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Municipal Madness

September 13, 1998|By BOB PARASILITI

The Hagerstown Suns turned the 1998 season into one of chills and thrills for the fans - and, especially, themselves




Municipal Stadium was the home for a New Year's Eve party, a circus and a carnival all rolled into one this summer.

Step right up and see the show. There were thrills and chills on any given night. One minute, you could be brought to cheers. The next, reduced to tears.

That was the comedy and drama that made up Hagerstown Suns baseball. Games were a horsehide holiday. They put reluctant fans in the mood for a glove affair. But the easiest way to describe the 1998 season was also the most simple.

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"It was fun while it lasted," said reliever Colin Brackeen in understated fashion.

The Suns played baseball the way it was supposed to be played. It was all fun and games - they played to have fun and they played to win games. Hagerstown played its sixth season in the South Atlantic League with a purpose.

It was their job and they did it well, winning 82 of 146 games.

"I've seen many teams with more talent than this one, but weren't able to come through with the results we got, especially in the first half," Suns manager Marty Pevey said. "We were determined that we weren't going to lose."

Determination not withstanding, it all ended last Sunday in a 9-1 loss to Capital City in the semifinal round of the South Atlantic League playoffs. Abruptly, one of the most exciting and entertaining seasons of professional baseball in Hagerstown's recent history ended.

Suddenly, a season that began with great expectations and finished with greater accomplishments had just entered a new - and near unimaginable - dimension.

The one that changes reality into fond memory.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> Memories of an unlikely first-half championship, complete with a 17-2 record in the final three weeks that was capped by a doubleheader sweep on the last day.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> Memories of the franchise's first playoff appearance in three years.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> Memories of one of the finest pitching staffs to be assembled here, featuring three starters with earned run averages under 3.00.

But most of all, it was a season that conjured memories of baseball the way it used to - and should - be played.

"I think overall, we busted our tails day in and day out," Pevey said. "It may not have showed all the time, but I'm a gung-ho guy. I tried to remain positive. Still, we didn't want to let them get too far up or too far down. The guys did a heck of a job all year."

The two defining moments of the season may have come before the first pitch was ever thrown.

The first was in December when Toronto named Pevey the Suns' new manager. The second came at the end of March when the roster was announced.

In Pevey, Hagerstown was getting a players' manager. He was a disciplinarian wearing kid gloves. He believed in his talent as much as he believed in his superstitions. Pevey carried the prescence of a Marine on the field, but worked with his crop of players like a gentleman farmer.

And what a crop he was given.

The Suns were a team that was filled with youth and experience; high-priced talent and unproven upstarts; and natural leaders and chemistry players to cement the team together. This team was a rare blend of exceptional talent, minimal ego and engaging personality.

It was also a team that was left here to perform.

Toronto general manger Gord Ash and farm director Jim Hoff were determined to return the Blue Jays' minor league organization to its glory days. In the early 1990s, Toronto owned the winningest system in baseball, which reflected in the Blue Jays' consecutive World Series titles.

To rekindle the past, each minor league team was built to win. Each player was given a role. And like the old days, there was going to be little movement of players. Talk of developing major league players was put on hold. They would develop through winning.

The Suns played to have fun. The Suns played to win. For the first time in three years in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system, it was more important to be good instead of looking good.

The roster bore that out.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> Centerfielder Vernon Wells and second baseman Mike Young - Two of Toronto's top selections from the 1997 draft. They were the top-hitting everyday players despite their .270-.280 averages and were the anchors of the defense. They were voted Hagerstown's co-most valuable players by the team's fan club.

HEIGHT="6" ALT="* " NATURALSIZEFLAG="0" ALIGN="BOTTOM"> Infielders Chris Hayes and Mike Strange - Two players who played for the Suns three years ago. They were sent to Hagerstown to give the young team leadership.

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