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Suns have quietly become one of city's more successful businesses

July 03, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

The Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball franchise may or may not get a new stadium. And eventually, the Suns may or may not leave for greener pastures.

But to anyone who has ever worked for the Suns, defended the Suns when there wasn't much there to defend, or just been a simple fan over the years, last Saturday night was particularly sweet. Because no matter what may come, Saturday proved that the franchise can indeed be a great and exciting product that can be an integral part of a downtown renaissance.

Saturday was a packed house, 3,500 strong, cheering, dancing, foot-stomping, waving T-shirts, making more noise than that tired old stadium has heard in a long time. Energy pulsed through the stadium in waves, clearly infecting the Hagerstown Suns players, who banged hit after hit against one of the league's top pitchers on their way to a 9-4 win and first half championship.

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Finally, a real home field advantage.

Caught up in the crowd's energy, Suns players crossing home plate would do a little dance of their own with teammates in the on deck circle.

The crowd was young - kids in their early teens weren't standing behind the bleachers discussing who had broken up with whom, they had their heads in the game, twirling T-shirts and lustily cheering each positive on-field development. The crowd was laced with enough county movers and shakers that the Suns game almost could have qualified as a place to see and be seen.

It was remarkable. And most of all, it was fun.

If energy is infectious, so is lethargy, and three or four years ago, that's where the Suns were. Fans huddled in clumps throughout the stands like refugees from a typhoon. A home run might have generated a smattering of applause, but at any given time most in attendance couldn't have told you the score, much less the count.

Past owners and general managers were dedicated, but lacked backing of a corporate powerhouse and a gang of super aggressive marketers. A new stadium was always listed as the No. 1 answer to the Suns attendance problems, and in fact, had one been built it probably would have provided an artificial boost for a season or two. But there would have been the very real risk that an unpopular product in a new home would remain, at root, an unpopular product. And the only thing worse than an empty old stadium would have been an empty new stadium.

Suns GM Kurt Landes understands plenty about the minor league baseball industry, but there's nothing he understands more than this: Before you can ask for a new stadium, you have to have a product worthy of one, and a clientele that will support one. For the past several years we haven't heard a peep about a stadium; instead we've heard the churning pistons of a publicity and marketing machine.

And it's worked. People lured by fireworks or some other promotion have started to pay attention to the game. A crop of new, young fans is taking root, thanks to promotions that bus in school kids. Attendance was up 27 percent last year, and it's up another 22 percent on top of that this year.

Last Saturday's crowd knew what was at stake - the first half championship. More stunning, it knew who was pitching - Gabriel Hernandez, who the week before, when the Suns needed a win to stay tied for first, threw a no-hitter.

Marketing wizard that he is, even Landes couldn't have arranged that. A local wag wrote in suggesting that Municipal Stadium be named after Hernandez, who frankly has done more for the Hagerstown Suns than Willie Mays ever did.

Well, why not? If we look back five years from now and the Suns are still shining in Hagerstown, we may determine that Gabbie provided that last little boost the team needed for critical mass. Herald-Mail editors correctly put Hernandez on the front page, and people responded to the positive press. Folks came out to see him, much as they would have come to see a rehabbing Jim Palmer or Glenn Davis back in the day.

In fact, you probably have to go back to those Class AA days, or before that the days of the raucous Section H in the early '80s to find a time when the Suns have generated as much buzz.

It's good news for the team, of course, but it's also good news for downtown Hagerstown. Landes is proving that it's possible not just to survive but to thrive well within city lines. Of late, any entity that has hitched its wagon to the Suns has succeeded as well, be it for raising funds or creating publicity. At least once a season, Landes has drawn national press to Hagerstown for some cockamamie promotional stunt of his.

City Hall has been so absorbed with what it views as bad news with the Washington County Hospital, that perhaps it's missing the good news that's blossoming under the lights just a few blocks away.

No doubt, at the end of the last decade, the Suns had become something of a political headache for the council, which was held over the fire by the public for pushing a new stadium for an undeserving franchise. For those who have been on the council a while, the hangover is likely still fresh - which would explain some of the grumpy comments in the council chambers whenever the Suns' name comes up.

Landes understands this, and has been more than patient, allowing the arrows to bounce off with little more than a shrug. It's doubtful, however, that this patience will last forever, so the council may want to take a fresh look at these new Suns and what they have become - and that is, arguably the most successful business the downtown has going right at the moment. The council should be riding this pony, not throwing roadblocks in its path. And if it still doubts the transition that's taken place - well, there's a game tonight at 6:35 p.m.

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