Nats officials visit new summer home
by BOB PARASILITI
When it came down to it, Hagerstown's reputation preceded it. The Washington Nationals didn't need to see travel brochures to know they wanted to spend their summers here. All the National League baseball franchise needed was an opportunity to add Hagerstown as one of the rungs in its commitment to become a World Series contender.
"I think it's a huge feather for us to be here in Hagerstown," said former major league catcher Bob Boone, Washington's senior director of player development, to 125 Hagerstown Suns' fan club members Tuesday at the team's annual World Series party at Tony's Italian Restaurant.
The Nationals signed an agreement to make the Suns the team's Single-A affiliate last month. It's a move which could become highly favorable for everyone involved.
"One of the first things we wanted to do was make a push to centralize our affiliations," said Andy Dunn, the Nationals director of player development. "When we found out that Hagerstown was available, we wanted to come to Hagerstown. We had other options, but we wanted to be here."
Hagerstown's checklist was too good for the Nationals to pass up, according to Boone and Dunn. Hagerstown is only 72 miles from the parent club in Washington, allowing the Nationals to keep a close eye on their prospects. Hagerstown is centrally located between Washington's high Single-A team in Potomac, Va., and its Double-A team in Harrisburg, Pa. Hagerstown has a reputation for being a rabid baseball town with serious fans. And to top it off just maybe, Hagerstown's "Hub City" nickname played into Washington's thinking.
"We were looking to bring everything closer to the hub," Boone said, referring to the Washington home base. "A lot of things can happen, but this gives our development guys the chance to come around without having to fly all over."
Hagerstown is now another piece in Washington's grand plan. It starts with the rule of the Nationals' new owners, the Lerner family, and is embodied by the team's new president, Stan Kasten.
"From the ownership on down, we want to become the gold standard of a franchise," Dunn said. "We are committed to it. When it comes to players, we want to stay in house. In the long run, it will pay off. Stan is coming from the Atlanta Braves, where they built from within and didn't go out for free agents. He has a great track record."
That means the Suns will field young teams that Hagerstown fans can fall in love with. In turn, the players eventually will play in Washington, allowing the fans to keep their bond.
"We are here to start developing players who will be playing in D.C.," Dunn said. "Not players who will be stopping at Double-A."
Boone said the Nationals are signing minor league free agents to fill the roster at the Triple-A level. It will allow Washington to keep its younger talent lower in the system. The plan is to build toward the 2008 season, when Washington's new stadium opens.
"The Lerners are insisting on taking their money right now and putting it into player development," Boone said. "To build a franchise, you have to get your development rolling. Then, in 2008 when the stadium opens, we will have the funds to become major players."
Hagerstown probably will be the starting home for two of Washington's brightest prospects.
"We had two first-round picks last year - Chris Marrero and Colton Willems. Both of them will be here next season. Since we gave them a lot of money, there will probably be a lot of executives here to watch them."
Marrero, a third baseman, and Willems, a pitcher, both are 17 years old. Washington also had two second-round picks.
"The good thing about struggling in the majors is that you get a lot of high picks," Boone said. "Our system has been down. It's got nowhere to go but up."
Dunn said the Nationals are interviewing possible managers for the Suns. No matter who is in the dugout, he promises one thing.
"We'll play hard, aggressive baseball," he said. "We'll play a full nine innings."
"When it comes down to how they play, winning is important. It's a big part, but there are things we want them to do," Boone said. "I have a huge thing about them playing the right way."
And with the right circumstances, the Nationals plan to make Hagerstown their summer home for many years.
"This is a marriage we are looking forward to," Boone said.