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Suns provide baseball ... and more

September 24, 2006|by BOB PARASILITI

The City of Hagerstown is part of a small fraternity.

The Hagerstown Suns team makes this area one of 150 cities and towns in the United States that can say they have a full-season, major league-affiliated minor league baseball team that residents can call their own.

For 26 years, Municipal Stadium has housed a team where a big league franchise sends its young players and prospects to groom for a future in the game of baseball. As a Single-A franchise, the Hagerstown Suns team has been a springboard for young players chasing that dream.

And while that happens, the Suns are an entertainment staple in the community. In some cases, the game of baseball competes with the entertainment going on at the 76-year-old stadium.

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For six bucks, someone can 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.

While baseball is the name of the game, minor league organizations constantly seek entertaining ways 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. This season, after years of being accused of giving away everything but the kitchen sink, the Suns decided to give one of those away.

The Suns 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 here 50 years earlier.

The Suns are listed 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.

And there are bobblehead doll giveaways.

This year, they included a bobblehead of George Washington and another of Earl, the hapless loser on the television show "My Name Is Earl."

Greg Garcia, the creator of the show, is a 1992 graduate of Frostburg State University.

The Suns also presented 14 fireworks shows in 2006.

All that doesn't mean baseball isn't a drawing card. The game is sort of an athletic stock market, giving fans the chance to meet and get autographs of players destined to become top stars - including Derek Jeter, Jim Thome and Mike Mussina - before they become household names.

Over the years, the Suns were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles, the Toronto Blue Jays and San Francisco Giants before their present two-year stint with the New York Mets. Hagerstown has been a part of the Single-A Carolina League and the Double-A Eastern League before their present 14-year membership with the Single-A South Atlantic League.

For the fans who want to get to know the players up close, there is the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club. Members of the fan-run organization support the players as they move into town for the season and give fans a chance to share picnics and other activities with the players.

The formula has translated into dramatic increases in attendance over the last few years. The Suns' attendance jumped from 100,865 in 2003 to 128,508 in 2004. The team drew 153,675 fans in 2005.

Meanwhile, Suns games and the associated activities have benefited 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 are guaranteed to be in Hagerstown through 2007.

The team has traditionally made annual agreements with the city for yearly extensions to stay 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.

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