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Suns - Family fun and a whole lot more

September 19, 2005|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

When it comes down to it, you can take the Hagerstown Suns at face value.

All you need to know about the Single-A minor league baseball team is said in the first verse of their jingle.

"It's not baseball anymore

It's family fun and a whole lot more

It's incredibly thrilling, their scoring runs

We're talking about the Hagerstown Suns"

To be honest, Suns baseball could be called multitask entertainment.

Where else, for five bucks, can someone see a baseball game, be a guest public address announcer or scoreboard operator, grab a foul ball, win a contest, get a picnic-style lunch, receive a giveaway souvenir and maybe get a coupon for a free cheeseburger?

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Baseball is the reason for drawing the crowd and for 25 years, Hagerstown's Municipal Stadium has been home to a major league affiliate, a team on which baseball stars of the future are groomed. Some of baseball's top stars - including Derek Jeter, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Mussina - have either played for the Suns or at Municipal Stadium over the last quarter century.

But the name of the game in baseball - especially in the minor leagues - has become fringe entertainment in the stands to help pass the time at the ballpark.

The Suns' front office has made a name for itself with its giveaway items and wacky promotions. Hagerstown's antics have drawn national attention over the last few years on ESPN, ESPN2 and its "Cold Pizza" morning show, and minor league baseball's Web site, as well as in various newspapers and magazines, including Baseball America and Sports Illustrated.

The Suns team was awarded a "Promotion of the Year" award by ESPN the Magazine for its 2003 funeral giveaway, in which fans were invited to write essays about their ideal funerals.

The Suns also brought Willie Mays back to Hagerstown for an appearance in 2004, and the town apologized for its treatment of Mays when he played the first game of his professional career 50 years earlier.

The Fastest Fat Man race and Renew Your Wedding Vows gimmicks have been used. The Suns also are featured in the "Guinness World Records" book for having the youngest ever person broadcast a game, the first all-Japanese broadcast and the most barefoot people in an area during Shoeless Joe Jackson Day.

There are smaller weekly promotions, such as Feed-Your-Face Monday, at which fans can get an all-you-can-eat meal and a ticket to the game for $10, and Thirsty Thursday, which features reduced-price beverages during the game.

The Suns also presented 13 Friday fireworks shows in 2005.

In case that's not enough, there are a number of between-inning games and contests.

For the fans who want to get to know the players up close, there is the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club. Membership to the fan-run organization supports the players as they move into town for the season while allowing fans to share picnics and other activities with the players.

The formula has translated to nearly a 50 percent increase in attendance in the last two seasons.

The Suns' attendance jumped from 100,865 in 2003 to 128,508 in 2004 - a 27 percent increase - while moving toward 150,000 fans in 2005.

Meanwhile, Suns games and the associated activities have been beneficial to the City of Hagerstown. Ticket sales along with hotel stays, meals at restaurants and purchased goods have given a boost to tourism and area businesses, tourism officials have said.

The Suns have accomplished it all while playing at 75-year-old Municipal Stadium. The Suns have created an old-time feel to the games, with the help of a manual scoreboard and simple amenities, in order to keep up with teams and cities with newer stadiums and larger population bases.

The Suns are guaranteed to be in Hagerstown through 2006 and the team annually has signed yearly extensions over the years to remain here. The issue of building a new stadium for the franchise is being addressed, but it is a topic that has been examined for almost the team's entire stay.

The 2005 season was the first year the Suns were affiliated with the New York Mets in the South Atlantic League. Over the years, Hagerstown has been a farm team for Baltimore, Toronto and San Francisco in three different leagues - Single-A Carolina League and Double-A Eastern League before moving to the SAL in 1993.

The Suns won the SAL's first-half North Division title in a one-game playoff and were to play in the league playoffs in September.

Over the last 25 years, the Hagerstown Suns have become a fixture of life and entertainment in the Hagerstown area.

And it's all because, at face value, it's not just baseball anymore. It's family fun and a whole lot more.

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