Sunday, September 8, 2013
Tomorrow night at Municipal Stadium the Hagerstown Suns and the Savannah Sand Gnats will begin playing for the South Atlantic League Championship. As the two teams compete for the league's top prize, their matchup will bring an end to a long drought in the SAL. Game one of the Championship Series will mark the first time since 2004 that the Sand Gnats and Suns have played each other.
One has to wonder how two teams in the same league do not square off for nine years, which would've have become 10 if not for the championship (the Sand Gnats and Suns are not scheduled to play each other in 2014). As it stands, the SAL is one of the least geographically-compact circuits in Minor League Baseball. The league's most northern city (Lakewood) is over 780 miles from Savannah, while Rome, GA is over 830 miles from Lakewood.
To alleviate travel burdens, MiLB has the 500-mile rule, which states that teams must have an off day if they are traveling 500+ miles. In order to fit the 140 games into the stretch from the first Thursday in April to Labor Day, leagues have to limit the number of geographically-long road trips throughout the season. This is why Lakewood and Delmarva are frequent opponents at Municipal Stadium; yet, Greenville (2011), Charleston (2010), and Savannah have not played a game in Hagerstown in multiple years.
Technicalities aside, a lot has changed since the Sand Gnats and Suns last played each other. Here's a look back at what was unfolding in Hagerstown, Savannah, and the rest of the SAL in 2004:
Beginning on Saturday, April 24, the Hagerstown Suns (San Francisco Giants) faced the Savannah Sand Gnats (Montreal Expos) at Grayson Stadium for a four-game set. The Suns were finishing an eight-game road trip that began with a series against the Charleston River Dogs (Tampa Bay Devil Rays), who featured the league's most hyped prospect in 18-year old Delmon Young.
The Suns and Sand Gnats split the series, which included a Suns' victory over the Sand Gnats' most prized prospect, right-hander Clint Everts. Nate Schierholtz, Travis Ishikawa, Roger Bernadina, and Jason Bergmann were among the future major leaguers to appear in the series. Both teams would struggle that season, with the Sand Gnats finishing 58-80 and the Suns losing a franchise-record 88 games.
Elsewhere in the SAL, the Hickory Crawdads (Pittsburgh Pirates) defeated the Capital City Bombers (New York Mets) for the league championship, while the River Dogs and Charleston Alley Cats (Toronto Blue Jays) each earned playoff appearances. Despite finishing 69-69, the Columbus Catfish (Los Angeles Dodgers) produced 12 future major leaguers, with the most notable of which being Matt Kemp. The Crawdads featured 9, including Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, Matt Capps, and Njyer Morgan. Other notable players in the SAL that season included Nick Markakis (Delmarva), Michael Bourn (Lakewood), Dustin Pedroia (Augusta), and Gio Gonzalez (Kannapolis).
Following that season, the Bombers became an affiliate of the Boston Red Sox and moved to Greenville, where they eventually became the Drive. The Suns and Giants ended their four-year pairing, with the Suns signing on with the Mets and Giants heading to Augusta. There were changes for both the River Dogs (New York Yankees) and the Alley Cats, who christened their new stadium in 2005 by becoming the West Virginia Power (Milwaukee Brewers). The Sand Gnats remained an affiliate of the Expos as the latter became the Washington Nationals, which helped set the stage for the fall of 2006, when the Nationals came to Hagerstown and the Mets to Savannah.