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Suns' owner Rayburn plays a waiting game

August 18, 2002|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

Hagerstown Suns owner Andrew Rayburn is not monitoring the Washington County Commissioner candidates' campaigns to see if they support a new baseball stadium.

"We'll definitely just wait to see," Rayburn said.

Although he revealed a few months ago that he is talking to other cities about moving the Suns, he said Friday, "Our first goal is to play ball in Hagerstown for the long term."

Rayburn confirmed a published report in a Montgomery, Ala., newspaper that he spoke to officials there in May about moving the Suns.

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Montgomery, which is building a baseball stadium as part of a riverfront development project, did not select Rayburn and the Suns.

Rayburn said he has had "a handful of discussions" with other cities, but is nowhere near signing any agreements. He would not name the cities.

"If another city gets hot (to have the Suns), we'll talk that through," Rayburn said.

The same goes for Hagerstown and Washington County.

"We have no deadline," he said.

County and city officials - and some county commission candidates - have said attendance is a true measure of public support for the Suns and possibly a new stadium.

The team drew an average of 2,768 fans per game in 1991, when it was still a Baltimore Orioles affiliate at the AA level.

Starting in 1993, the team switched to the Toronto Blue Jays system and the A level, which is lower than AA.

The Suns are now an A-level San Francisco Giants affiliate.

Some people have pointed to the loss of connection to the Orioles as a key reason that average attendance dropped by about 45 percent in 10 years.

Last year, the Suns drew an average of 1,503 fans per game, which ranked the team 15th out of 16 in the league.

Rayburn took control of the team in May 2001 and promised to market the Suns more heavily. He vowed the team wouldn't be second-to-last in attendance again.

So far, he's right.

As of Thursday, the Suns were 12th in the league in attendance this season. But they were averaging 1,493 fans per game, a slight drop-off from last year.

Rayburn said "an unusually large number of rainouts" in the first month of this season affected attendance.

"It's a huge factor," he said.

If a game is rained out, it may be rescheduled as part of a doubleheader. Fans could then see both games for the price of one ticket.

Other times, the Suns have played on a rainy day for few fans.

Rayburn said there was a strong effort in the off-season to boost interest in the team and he thinks it has worked, despite the per-game average.

"In some areas, we're ahead, such as sponsorships or marketing," he said.

A new stadium in Hagerstown could change things and is "absolutely part of the plan, long-term," said Rayburn, who hired a consultant to work on a stadium plan earlier this year. He said nothing new of significance came out of that effort.

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