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Hub City gets the call from Kasten

April 22, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

Depending on who you are, there are many ways to get to Washington.

Travelers take I-270.

Presidential hopefuls start in New England with the primaries.

But for baseball players, it all starts in Hagerstown, Md. More specifically, Municipal Stadium.

The Washington Nationals are taking their new affiliation agreement with Hagerstown seriously, turning the 77-year-old stadium into a proving ground for the future of the National League franchise.

Nationals president Stan Kasten has a track record of knowing a good thing when he sees it. A major reason for the Nationals' desire is the fact that Hagerstown is about 75 miles from Washington.

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And despite some of Municipal Stadium's aesthetic shortcomings, Kasten likes the broad strokes of adjustment young players will be forced to make here to help round them into winners in the future.

"Obviously, it was a perfect location because of the proximity to Washington," Kasten said recently via telephone from Atlanta. "So many of our key prospects will be playing in Hagerstown. Fans will be treated when they see the Suns play to be able to see a number of players who will be Washington Nationals in the future."

Kasten knows about winning baseball teams. He was Ted Turner's right-hand man in building the Atlanta Braves into a perennial playoff contender and helped in the construction of Turner Field.

Kasten has vowed to use a similar blueprint in Washington.

The Nationals are in a rebuilding mode. They are trying to revitalize a once-strong team which was tossed on baseball's scrap heap because of a move from Montreal and the lack of independent ownership until last season. Major League Baseball ran the club until real estate businessman Ted Lerner's family and group purchased it.

Now, the Nationals are tossing the deck chairs off the ship and remodeling for the future with the first major port of call coming at the start of the 2008 season. That's when Washington's new stadium on the Anacostia River is scheduled to open, and the Nationals plan to field a winning team when that time comes.

That's where Hagerstown comes into play.

First, the addition of Hagerstown gives the Nationals a halo of minor league teams around Washington. Most players' first full-season stop will be here. Their next stops will likely be in Woodbridge, Va., playing for Potomac in the Single-A Carolina League, then Double-A Harrisburg (Pa.) in the Eastern League.

The Triple-A team is in Columbus, Ohio, but the first three critical instructional locations are all within three hours of Washington.

"It is a positive that our GM can come up and see the players when he wants," Kasten said. "I can get there when I want. Our owner, Ted Lerner, wants to come over when the team is in town to see the players who are coming up. I hope the fans get excited. In the second half, when they get some experience, those players could be showing a lot."

According to Kasten, Hagerstown may have a much larger impact on shaping the future Nationals. It could be the first step in shaping reputable players that baseball counts on to put a good face on the game.

"I think that's why most baseball players have such outstanding conduct, because they have been through the minor leagues," Kasten said. "In other sports, the players join the league and are treated like superstars immediately."

The National Football League is dealing with behavioral problems. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently implemented a code of conduct, and two players - Tennessee's Adam "Pacman" Jones and Cincinnati's Chris Henry - have already felt its sting by being handed long suspensions.

The National Basketball Association has had problems both on and off the court, including brawls that have spilled into the stands.

"In baseball, they understand the people who are the fans because they have lived and played in the same small towns and understand some of the struggles the people have who live there," Kasten said. "All minor league players go through that."

Kasten points to Hagerstown as a prime example of that blue-collar ethic. And even though Municipal Stadium is somewhere between rustic and antique, it becomes the perfect laboratory for Nationals prospects to learn it all.

"Everything we've heard about the minor leagues in Hagerstown has been great," Kasten said. "I know about how old the stadium is, but it's part of the minor league experience. You have to appreciate that. That's the thing that is great to me. But the players have to learn to play in different places and in different conditions.

"So many cities are going out and building stadiums that look like mini major league parks. That's not a genuine minor league experience like our players will get in Hagerstown."

The first group sent to Hagerstown for seasoning is struggling through growing pains, but Kasten promises that there is more talent there than the early stats and record show.

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