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Suns-Nationals affiliation gives fans a boost

September 26, 2007|By BOB PARASILITI

Hagerstown has become a center of National attention.

Civil War buffs know about Antietam National Battlefield and music enthusiasts recognize that The Maryland Theatre houses the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

But for true National attention, head to Municipal Stadium for a baseball game.

That's the home stadium of the Hagerstown Suns, a member of the Single-A South Atlantic League. The Suns are the newest addition to the Washington Nationals baseball family.

In Hagerstown - and for the Nationals - it is a match made in heaven.

For the Nationals, the addition of Hagerstown means Washington has farm teams in Woodbridge, Va., Harrisburg, Pa., and Hagerstown. Not only are all of the outlets close enough to give Nationals officials the opportunity to watch their prospects firsthand, it also helps create a fan base in the suburbs for the National League team.

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For the Suns, it is a local affiliation its fans have wanted for 15 years. When Hagerstown in 1981 became one of 150 areas to house a full-season, major-league affiliated minor league baseball team, the Suns were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. After 12 years, the Orioles moved their Double-A Eastern League franchise, opening the door for the South Atlantic League in 1993.

Since then, the Suns have been affiliated with the Toronto Blue Jays, the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets. Washington brought the Suns "home" in 2007.

The Nationals affiliation has Washington sending many of its top prospects to Hagers-town to groom them for future play in the major leagues. Hagerstown represents the first of four full-season steps to get to the majors for a player.

In addition to the game, baseball provides inexpensive entertainment opportunities.

It costs $7 for a general admission ticket to a baseball game. But for that price, a fan can watch young, upcoming players learn the game, be a guest public address announcer or scoreboard operator, catch a foul ball, win a between-innings contest, eat an array of picnic foods and receive a giveaway such as a cap or T-shirt.

Minor league organizations search for new and different ways to wrap other entertainment around the games.

The Suns' front office has been recognized for the originality of its unique giveaway items and wacky promotions over the years. They drew national media attention one year by giving away a funeral.

The Suns are in the Guinness World Records book for having the youngest-ever radio broadcaster for a game, having the first all-Japanese broadcast team for an American game and having the most barefoot people in an area during a Shoeless Joe Jackson Day.

Perhaps the biggest day in Suns history was Aug. 9, 2004, when the team and the city welcomed back all-time Giants great and Hall of Fame member Willie Mays to town. Mays played his first-ever professional game at Municipal Stadium in 1952.

Another key component for the Suns is a family atmosphere. Suns players read stories and children can run the bases after Sunday games. Other times, they allow families on the field after a game to play a game of catch.

During the week, other promotions are Feed-Your-Face Monday, at which fans can get an all-you-can-eat meal provided by local restaurants and the concession stand, along with a ticket to the game, for $10. There is also Thirsty Thursday, which features reduced-price beverages.

There are bobblehead doll giveaways - this year, the Suns gave out one honoring author Nora Roberts - and 14 post-game fireworks shows.

But if baseball is the only reason for going to the ballpark, there are 70 incentives a year. The Single-A level gives fans a chance to meet the young players. Some get autographs of players who might make it to the majors some day.

There are 31 former Hagerstown Suns players in the majors, and a countless number of players who have played here on their way to the majors.

New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, Toronto outfielders Vernon Wells and Alexis Rios (who finished second in the 2007 All-Star Home Run Derby), and Texas shortstop Michael Young all are former Suns players.

This season, outfielders Chris Marrero, Justin Maxwell and Mike Daniel all were earmarked to play in Washington in the near future.

Derek Jeter, Jim Thome and C.C. Sabathia are among the Major League household names who have played here against the Suns.

Fans who really want to be part of the team can join the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club. Members of the fan-run organization give support to the players as they move into town for the season.

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