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Richards helped Suns become a work of art

September 20, 2005|by BOB PARASILITI

For an entire season, Hagerstown Suns manager Gene Richards was an abstract in the real world.

He was like using a Picasso for Highlight Magazine's Find the Hidden Pictures.

Richards did a fantastic job guiding the Suns through their 25th anniversary season because he approached success as a relative thing.

"I feel good all the time," Richards said the other day before Hagerstown headed to Kannapolis (N.C.) for the end of the best-of-5 South Atlantic League Championship series. "We just want to make sure these guys reach their capabilities. If we can do that, I can accept the outcome."

Richards tested his accepting mood on Friday. After splitting two games in Hagerstown, the Intimidators won the first two games in their home park and won the SAL title, 3-1.

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On the surface, the loss was a disappointment. The Suns opened the season with a team with so much promise. Hagerstown swept its season-opening seven-game homestand and had even the most cynical of fans putting the team in the league championship series, all the way back in the second week of April.

It wasn't the breeze it was in the beginning, but the Suns made it while navigating some huge obstacles.

The question is: What is success?

For the championship-starved diehards that make up the core of Hagerstown fans, it would have been that title. The Suns hadn't made it to the league championship round since 1994 and only reached this level for the fourth time in 25 years. Their only title was in the Carolina League in 1981 - their first year here.

The final outcome was disappointing only because it was a partial success.

For Suns players, total success would have been shown in a championship ring on their right finger. Hagerstown ponied up, but got bucked off the bronco in the end.

The running theory for playoffs in professional team sports is you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you run. You don't always win it all the first year you reach the postseason.

The Suns were somewhere in between - in the trot mode, maybe - because they didn't finish as well as was hoped but much better than they probably should have.

Minor League baseball is an odd paradox. Parent clubs want to teach the players how to win, but winning isn't everything. Moving up the organization's ladder is more a proof of worth than winning 20 games or hitting .320 on the Single-A level.

In that case, Richards and his coaching staff of Luis Natera and pitching coach Shawn Barton helped launch the careers of many Suns players. Fifty different players wore Suns uniforms this season, with 14 earning promotions to a higher level of play during the season.

That's 28 percent improvement, which doesn't sound like much until you consider that only 3 percent of all minor leaguers make the majors. That doesn't even take into account the key players, like Ryan Coultas and Mike Carp, who were lost for the season with injuries and could have moved on or made an impact in the playoffs.

Richards got the Suns to the final round despite adverse conditions. After Hagerstown won the first-half title, the Suns clubhouse was equipped with a revolving door.

The Suns finished in last place in the second half, so the fact that they even had a team that was able to make a run at the title is a testament to the players and the organization.

Success was reflected in the stands, too. Suns attendance jumped 20 percent this season to 157,000, including the playoffs.

For years, cricket sounds were the loudest cheer heard at Municipal Stadium. This season, the excitement carried over with every run Hagerstown scored.

The Suns had a theme song they played for every run, and fans caught on and clapped to the music. It doesn't sound like much, but it would have never happened in the past.

It's tough to clap when you are sitting on your hands watching a losing team.

And maybe the last aspect of success comes from the organization that decided to make Hagerstown its home.

The New York Mets have been a power in the South Atlantic League for the last 10 years, most of the time while playing in Columbia, S.C., as the Bombers.

South Atlantic League playoff appearances have been commonplace for the Mets. In fact, the Bombers lost in the finals to Hickory last year before the Mets relocated here. Columbia eliminated the Suns, then a Toronto affiliate, in the second round of 1998's expanded SAL postseason

The whole package together means more exciting days ahead for Suns fans, even if it means coping with the disappointment of not winning the big one. The Mets have proven they can be a boon to this community if allowed, and winning is a big part of it.

Remember, you have to get into the playoffs in the first place if you plan on winning a title.

There's nothing abstract about that.

That's hitting it on the nose ... if you can find it on a Picasso.




Bob Parasiliti is a staff writer for The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2310, or by e-mail at bobp@herald-mail.com.

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