Summer Collegiate : : Story
Monday, June 11, 2012

Bethesda honored as top '11 team

Allan Simpson        
Photo: Cal Ripken League

Bethesda Fails to Live Up to Form, Falls 15-0 in 2012 Home Opener

BETHESDA, Md.—They were there in record numbers, ready to embrace this year’s version of the Bethesda Big Train. But the overflow crowd that was on hand Friday night for the Big Train’s home opener came largely to bask in the afterglow of their team’s stunning success of 2011.

The scripted T-shirts that most in attendance wore said it all: 2011 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS / Bethesda Big Train.

With Perfect Game on hand to join in on the festive occasion and formally recognize the Big Train as the nation’s No. 1 summer-college league team, the mood in and around intimate Shirley Povich Field was decidedly upbeat in pre-game ceremonies that acknowledged the team’s amazing accomplishment of a year ago, when it went 36-9 overall, handily won the Cal Ripken League regular-season and post-season championships, and finished No. 1 in the country as every contender in its path bit the dust in post-season play.

What the franchise-record crowd of 1,328 didn’t expect to see, though, was a 15-0 thrashing the defending national champions absorbed at the hands of the Rockville Express. Not only was the one-sided setback entirely unexpected, given the team’s recent success, but it was one of the worst losses in the Big Train’s decorated 14-year history, and their third straight to open the 2012 season.

I’ve never seen anything this embarrassing, and we’ve got more than 1,300 here to see it,” mumbled Bruce Adams, one of the team’s co-founders.

Despite the anticipated return of several key members of last year’s championship team, most of those players had yet to rejoin the Big Train this season and the lineup it fielded for its home opener wasn’t a reasonable facsimile of the team that it will field once the reinforcements are all in place. It certainly didn’t look like the team that won with machine-like precision a year ago.

We’re still missing a lot of our key players, for any number of reasons,” lamented Big Train field manager Sal Colangelo. “We’ve had to improvise with the ones that are here, playing a lot of them out of position, even using pitchers in the outfield. It’s a very patchwork team, but we’ll be okay once everyone arrives.”

Among those slated to return to the Big Train lineup in the new few days are catcher/righthander Hunter Renfroe (Mississippi State), the top-ranked prospect in the Cal Ripken League a year ago and a potential first-rounder in 2013; and third baseman Adam Barry, the reigning league MVP who set numerous league records a year ago, including for highest single-season batting average (.414) and RBIs (43). A Cal State Northridge product with his college degree already in hand, Barry was hoping to be drafted last week as a fourth-year junior, but wasn’t and has since consented to return to Bethesda.

Last year’s staff ace, righthander Matt Bowman (Princeton), was actually in the house Friday night, but was there in street clothes as he stopped by only to share in the team’s celebration and offer a few good-byes as he was on his way that night to sign a contract with the New York Mets.

Bowman was among eight former Big Train players selected in last week’s draft, chief among them righthanders Martin Agosta (St. Mary’s/Calif.) and Tucker Donahue (Stetson), selected in the second and fourth rounds. Bowman was a 13
th-rounder. All pitchers, they anchored a dominant Big Train pitching staff a year ago that posted a collective 2.40 ERA. Unfortunately, none was available to pitch for the Big Train on Friday night as Rockville banged out 19 hits in its one-sided triumph.

We’ve pretty much got everyone coming back this year that is eligible to come back,” said Colangelo, an athletic director at a local high school who has been with the team since its inception in 1999, the last eight as the team’s field manager. “With all the success we’ve had here and the way we treat our players, we have players wanting to return for a second year, and even a third, instead of looking elsewhere to play. In terms of facility, the housing for players, the way our fans embrace the team, the way we do everything in a first-class manner, we provide as good a summer-league experience as any team in the country.

As I said a year ago, we felt our team, especially with the depth we had on our pitching staff, was good enough to compete with any team in summer baseball, even those in the upper echelon of the Cape Cod League, and I still believe that. Once we get everyone back this year, I think this team will have a chance to be as good as last year’s club.

It was hard to tell that, based on a one-game snapshot Friday, but a trip to Bethesda was all about what the Big Train accomplished in 2011 and before, not what it hasn’t accomplished to date this year.

