MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

The Maryland Stadium Authority wants to build a $70 million ballpark in Hagerstown so the city can gain another professional baseball team in 2024.

The ballpark would be built on a parcel of land on Baltimore Street and the MSA has bought a laundromat, a Washington County government building and the old Herald-Mail newspaper building. All that’s left to purchase is the Hagerstown Auto Spa, which has not yet agreed to terms with the stadium authority, although, according to the Baltimore Sun, there is a sign in the shop of the car wash that says it will soon close, so a deal is expected.

Beginning in 2024, the multipurpose stadium’s primary tenant is to be a team in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, but it would host other events within the Hagerstown community as well.

From the late-1970s until 2020, the Hagerstown Suns provided Hagerstown with its most recent professional baseball, serving as a minor-league affiliate to a number of Major League teams, including the Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays and, most recently, the Washington Nationals. However, the Suns, along with the Frederick Keys and 40 other teams across the country, were eliminated when MLB shrank its minor league system.

The new team, which will be owned by Hagerstown Baseball LLC and will be named next year, won’t be affiliated with a particular major league club. The Atlantic League is independent of MLB’s minor league system, but is a partner of MLB, as new rules such as robot umpires, pitch clocks and larger bases are regularly tested in the league.

The Atlantic League and independent leagues like it do not provide a pipeline to the MLB, as the rosters are mainly filled with veteran professional players and some former big-league players who are still trying to get a look or merely trying to stay in the game.

In fact, Allegany High’s Aaron Laffey had two stints in the Atlantic League, pitching for Somerset, Pa. in 2017, then in Mexico, before signing on with the New York Mets and pitching for Triple A Las Vegas. Laffey returned to Somerset in 2018 before retiring from baseball, having put up a 3-1 record and 2.98 ERA while in the Atlantic League.

The Atlantic League’s current teams are located in Somerset, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Waldorf.

The new ballpark in Hagerstown is expected to have a capacity of 5,000, but won’t have that many seats, as there will be picnic tables and other social areas for fans to watch the games from. The stadium will fit into the downtown social setting as well, as it will be within a half-mile of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, The Maryland Theatre and Washington County’s Fine Arts Museum.

A lot of familiar faces, including those of many of our own local high school, junior college and American Legion players played in old Municipal Stadium, which was built in 1930 and was the site of Hall of Famer Willie Mays’ professional debut in 1950. Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer pitched a rehab assignment there late in his career. Many of the Orioles who played in the big leagues in the mid to late-1980s such as Jim Traber, Larry Sheets and Bill Ripken played there, as did Bryce Harper and the core of the outstanding Washington Nationals teams when they were minor leaguers.

Laffey played many games at Municipal for Allegany High and for Fort Cumberland Post 13. A lot of guys from Allegany County played there; a lot of guys from all over the state played there.

Former Allegany great Francis Mouse said, “My biggest memory of Municipal is Harold Baines hitting a ball over the center-field wall off of me (in the 1976 Maryland State Legion Tournament). That’s what I remember. My neck still hurts from following it over that big wall out there …”

Harold Baines, who is now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, played for the Jr. Legion team from St. Michael’s on the Eastern Shore. The center-field wall in Municipal was about 410 feet from home plate. It was also about 30 feet high. Great as he was, Mouse’s neck should still hurt.

“The ball still hasn’t come down yet,” Mouse said rather nonchalantly on Tuesday evening.

Sadly, though, as it always is with ballparks, this one’s time had long since passed by those times, which was long a point of contention for the Suns’ ownership group, which, of course, wanted a new more modern ballpark.

If you saw any games there you were, of course, familiar with the way the land dipped in the right-field outfield, which, naturally, gave the Nationals’ front office great cause for concern when Harper, their multi-million-dollar star of the future, had to play out there.

Once the Suns were eliminated by MLB, Municipal was torn down this year. Upon completion, the new facility will be owned and operated by the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, a nonprofit.

Maybe Municipal Stadium in Hagerstown didn’t seem like much to a lot of mopes out there today, but it sure was meaningful for a lot of folks in Hagerstown and a lot of folks in the state of Maryland and who knows where else, thanks to the Suns.

The new ballpark/stadium/community events center, or whatever these things are called now, will be welcome with open arms. But in a weird, dippy (right-field) way, creaky and leaky Municipal Stadium in ole’ Hagerstown will never be forgotten by a whole lot more of us.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT