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Are these three ready to drive baseball away for good?

November 19, 1999

A new minor league baseball stadium for Hagerstown has never been so close. Paradoxically, County Commissioners are only a vote or two away from chasing professional baseball out of Washington County forever.

After years of misfires and false starts, the $15 million stadium project has momentum. It has on its side a smart coalition of professionals putting the project together, a strong outpouring of public sentiment from the business community and for the first time a formal vote of approval from the Hagerstown City Council.

State money is all but there for the taking in these bountiful economic times. The Washington County lawmakers, never strong stadium supporters, have nevertheless indicated that if the city and county appeal for state funding, they are unlikely to block the request.

The county's financial responsibility for the stadium is $3 million - a sum that is so small in terms of capital improvement outlays that it's almost laughable the county is hung up on it.

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This is $3 million for a stadium, but more saliently it is $3 million to keep professional baseball in Hagerstown for the next 20 years. If we lose baseball, we lose part of the community. And although it looks bad, I still have trouble believing that this Board of County Commissioners will yawn disinterestedly while frittering away yet another piece of our history and our community.

Commissioner Paul Swartz strongly favors the project. The most solid "no" vote comes from Bill Wivell. Wivell is good with figures and a good addition to the commission. But in time, perhaps he'll realize - as will the middle three, Bert Iseminger, John Schnebly and Greg Snook - that numbers are only half of the equation. The other half is the people.

I've never seen Wivell at the ballpark, so perhaps he's never heard the shriek of a kid who has just gotten a foul ball, or noticed the look of joy on their faces when they get an autograph of some destined-for-anonymity Suns utility infielder.

How does Wivell's ledger help these kids once baseball is gone? What does he propose they do instead of go to a game. Hang out in the mall? Play Nintendo? Fire up a joint?

Perhaps the Commissioners have never noticed the older folks who sit atop the bleachers and know all the players' names and keep score in their programs. How will Wivell's number crunching improve their lives once baseball is gone? What are they to do instead on a hot July night. Sit at home alone watching television? Mindlessly peel away at the tip jar at a tavern?

What about me? Just think of all the extra time I'll have to sit at home and think up bad things to write about county governance.

Caving into political pressure from people who have not discovered that there are more interesting things to do in life than sit on the couch stewing about their taxes is the easy thing to do. Keeping an opportunity alive for wholesome entertainment for the people of this county is the right thing to do.

Money isn't the issue here, it is the diversion. From 1997 to 1998 alone, the county's general fund budget increased $7 million. Revenues are rolling in as never before.

Public money for a private businessman isn't the issue here, it is the illusion. At best, Suns' small-businessmen owners will go from treading water to making a modest profit counted in thousands of dollars, not millions.

It's as easy as it is wrong to lump the Suns in with the big-money machine of the professionals. But the players do not, as former Commissioner Jim Wade asserted on statewide television, make millions of dollars. They make about $13,000 a season.

These athletes do not play under multi-million dollar television contracts. Their moms call the newsroom late on game nights to find out how their boys did.

Most will never see the inside of the Skydome as a player. More than to the Toronto Blue Jays, more than to the local ownership, the soul of the Hagerstown Suns belong to us, the community.

I love Municipal Stadium, and if I had my way these low-level minor leaguers would continue to play imperfect baseball in that imperfect old relic forever. But the reality is, if we don't collectively pitch in a few pennies for a contemporary place to play, the team will leave for a community that will. And under league rules, because of our proximity to Frederick, we will be barred from ever landing another team.

And just as plenty of cities would be happy to have the Suns, plenty of other Maryland communities will be happy to take the tax dollars raised in Washington County and spend it on themselves.

For decades we have complained that here in the hinterlands we get rooked by the larger population centers. Now we have a chance to get some of our own money back - yet we are three votes away from saying "never mind, we don't want it."

Places like Aberdeen will be happy to say "thank you very much" and spend our money on stadium plans of their own.

Then their contractors will get the construction jobs, their treasuries will get the tax revenues and their community will get the pride that comes with being a home to professional baseball.

On every conceivable level, except perhaps pure, selfish politics, building a new stadium now makes perfect sense. And even politically, I believe the commissioners are safe if they simply present the stadium project for what it is: A chance for families to do something together; a chance to give the community something to be proud of; a chance to preserve decades of tradition, and a chance to feel good about living in Washington County.

How can even the most miserly of penny pinchers convince three commissioners this is a waste of tax dollars, and that history will remember them fondly as the men who drove baseball away for good?




Tim Rowland is a Herald-mail columnist

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