Both the Bethesda Big Train and the cozy, immaculate facility the team plays in, Shirley Povich Field, are a direct reflection of the rich baseball history in the area, stemming back to the heyday of the old Washington Senators.

The park is named after the prolific and beloved former sports editor of the Washington Post, who covered baseball—his true passion—from the days of Walter Johnson to Cal Ripken in a career than spanned some 75 years. Povich covered the lone World Series ever won by the Senators, in 1924, and wrote his final column for the Post the day before he died in June of 1998, at age 92.

The team’s nickname, the Big Train, is a take off on Johnson’s nickname from his playing days with the Senators. Johnson won 417 games (second-most in history behind Cy Young) in a 21-year big-league career that spanned from 1907-27, all spent with the Senators, and lived all the while in Bethesda, near the same high school that bears his name. After Johnson’s playing career ended, he continued to reside in Bethesda for years and even served as an elected member of the Board of Commissioners of Montgomery County.

Appropriately, there are large tributes to both Povich and Johnson in the stadium concourse.

The inspiration to build a new ball park in Bethesda that would capture the essence of what Povich and Johnson meant to the area at a time when big-league baseball had been gone from Washington for more than 25 years,
came from Adams, who has been active in Montgomery County politics himself for a number of years and had an indirect link to both Povich and Johnson.

Adams became the driving force in the late 1990s behind both the construction of Shirley Povich Field and formation of the Big Train. Along with his partner, John Ourisman, Adams spearheaded the organization’s initial fund-raising efforts and remains with the team to this day in his capacity as team president.

His son Hugh, a righthander at Florida Atlantic University who red-shirted this spring with a back injury, has also been an integral part of the Big Train as he made his first pitching appearance for the team at age 16 and has pitched on and off for the Big Train for the last seven seasons.

Originally a member of the long-standing but since-disbanded Clark Griffith League, the Big Train bolted for the more-progressive Cal Ripken League when that league was founded in 2005, and has since become the league’s flagship franchise after winning the last three league championships. The team has never had a losing record in 13 years, though it came close with a .500 mark in 2001, the same year the previous attendance high of 1,326 was achieved. That mark was set in response to a major feature article on the team in the local Washington Post.

Bethesda, a loosely-defined community of some 60,000 located immediately to the northwest of Washington, D.C., is one of the most-affluent and highly-educated areas in the country. It once placed first in
Forbes’ Magazine’s list of America's most-educated small towns, and first on's list of top-earning American towns.

With such affluence at their disposal, Adams and Ourisman set out to tap into their share. They sought donations in all shapes and sizes, from donors both large and small. In all, their fund-raising efforts netted upwards of $1.5 million in real dollars, and they generated as much, if not more, in donated labor and materials from local construction companies to facilitate the construction of a charming, 800-seat facility for the fledgling Big Train that has served as their home field for the last 14 years and is also the spring-time home for Georgetown University’s baseball team.

Among those who contributed $500 to the cause and has his name etched on one of the donor bricks on the wall at the front of the stadium is Mike McCurry, the one-time press secretary of former president Bill Clinton and an avowed baseball fan.

Adams’ vision for a new ball park came from his passion for traveling extensively around the country in the mid-90s to see baseball facilities of all kinds, mostly at the major- and minor-league levels, and then writing about his experiences, with the assistance of his wife Peggy, a metro writer at the Washington Post at the time. Their work would appear frequently in the Post’s travel section, and even led to a book the two co-authored, Fodor’s Baseball Vacations, a travel guide for baseball vacations.

Ultimately, the unique features of Shirley Povich Field were a collaboration of ideas taken from Baltimore’s Camden Yards, to Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field, to various minor-league parks around the country, notably those in nearby Bowie and Frederick.

Though Adams met the esteemed Povich only once and never did meet Johnson, who died in 1946, he made it a point to honor both Washington baseball legends. As he was raising funds to fulfill his dream of building a ball park in Bethesda, he sought out a connection to Povich and crossed paths with the recently-deceased Hall of Fame writer in a way that inadvertently led to the stadium being named in his honor.

