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Leaders still striking out with stadium

February 19, 2012

Local leaders have launched about as many plans for a new baseball stadium as Helen of Troy launched ships. Over the past 15 years, there have been a plethora of proposals, ultimatums, architectural plans, back-room meetings, funding mechanisms — and absolutely no results.

Some might have to limber up their memories, but there was a time when pro baseball in Hagerstown was big. Led by the crazies of Section H, the old ballpark swayed at night when the Class AA Orioles affiliate took the field.

Who could forget Ben MacDonald, the Orioles’ most celebrated draft pick ever, giving up a grand slam over the right field fence in his debut. Glenn Davis, he of the effortless swing, cleared the same fence during a rehab stint a couple of years later. Rehab became about the only thing Davis ever did for the O’s, while the players for whom he was traded — Curt Schilling, Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch — went on to better things.

Twenty years ago, the owner of that team pulled an Irsay and took the franchise to Bowie. That was the first blow, even though we quickly got a Class A team in return. But baseball here has never really been the same.

It is becoming evident that a key part of the problem is that community leadership has spent the past two decades running hot and cold on minor league baseball in Hagerstown. How can citizens give their hearts to a team knowing it might not be around next season?

Of our current leaders, we would excuse Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II from this indictment; he is the one office holder who knows what he wants and has stuck his neck out in support of a new or greatly improved stadium. That’s leadership.

Practically everyone else involved has performed an awkward dance, seemingly not wanting to be blamed for spending money on a stadium, while at the same time not wanting to be blamed for being so inept as to lose the team.

The most damning example of poor local performance is the recollection that more than a decade ago, our state lawmakers approved a funding mechanism to pay to support tourism out of the local hotel-motel tax. It was heavily discussed at the time that a large chunk of the tax could be directed toward building a new stadium. The commissioners instead spent the money elsewhere.

And, today, the city has no new stadium.

Once again, talk of a new stadium has surfaced, with some semblance of a plan to pay for it as well. One possible site could include The Herald-Mail’s parking lot and the adjacent Baltimore Street Station Car Wash. While the details have yet to be revealed, we would urge this of stadium supporters in and out of government: Put the best offer forward and push for it aggressively. If this effort fails, then maybe Washington County just isn’t made of the stuff it takes to field a professional team.

We would also urge those on both sides of the argument to take a close look at the city’s East End, where the crumbling monuments are adding up. Soon the old hospital will be a vacant lot; the Municipal Electric Light Plant is a mess; and the old First Urban Fiber plant, once hailed as “the project of a generation,” sits idle.

To add an empty Municipal Stadium to the mix should be something about which every local office holder should be ashamed. Right now, baseball might be the best chance we have of completing a project successfully. Opponents of stadiums paid for, in part, with tax dollars certainly have a strong argument that many agree with. But it should not be enough to fight the stadium; we would urge those in the habit of saying no to find a development initiative to which they can say yes. At this point, the well-being of those who live in the East End, if not the whole city, depends on it.

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