Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stars for the Suns: Game 48 in Hagerstown

It’s not often that you can say that a class A level team has drawing power because of a renowned player on its roster.  Players with high promise and profiles usually progress quickly to more advanced leagues.  But the Hagerstown Suns have been fortunate in their affiliation with the Washington Nationals who, because of their ineptitude on the field in recent years, have enjoyed premier selections in Major League Baseball’s drafts. 

The popularity of the Suns is suggested by the line of fans a half hour before gates open for the game.

For the first few months of this season, the Suns basked in the starlight of Bryce Harper, the number one draft pick in 2010.  At the unusually early age of 17, Harper became eligible for the draft because he had completed his GED the previous year and had enrolled in the College of Southern Nevada in order to play at the collegiate level.  There he had competed in a wood-bats league where he was named the Player of the Year while setting school offensive records by hitting above .400 and averaging a homerun every other game.  Following his incredible performance there, he signed with the Nationals.  He started this season slowly with the Suns but caught fire after getting contact lenses, and when I sang for Hagerstown he was headed to the South Atlantic League’s All-Star game as one of its leaders in batting average and home runs.
Because the weekend game between the host Suns and the Delmarva Shorebirds supported breast cancer awareness and research, the players wore pink jerseys, each of which would then be offered in a blind auction to raise money for breast cancer research.  Harper’s jersey, of course, promised to create frenzied activity and a whopping winning bid.  But Harper also wore pink shoes, the only player to be so creative.  Prior to the game, which he sat out because of a slightly injured wrist, I teased him playfully about the shoes, pointing to them, nodding my head while smirking and raising an eyebrow, and then gesturing “thumbs up.”  He smiled in return.


Harper's bid-fetching shoes.
 Following my anthem rendition, he walked to the opposite end of the dugout to shake my hand.  I felt like an all-star, even if in a league very different from his.  It also gave me a moment to share a bit of fun.  Before the game, fans had petitioned him for autographs, calling out time and again, “Bryce.  Hey Bryce!”  Each time, I instinctively turned, thinking they were calling out “Price, hey, Price,” and wondering who would be calling me at Hagerstown!  He laughed at my presumptive mis-hearing. 
The Suns’ introduction of my anthem performance mentioned simply my name, which was a bit of disappointment to several of Bonnie’s friends who had driven up from the Washington area to see the game and hear me sing.  Since they were not attentive baseball fans, they weren’t aware that they were missing seeing Harper play, especially because Kevin Keyes, his replacement in right field, hit two homeruns and a double, propelling the Suns to a 7-3 win over the Shorebirds. 
Seated near us in the grandstands was a retired couple who groaned each time the Keyes launched a shot. Paul Lasky and his wife Janet had come to the game from their home in Montgomery County to socialize with their nephew, Delmarva’s play-by-play announcer Bret Lasky.   

Jantet Lasky hugging Woolie.
 A few days earlier, Janet had retired from teaching for more than 30 years, and she celebrated her new retired freedom with another hug of congratulations from the Suns’ mascot Woolie.  When the Laskys found out that I’d be singing the following week at Frederick, Paul indicated that he’d come to that game too, which he did.  Paul also graciously set up the possibility of my meeting with Bret when I was scheduled to sing for Delmarva’s day game in late June.  Regrettably, that was one of the two performances that I had to cancel when Arby blew his alternator hours before near Farmville, Virginia.
Surprisingly, the concessions at Hagerstown offered a most extensive array of foods and concoctions than the first fifty ballparks of my season.  One stand proved particularly alluring.  It featured buffalo burgers, country ham sandwiches, and an inventive sandwich called a Roller Burger.  Richard Hollsinger, a sixth generation butcher and chef, created a rolled “hamburger” made of ground chuck, grated cheddar cheese, salt and pepper—a mixture that he then stuffed into a sausage case and smoked.  Shortly before serving, then, he grilled the Roller Burger.  Even though I have tried to minimize my consumption of ballpark foods, particularly ordinary ones, I couldn’t resist trying the Roller Burger, which was quite good: lean and somewhat smoky, with a pleasantly chewy texture like kielbasa. 
The Hollsingers also cater the meals for the Suns’ players, who favor the lasagna, pork tenderloin, and green beans.  “Green beans?” I intoned as a question. “What’s your secret?  Why do they like them so much?”  “Must be the country ham that we add to them,” Richard replied.  That’s it: green beans, Southern style.
Capitalizing on Hagerstown’s affiliation with the Nationals, another of the food kiosks featured “The All-Angus Stephen StrasBurger,” named in honor of the fastballing phenom who had set a record for initial contracts when he signed with Washington for $15.5M.  In his inaugural season with the Nationals, Strasburg suffered a career-threatening elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and a year’s physical therapy.  Six weeks after my appearance for the Suns, he was scheduled to make his first rehab start in Hagerstown.
A third distinct concession menu could be found at Hartle’s Fry Tent, which offered everything fried except for its wings and sodas.  Hagerstown was the second ballpark where I had found fried Oreos available, and the first to offer fried Twinkies and candy bars.  About the only missing possibility was fried frog legs, which could double the fun or fear of frying by calling a single serving “A Fried Fry.”  Now if its sale could be restricted to Fridays: Okay, you can tell that my mind was about fried as I surveyed these possibilities.
For devotees, heaven might be identified as "the sweet fry and fry."
For the past thirty years, the Hagerstown minor league teams have been known as the Suns, even while their affiliation shifted from one franchise to another and while their league and level changed from Carolina to Eastern to South Atlantic.  Earlier teams in the 20th century had been known as the Hubs, the Owls, the Braves, and the Packets while the quality of teams improved from Class D in the Blue Ridge League before the Great Depression to Class B for the Interstate and Piedmont Leagues in the early 50s.
Although the earliest Hagerstown team began its play in another ballpark, it inaugurated Municipal Stadium in 1930 after the ballpark was built in 6 weeks, and all subsequent Hagerstown teams have called the stadium their home.  Before the end of World War II, the ballpark also hosted several games for Negro League teams, including the Indianapolis Clowns, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, and the Homestead Grays.  While some improvements have been made over the years, the ballpark retains its intimate and vintage character.
The historic significance of the ballpark is noted with posters of bygone teams and prominent players on walls near the concession stands.  The team also posts retired numbers above the bullpen bench, including number 24 for Willie Mays.   Although Mays never played for Hagerstown, he played his first professional game there on June 24, 1950 for the Trenton Giants, who took the field against Hagerstown's Class B Braves, then in the Interstate League.

The Suns' bullpen beneath the retired numbers.

The classic and personal character of the ballpark is displayed in multiple ways throughout the ballpark.  Near the entry to the grandstand, a white board with homey printing recognized and greeted community groups attending the game. 

The Suns' welcome board.
The scoreboard in left field is hand operated and features numbers that are hung inning by inning.  And in the grandstands, tribute is paid not merely to Hall of Fame players and historic accomplishments, a sign in front of Section C indicated that, in memory of long-time season ticket holder and devout Suns’ fan Fred Ziegler, that section will also be known as Section Z.


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