At the behest of a Washington Post colleague of his wife’s that knew Shirley Povich well, it was suggested that Adams attempt to reach out to Maury Povich, a nationally-known talk show host and the son of Shirley, to assist in providing funds for a new stadium. Adams subsequently arranged a meeting with the younger Povich, and indicated that he was looking for a donation in the order of $100,000. Povich not only balked at that amount, but initially chastised Adams for having the nerve to ask for a handout of that size.

Povich soon realized, however, that there might be something tangible to be gained by accommodating Adams, and rallied to the cause. He quickly coughed up a personal check in the amount of $25,000, and helped the persistent Adams raise the amount he originally sought by committing two of his associates to ante up $25,000 apiece. He then suggested that Adams tap into the remaining $25,000 by approaching the colleague of Povich’s late father that had recommended him as a potential donor in the first place. It worked, and the $100,000 was raised. For his part, Povich suggested to Adams that the new field be named in honor of his late father, and Adams was more than receptive to the idea.

Unfortunately, Shirley Povich never saw the facility that was named in his honor as he died a year before the first Big Train game was ever played there.

Adams’ link to Johnson had more of a personal connection as he recalls his father telling him how Johnson, when he was pitching for the Senators, would pick him up every day for three years, take him to Senators games with him and even allow him to sit in the team’s dugout. That act of kindness left a lasting impression on Adams, and the Big Train became an appropriate nickname for his new summer-league club.

So caught up was Adams last summer at his team’s chances of winning a mythical national title that he would track the progress of every one of Bethesda’s chief contenders for a No. 1 ranking on a nightly basis for several weeks, before and after the Big Train finished its season in early August. The Big Train was ranked No. 3 nationally at the time.

Once Adams realized, heading into the final night of the 2011 summer season, that all that stood between his team, which had moved to No. 2 by then, and a top ranking was the fate of the No. 1-ranked team, the Edenton Steamers of the Coastal Plain League, he drove down to remote Edenton on the North Carolina coast to watch for himself as the Steamers, with a No. 1 ranking all but sewed up, inexplicably lost twice on the final night of the CPL playoffs to relinquish the top spot to Bethesda.

I made myself pretty obscure there, outside of the Bethesda sweater that I was wearing,” Adams said. “But I wanted to see for myself just how good this Edenton team was, and whether they might be a more deserving champion than we were in the event they won. As it turns out, they lost, and I knew then that we would become the No. 1 team. It was a pretty exciting night.”

A No. 1 national ranking among the nation’s top summer-league clubs was the farthest thing from Adams’ mind when he conceived of the idea of a team coming to suburban Washington, D.C., more than 15 years ago. His motivation at the time was more about community and the positive impact a team would have on the area, more than it ever was about wins and losses.

Unlike summer-league teams in various parts of the country, most prominently those in the Northwoods and Coastal Plains leagues, teams in the Cal Ripken League, which expanded this year from nine to 10 teams, operate as non-profit entities. The Big Train is owned and operated by The Bethesda Community Base Ball Club, Inc., and is funded through merchandise sales, donations, and other fund-raising efforts at games.

The BBC was formed in 1998 by Adams with an overriding goal to raise funds to improve the quality of youth baseball and softball fields in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia. Proceeds from the operation of the Big Train have been used to further this mission and the club has helped to raise more than $600,000 through the years in support of the cause.

We had a dream,” Adams recalls. “We would strengthen our sense of community in the Bethesda area by building a community ball park and fielding a team of college stars to join a wooden-bat summer college baseball. If enough people came out to the games, and we did well financially, we would improve youth baseball and softball fields in Montgomery County and the District.”

Not only has the Big Train met and exceeded those expectations in its 14 years of existence, but it has thrived on a national level against the backdrop of competing in a major metropolitan area.

For the most part, summer baseball has succeeded through the years mainly in small, rural communities where it is the only game in town. In suburban Washington, D.C., the Big Train has plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar, notably the ominous presence of the Washington Nationals in the last few years.

We knew that summer college baseball was seldom a box-office success in busy suburban and urban areas with lots of entertainment choices,” Adams said. “We’ve tried to create here what successful teams in other leagues have—a small-town feel. And it has worked out pretty well.”

Copyright 1994-2018 by Perfect Game. All rights reserved. No portion of this information may be reprinted or reproduced without the written consent of Perfect Game.