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Suns: Nationals forcing us to move from Hagerstown

Hagerstown SunsThe Hagerstown Suns (Low Class A; Sally League) say they’re leaving Municipal Stadium because of pressure from parent Washington Nationals; meanwhile, Winchester residents aren’t thrilled about new-ballpark plans.

While it’s been no secret the Suns have been in play for several months now, majority owner Bruce Quinn says his group needs a new home for one simple reason: the Washington Nationals and MLB requested Municipal Stadium meet minimum facility requirements in terms of the playing surface and the clubhouse setups — always the areas of the most concerns on the MLB level. Last season the team spent a half-million dollars on a field renovation, only to see the new sod die off because of drainage issues. A clubhouse renovation funded by the city this offseason experienced a setback after problems with water damage.

Municipal Stadium is one of the older ballparks in affiliated baseball, opening in 1931; Willie Mays played minor-league ball there. The ballpark’s condition wasn’t an issue in recent years when the Nats sent Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg there, but there’s certainly no doubt the ballpark either needs a dramatic makeover for the Suns to stay. Drainage has always been an issue, and it’s not one that can be fixed with a simple leveling of the field: the ballpark was built on ground that makes drainage difficult, and any heavy rains will certainly cause a puddle or two in the outfield, particularly the right-field corner. And while the clubhouse situation can be rectified, the ballpark’s relatively small footprint makes expanded clubhouses and workout facilities extremely problematic.

So while there are sentimental reasons to see baseball stay at Municipal Stadium, there are also other considerations here that go beyond the local community. That’s why the city is exploring all options, including a new ballpark; to that end, Ripken Design has been hired to explore ballpark options in Hagerstown, which includes both a renovation fo Municipal Stadium and a potential new downtown ballpark.

While the Suns have signed a letter of intent for a proposed new Winchester (Va.) ballpark, it’s a smart move for Hagerstown to explore ballpark options, because a move of the team is far from assured. Winchester has until April 17 to work out a deal with the Suns, and if feedback from residents about the proposed ballpark is any indication, there could be some serious local opposition. We’ve already written about the proposed lease for a $15-million ballpark — it’s definitely a sweetheart deal, calling for no minimum rent and the city receiving only a portion of gross and ticket revenues to cover debt service — and at a City Council meeting more than 15 residents spoke out against the ballpark deal, saying it could pose a financial problem for the city and diverting scarce parkland to the project.

Some of the ballpark opposition is the standard NIMBY stuff you have associated with any new-ballpark proposal: what will we do about drunken louts streaming from the ballpark after a game, how will we deal with the loss of parkland, etc. But there are some deeper concerns, particularly with a lease that isn’t specific about expected revenues from the team. (We’ve written about the lease here.)

The Council took no action last night; the city’s Economic Development Authority will continue to discuss lease with the Suns and work on the financing. We’ll know the future of pro baseball in Winchester fairly soon: the deadline to reach a deal is April 17.

This story originally appeared in the weekly Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? You can sign up for a free subscription at the Newsletter Signup Page.

RELATED STORIES: Hagerstown Suns sign letter of intent for Winchester move; Hagerstown looking at new ballpark to keep Suns; Winchester preparing to offer $15 million ballpark to Suns; Hagerstown Suns in play


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