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Suns welcome back Blenckstones

June 19, 2005|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

Winston Blenckstone is the equals sign in the Hagerstown Suns baseball equation.

The new era of Hagerstown minor league baseball would not be celebrating the 25th anniversary of playing at Municipal Stadium if it weren't for Blenckstone and his son David relocating his South Atlantic League franchise here from Myrtle Beach in 1992.

As Double-A baseball was about to subtract itself from the local area, Blenckstone added so many different layers to Hagerstown and minor league baseball by bringing his team here.

"For two weeks, there wasn't going to be baseball here anymore," Blenckstone said Saturday at Municipal Stadium. "Why I came here was for a couple of reasons. The first was personal because it brought me back to Maryland and to my roots."

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Blenckstone came home to start the 1993 season and begin a revolutionary and evolutionary time in local baseball, a time that was commemorated on Saturday when he returned to Municipal Stadium for the first time since selling the team in 2001. Winston and David Blenckstone and their families were honored before Saturday's game against West Virginia. It was the second of three Hat Days, honoring the three main eras of the Suns' silver anniversary.

At the time, the move was a chance for Blenckstone to get back near his Baltimore roots while reviving the team he had owned since 1987. Over the course of his ownership, Blenckstone was the major reason why Hagerstown added a new reason to be known as the Hub City.

"We came here because we had stadium issues in Myrtle Beach," Blenckstone said. "Major League Baseball wanted to get all stadiums up to codes. (Former Suns owner) Peter Kirk came down to our owners' meeting at the South Atlantic League All-Star Game and asked if anyone was interested in relocating. I raised my hand."

With Blenckstone's move, Hagerstown not only stayed on the map as a baseball town, but it opened a new frontier for the South Atlantic League and Single-A baseball.

"If we hadn't moved here, there wouldn't have been a Delmarva, Lakewood or Lexington," Blenckstone said. "We opened the doors for that and teams started to move into those areas. It opened up the northern area. If it weren't for us, the South Atlantic League probably would have moved further south and southwest."

The move filled a void for both the Blenckstones and the city. Municipal Stadium's vacancy gave the franchise a home it never had. Myrtle Beach played its home games at Coastal Carolina University during Blenckstone's first six years of ownership, when the team won two SAL titles.

"This was a unique opportunity coming from where we did," said David Blenckstone, who was the Suns general manager for six seasons. "When we came here (former general manager Bob Miller) was showing us around and this stadium was unbelievable. This was an upgrade for us after playing on a college field with portable bleachers."

The move became some of the best and worst times for Blenckstone.

To some, the move was unwelcomed, bringing in a Toronto affiliation after 12 seasons of housing the beloved Baltimore Orioles farm system.

"One of the first things I remember is coming here and having a mic put in my face with someone asking me if I thought it would be tough coming in here as a Toronto affiliate," Winston Blenckstone said. "I had never thought about it. We were coming here planning just to offer family entertainment."

The Orioles' black and orange was replaced with Toronto's blue uniforms. The caps given out at Saturday's game were blue and red to commemorate the era.

"Things haven't change here. I see we are back in the 'blue' period," Blenckstone said with a laugh when entering the stadium, referring to the Suns current affiliation with the New York Mets.

The Blenckstone era was marked by its affiliation with Toronto and a movement to get a new stadium. The Suns are still not affiliated with the Orioles today and still would like a new facility.

But for the Blenckstones, their stay in Hagerstown produced some memorable times.

"I never had any problems with the city. They helped us out from the mayor all the way through public works," Blenckstone said. "It made it easy for us to make the decision to stay here."

Part of it was because of the small town attitude in Hagerstown, where the Blenckstones knew most of the city officials and the fans by their first names.

"The fans here are incredible," David Blenckstone said. "I don't know if they realize how good they are. There is such a small number of them, though, but that's OK. I don't know if we wouldn't have come, I'm not convinced that Hagerstown had any other prospects. If there would have been a two- or three-year gap, I don't know if baseball would still be here."

When Blenckstone sold his franchise in 2001, the Blue Jays affiliation was gone and San Francisco had taken over. He moved back to his boyhood home of Baltimore, where he still resides. And most of all, he was part of keeping baseball in Hagerstown while opening the door to a new era in the minor league game.

"Hagerstown is truly the hub of the Northern Division," Blenckstone said. "I was glad to be one of the ownerships to see minor league baseball grow from the Mom and Pop teams to become part of big organizations."

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