown celebration. Tom says, “The team was scheduled to arrive back in Hagerstown around midnight.” Mayor Donald Frush and the city council bought pizza and had it delivered to the stadium. Fans came over to celebrate with the players. Tom recalls going to that celebration as one of his favorite moments, and adds that he “just can’t see something like that happening now.”

The Hagerstown Slide

There is no doubt that the baseball climate has changed in Hagerstown. While the team’s ’81 attendance total of 145,335 was second in the league, Hagerstown has not kept up with the growing industry that is Minor League Baseball. The franchise that beat the Suns in attendance that season, the Durham Bulls, are now a Triple-A squad, which is the league just below the majors. The Suns however, moved to the Double-A Eastern League in 1989, then slid back into the Class-A South Atlantic League in 1993, where they remain today.

Through thick and thin, Tom has stood by the team. He remains a regular at the ballpark, sitting next to the Suns dugout each game with his “sidekick” Perry Reese. If anything, he says that he has become more of a fan over the years. The Suns current major league affiliation with the Washington Nationals even swayed Tom’s allegiance a bit. “I’ve told my friends and relatives that when it comes down to the Nationals and the Phillies, the Phillies are second fiddle.” When asked why he continues to come to games on such a regular basis, Tom says he not only enjoys watching the players’ progress, but also relishes the social aspect of a trip to the ballpark.

With rumors that the team will relocate to Fredericksburg, Va. before the 2016 season, attendance at Suns games has hit a sharp decline, drawing less than 90,000 fans in each season since 2012. Dane, who is now the Sheriff of Franklin County, says he tries to come back to Municipal Stadium when he has the chance. “I hope the team never leaves Hagerstown. Because of all of the good, loyal fans, I’d like to see them keep a team there.”

As of this writing, the Suns ownership group, Hagerstown Baseball LLC, was working with a group of investors to acquire land for a stadium in Fredericksburg. Even if that move goes through, Tom says he has become too attached to the franchise to stop coming. “I’ll stay here as long as they’re here,” he says in an unwavering tone. “No question in my mind.”

Read more articles from the September/October 2014 issue