Suns link with Nationals

September 21, 2006|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

HAGERSTOWN - The Hagerstown Suns have gone National.

The team announced Wednesday that it will be a minor league baseball affiliate for the Washington Nationals for two years, starting next season.

The last time the Suns were this close to their major league team was 1992, when Hagerstown was in the Baltimore Orioles' system.

Bob Boone, the Nationals' assistant general manager and senior director of player personnel, said switching affiliations from Savannah, Ga., to Hagerstown makes life easier for the team. It lets players, instructors, scouts and executives travel back and forth more easily, he said.


"This is a long-term situation for both us and them," said Kurt Landes, the Suns' president and general manager.

The Nationals, finishing their second season in Washington, D.C., are the Suns' fifth team. After 12 seasons with the Orioles, the Suns linked with the Toronto Blue Jays, the San Francisco Giants and, for the past two seasons, the New York Mets.

Landes said major league and minor league teams negotiate new alliances in September, if they want. Saturday was the first day that teams and affiliates could approach each other.

When the Suns learned that the Nationals might change affiliates, "they were our No. 1 priority," Landes said.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said Hagerstown's proximity to Washington, D.C., is a significant benefit and might spur more interest in the Suns.

The Savannah Sand Gnats were connected for four seasons to the franchise that previously was the Montreal Expos.

Hagerstown and Savannah play in the Class A South Atlantic League.

On the minor league ladder, class A is a low rung. Players often advance to AA, then AAA, before reaching the major leagues.

Although Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown and Savannah's Grayson Stadium each are about 80 years old, "we think Hagerstown (has) the better facility," Boone said.

Unlike in Hagerstown, though, a multimillion-dollar renovation is scheduled in Savannah. On Tuesday, Chatham County, Ga., voters approved a sales tax expected to bring in $440 million for county projects, the Sand Gnats' Web site says. Of that, $5 million will pay for improving the stadium.

For several years, Municipal Stadium's condition has been tied to the future of Hagerstown baseball. Previous team owners have pushed for a new stadium to keep the Suns in the city, but plans never got far.

In February 2005, Richard W. Phoebus Sr., president and CEO of the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation (CHIEF), said Mandalay Baseball Properties - which owns the Suns - had pledged several million dollars to build a new stadium. The stadium was to anchor a proposed $100 million redevelopment of Hagerstown's east end.

Phoebus said Wednesday that the stadium and east end project stalled; elected officials showed little interest.

"It's been dormant for quite a while," he said.

Phoebus and Bruchey heard that Mandalay wants a new stadium in the county, rather than the city, but there's been virtually no stadium talk lately.

Mandalay spokesman Kevin Mortesen wouldn't comment specifically on stadium plans, which he said are unrelated to the new affiliation.

"Mandalay is always interested in looking at opportunities," he said.

Although the Nationals would like a new stadium in Hagerstown, "we're kind of the new guy on the block," Boone said. "We're happy to be bettering our plight."

Nats are Suns' fifth team

Next season, the Washington Nationals will be the Hagerstown Suns' fifth Major League team.

The Suns have been minor league affiliates of:

· the Baltimore Orioles (1981-92)

· the Toronto Blue Jays (1993-2000)

· the San Francisco Giants (2001-04)

· the New York Mets (2005-06)

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