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Suns' business goes on as usual

December 09, 2002|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

At first glance, Thursday was just another day in the life of the front office of the Hagerstown Suns.

Workers were making sales calls and solidifying plans for the 2003 season.

And to tell the truth, today will be more of the same - at least on the surface. While team general manager Kurt Landes and his staff go through the mundane business of minor league baseball's off-season, they are in essence being traded.

Hagerstown owner Andrew Rayburn announced the agreement to sell the Class A South Atlantic League affiliate of the San Francisco Giants to Mandalay Sports Entertainment, based in Los Angeles.

"There isn't anything really juicy about the deal," said Mandalay spokesman Kevin Mortesen. "Kurt and his staff will go about doing the same things they have been."

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The current Suns front office will stay in place and will continue to conduct business while Mandalay continues to follow the channels to purchase the team. Landes and his staff will remain once Mandalay assumes control.

But as of Thursday, the deal was the completion of the handshake stage. The proper channels, including South Atlantic League president John Henry Moss and the office of minor league baseball's commissioner, had not been formally notified as of the announcement of the deal.

"When we get an application for a sale, I get it on the phone and have a dialogue with the people," said Moss. "I haven't been approached yet. This is still very, very preliminary, but both of those people involved are very honorable and they probably didn't want to get things caught up in the rumor mills."

It means the ongoing saga of Hagerstown baseball, the stadium issue and the city's membership in one of the oldest leagues in the minors may continue.

When it formally assumes ownership, Mandalay, a joint ownership group headed by movie producer Peter Guber, will pick up a team which has languished in the bottom half of the SAL attendance standings while playing in an antiquated stadium. Those are facts that won't initially change.

"Any sports owner would love to have a new sports stadium," Mortesen said. "I don't think Mandalay came into this with blinders on. We know that the stadium is an issue, but it isn't caveat to the deal. Maybe they think they might have a better shot (at getting as stadium). Mandalay has different strategies for running teams and have been pretty successful.

"There is no cookie cutter answer. We will evaluate what will work and if it doesn't work, we'll try something else."

Mandalay owns a number of minor league franchises, including the Las Vegas 51s, the Triple-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Dayton (Ohio) Dragons, the Single-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds which has sold out every game in its five-year history and has a waiting list.

It recently purchased Frisco (Texas), the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. Frisco was formally based in Shreveport and was the Giants' Double-A team.

"(Mandalay) wanted to get a team in this league because it doesn't have one in it," Mortesen said. "The National Association (of Minor Leagues) doesn't want dual ownership (owning two or more teams) in a league. We were also looking for a team on the East Coast."

Rayburn said he didn't give up on Hagerstown because of the inability to get the stadium. It was just a matter of business. The Cleveland, Ohio,-based owner officially took over the Suns from Winston Blenckstone on June 1, 2001.

"The sale is subject of approval, but it was an offer I couldn't refuse," Rayburn said. "When I bought the team, the plan was to stay for the long term. Stadium negotiations usually take a long time. It was an unsolicited offer that came out of the blue and it just made good business sense."

Mandalay will join Comcast Spectacor, which owns Delmarva, and Dale Earnhardt International, which owns Kannapolis, as conglomerates that own South Atlantic League franchises.

"We have some teams with deep pockets," Moss said. "This league attracts people."

Mandalay's purchase guarantees the Suns will honor their lease for Municipal Stadium through the 2003 season. It also gives the SAL another chance to remain in Hagerstown, a venue which it desperately needs to maintain because of its growth.

When Blenckstone moved the Suns here from Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 1992, Hagerstown was the northernmost team in the league. A decade later, the SAL has teams in Eastlake (Ohio), Charleston (W.Va.), Lexington (Ky.), Lakewood (N.J.) and Salisbury (Md.), making Hagerstown centrally located in the Northern Division.

That may make keeping a team in Hagerstown crucial for the SAL, especially if it hopes to keep teams from traveling 8 to 13 hours on buses to play road series.

"I hope the best for Hagerstown," Moss said. "I like (the town). I like it in the league, but there is a need for a new facility. Everyone has to realize that."

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