The Hagerstown Suns play in a small market and operate out of a facility, Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, that is nearly 90 years old. As a result, they regularly place at or near the bottom in South Atlantic League attendance.
But in any Minor League community -- whether beleaguered, thriving or somewhere in-between -- there are fans who go above and beyond in support of their team. In Hagerstown, this dedication is epitomized by Judy Baker and the volunteer organization over which she presides.
Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, home of the South Atlantic League Suns.
Baker, a retired fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, is president of the Hagerstown Suns Fan Club. This group of ardent boosters supports the Class A Washington Nationals affiliate on a year-round, grassroots level. Recurring Suns Fan Club activities include bat raffles, picnics, clothing donations, offseason get-togethers and, perhaps most notably, sponsoring an annual theme jersey.
On any given night at Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, Baker can be found watching the game from a standing position behind the first base dugout. A folded red blanket, placed on the dugout roof, provides a slight cushion for forearms and elbows over the course of the ballgame. It's a remarkably close vantage point from which to take in the action, indicative of Municipal Stadium's exceedingly intimate environment. The ballpark, consisting of a covered grandstand and bleachers on the first and third base sides, was built in 1930 over an approximately six-week span. Truly, they don't make them like this anymore.
Suns Fan Club president Judy Baker, wearing 2019's Fan Club-sponsored jersey.
"I've been coming here since the '80s," said Baker during Aug. 30's ballgame against the Lakewood BlueClaws. "My daughter [Heidi] was a ballgirl and then she was a batgirl for the Suns during the years that the Orioles were [the Major League affiliate]. She started when she was 9 and, of course, now you can't do that. That's when [manager] Don Buford Sr. was here, and his guys. They were awesome, and I was here all the time. Rain, snow, whatever happened."
Baker's regular ballpark presence led to her getting involved with the Suns Fan Club, which in turn led to her taking on the role of president. Money for the group's activities often comes through game-used-bat raffles. These bats, which in Baker's words are "usually cracked," are often repaired by Fan Club member (and Hagerstown Convention and Visitors Bureau president) Dan Spedden.
"He'll take them home and kind of glue them back together into something presentable and then we send them down [to the clubhouse] to have them signed," said Baker. "It depends on the crowd what kind of money we make. Sometimes it's not a lot, but we don't have a lot invested in it, either. And it's so much fun when you see kids win it. They get so excited."
A portion of the bat raffle proceeds helps to fund the purchase of cold-weather clothing, distributed largely to Latino players who are not used to the snow and freezing rain that can be prevalent during the early months of the season.
"April can be kind of nasty," said Baker. "So I just start watching for sales and have just a big tub of [clothes] and [the players] can pull what they need."
Putting together an annual theme jersey, which is worn by the Suns throughout the season, is one of the Fan Club's most unique and enduring initiatives. The jerseys are a self-perpetuating endeavor; they are auctioned off at the end of the season, with the proceeds funding the purchase of jerseys for the following year.
"We try to tie [the jerseys] into something historical," said Baker. "We've done different anniversaries, like the 10th anniversary of the Nationals [affiliation]. Next year, we'll probably do a 40th anniversary jersey, because it's been that long since [the Suns] came back to the city and started up again."
The 2019 theme jerseys were an homage to the Hagerstown Packets, who competed in the Piedmont League in 1954-55. The name was a reference to the C-82 Packet military transport plane, which was manufactured in Hagerstown by the Fairchild Engine and Airplane Corporation (the city's largest employer at the time). The bright red jerseys featured a stylized red, white and blue "H" on the front and a Hagerstown Packets commemorative logo on the right sleeve.
The Suns wore their Fan Club-sponsored jerseys throughout the 2019 campaign.
"They've been wearing it all season long, just whenever they want to," said Baker. "The previous homestand they wore it, I think, three nights in a row. It's light. It's comfortable."
The Suns wore their Fan Club-funded Packets jerseys for the final time on Aug. 31. As fans entered the ballpark, just after receiving bobbleheads of Hagerstown baseball icon Paul "Ears" McNeal, they encountered a table displaying the jerseys as well as related historical information. Upon the conclusion of the evening's contest -- a victory over the BlueClaws -- the players gamely stood by as the jerseys were auctioned off one by one to fans sitting in the first base bleachers. It was a long process, aided and abetted by the able auctioneering efforts of Suns community relations manager Tom Burtman. In the end, $3,900 was raised. This money will go toward next year's jerseys and, thus, the cycle continues.
It all comes down to the ultimate goal of always being a source of support for the players.
2019 MiLB include
"You see how hard these guys work, and such a small percentage of them actually get to reach that dream of playing in the Majors," said Baker. "Their work ethic is amazing and, I think, a great example for the kids. If you really want something, you have to put the time and effort in."
That philosophy shows in the efforts of the Suns Fans Club, as well as all who dedicate themselves to supporting teams that play in less-than-ideal facilities and circumstances.
"Minor League Baseball gets in your blood," said Baker. "Once you get started, it's hard to pull away from it."