WASHINGTON – Gary Thurman sat behind home plate in a rickety seat at Hagerstown’s Municipal Stadium, where another outfielder by the name of Willie Mays made his debut in organized baseball some 70 years ago.
Thurman, then and now an outfield/baserunning coordinator in player development with the Washington Nationals, had come to Hagerstown for this midweek day game in April 2018 to watch a young minor leaguer named Juan Soto.
“He has good work habits,” Thurman, a former Major League outfielder, told me that day about Soto. “He just needs to play. He is well beyond his years in a lot of ways.”
Thurman was oh so right. A few weeks later, Soto was promoted from Double-A Harrisburg to the Nationals Park – and you know the rest of the story.
On that day in 2018, Soto fouled off five breaking pitches in a row from a tough lefty before lining out to left field with the bases loaded for the final out of the game in a Hagerstown loss.
After that game, when a translator didn’t show up, Soto told me he would do an interview in English with the Suns getting ready to head out on a road trip.
“I just want to do my job,” said Soto, when asked about getting promoted to another level.
“That is up to the Nationals decide.”
The hitting, fielding – and English – kept getting better for Soto, now one of the top hitters in the majors.
He was one of several future stars that I covered off and on for nearly 35 years at the Hub City – the nickname for Hagerstown with a nod to its railroad past.
I was there in 2011 for one of the first games that another outfielder, Bryce Harper, played for the Suns.
I met his mother back of home plate and requested some photos of his youth for a national magazine – I am still waiting for the pics.
Some promising prospects just didn’t pan out.
Colten Willems was a first-round pick in 2006 by the Nationals out of his Florida high school.
I interviewed him in 2008 when he was part of Hagerstown’s starting rotation.
He was back in low Single-A Hagerstown two years later. In his last pro season, he posted an ERA of 9.49 with Hagerstown in 2010. In 51 games in the minors he had an ERA of 5.31.
Another promising pitcher I met in Hagerstown was lefty Nick Raquet, a third-round pick out of William & Mary by Washington in 2017. The next year he was in Hagerstown but he was released by the Nationals after the 2019 season.
Now it appears the Nationals will no longer have Hagerstown as a farm team, as the Suns reportedly informed fans Hagerstown would not be a farm team for Washington in 2021.
Hagerstown has been in the South Atlantic League since 1993 and has been an affiliate of the Nationals since 2007.
Baseball America reported last year Major League Baseball plans to trim the number of minor league teams from 160 to 120 for next year.
And recently BA reported MLB hopes to make a final decision on the minors by early December.
But for baseball fans in the Baltimore-Washington region, minor league baseball has had a connection to the region before the Nationals moved to the nation’s capital in 2005.
Hagerstown was an affiliate of the Orioles from 1982-92.
My first trip to Municipal Stadium came in 1982 when I was a student at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
I made the trek up I-81 to Hagerstown with some college friends to watch a promising outfielder named Larry Sheets, who had been drafted by the Orioles in 1978 out of what is now Staunton High in Virginia.
(The O’s picked another high school player that year from the region: Cal Ripken, Jr. from Aberdeen, Maryland).
Sheets tore up the Carolina League in 1982, hitting moonshots onto the tennis courts beyond the right-field fence at Municipal Stadium.
A lefty swinger, Sheets hit 18 homers in just 88 games that year for Hagerstown. He made it to the majors in 1984 and was the Orioles’ MVP three years later.
A few years later, starting in 1989, the Orioles also had a farm team in Frederick – just over the mountain from Hagerstown.
President and Yale baseball player George H. W. Bush, a friend of nearby Camp David in mountains of Maryland, took in a game in Hagerstown in 1990.
Around that time I had an idea: how many Orioles’ teams could a person see play in the same day?
I checked the schedules and came up with the trifecta. My friend and I watched the first inning in Hagerstown, drove east on I-70 and caught a few innings at Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick and then rushed to 33rd Street in Baltimore towards Memorial Stadium. (It had to be 1990 or 1991, since the last year at Memorial Stadium was 1991 and the first year of Harry Grove was 1990).
The lights were glowing at the old ballyard in northeast Baltimore as we parked my car behind the right-field fence.
It was so late in the game we walked in without a ticket and didn’t have to pay.
We caught the last few innings and achieved our goal: three games in one evening in the state of Maryland involving the Orioles and two of their farm teams. I wrote a story for Baseball America about the trip, making sure to point out the extended mileage of my Dodge Colt.
And the trip began in Hagerstown. And now it appears the Hub City, home to farm teams of the Jays, Giants, and Mets before the Nationals came to town, may no longer have a minor league team of its own.