20 years on a field of dreams
On summer nights in the mid-1990s, Bruce Adams would travel to bucolic Virginia towns nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, take a seat in the bleachers of small ballparks, and revel in the thwack a baseball made against a wooden bat.
Seemingly half the town would show up for the games to eat $1 hotdogs and watch the amateur college ball players who made up the summer teams and were housed by nearby host families.
“It was pure pleasure,” recalled Adams, now 70, who at the time had recently finished four terms on the Montgomery County Council.
“As I drove home from those weekends, I thought about what fun it would be to be part of the Valley League. It combined two of my passions — building community values, and baseball at its most genuine. But then I realized that commuting between Bethesda and the Valley on I-66 every summer night might get old quickly.”
Adams was determined to find a way to bring that same small-town feel of the games to urban Bethesda. And so, in 1999, Bethesda Big Train baseball was born.
The summer collegiate team opened its 20th season last month at the ballpark Adams helped build in Cabin John Regional Park, located off Tuckerman Lane in Bethesda, Md.
The team adopted the nickname of celebrated pitcher and Hall-of-Famer Walter “Big Train” Johnson, who played for the Washington Senators in the early 20th century, and pitched the decisive game where the team won the World Series in 1924.
Johnson, a Bethesda resident, earned his nickname Big Train because he “threw a ball faster than a locomotive,” according to Adams.
A lifelong passion
Adams spent boyhood Saturday afternoons at the old Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., going to Senators games with his dad.
“It is stunning to walk into the ball park and see the beautiful green field. I’m really attracted to the ‘Oh wow’ moment of walking through the tunnel [entrance] in the middle of a city and seeing the green field.”
What is it about baseball that appeals so deeply to Adams?
“It’s a thinking person’s sport, less fast-paced than some other games. There’s time to reflect on what just happened and what’s about to happen. I’m not into the violence of football and hockey. I keep score. My wife calls it ‘male knitting,’” he laughed.
In 1995, Adams, his wife Peggy and their two children spent the summer crisscrossing the country on an epic journey, visiting 82 stadiums in 44 states. Based in the trip, Adams co-wrote a Fodor’s travel guide called Ballpark Vacations. It was another inspiration to bring baseball to Bethesda.
After some research, Adams discovered that the Washington area already had a summer league made up of college student players, the Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League. So Adams decided to build a stadium and form a team to join the league.
He turned to John Ourisman, from the car dealership dynasty, for fundraising help. Together, they ended up collecting more than $600,000, and began construction of Cabin John ‘s Shirley Povich field, named for a Washington Post reporter who covered sports for 75 years, from Babe Ruth to Cal Ripken, Jr.
A league of their own
So the games began on the field. But five years after its start — and after winning the Griffith League championship — Adams came to the conclusion that Big Train didn’t fit in with the league.
The games were poorly attended. There was little community spirit. It just didn’t have the feel he wanted to replicate from the Shenandoah Valley games he became enamored of.
So Adams and other teams leaders created their own league — the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League — which began the next year, and over time has grown to include more teams in Maryland as well as teams in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia.
“In the Griffith League, not many fans came. My hope was [that our new league] would show them how to do that through simple community building. We’d invite the Boy Scouts and youth baseball. Promote to businesses. I wanted to get 500 to 800 to a game, instead of 30 or 40,” Adams said. The stadium seats up to 1,500.
But he couldn’t do it alone. Randy Schools, president of NIH’s Employee Service Association, volunteered to start a booster club for the team. He got the word out about the team to the Institutes’ more than 25,000 workers. He also instituted the team’s mascot, Homer the dog, who was later joined by Bunt, another pooch.
Today, each game sees upwards of 500 fans.
Supporting the community
In addition, Adams and Schools wanted to give back to the community, raising money for inner city fields, showcasing local nonprofits during the games, and using the mascots to promote summer reading.
“In my mind, it’s a celebration of our humanity. Once citizens get together and put heads together, they can do some good,” said Schools, who recently retired to Delaware, but returns for games when he can.
“I had an experience taking inner city Baltimore children to an Orioles game. A little girl sat next to me and said, ‘Sir, I never knew grass got that green.’ Those sorts of things stick with you, and you know you’ve done some good,” Schools said.
Over the years, Big Train has collected more than 12,000 pounds of food from fans to contribute to the Manna Food Center. Team players also teach skills to local kids at summer camps in the area.
Like Schools, Bill Hickman also stepped in to volunteer with the team. After he retired, he began with Big Train as a volunteer usher. But he kept receiving multiple, confusing phone calls regarding when he was supposed to volunteer.
“I had been in management in government and the private sector,” Hickman said. “I sort of stepped forward and said, ‘I think you need a volunteer coordinator.’ That got me into the heart of the organization.”
From there, Hickman became the unofficial team statistician and historian, compiling everything from record batting averages to home runs. He’s kept a running tally of players, noting that they’ve come from 130 colleges, with the highest numbers of players from Florida Atlantic University, University of Maryland and San Francisco State.
Thirteen Big Train players have gone on to the major leagues. In 2011, the team was ranked the top team nationally in summer college baseball, and in 2017 it was ranked fourth. The full history, stats and more information are available on the Big Train website, www.bigtrain.org.
Today, Adams, a native Washingtonian, is the director of the Office of Community Partnerships in the Montgomery County Executive’s office. In 2014, he was named Public Citizen of the Year by the Fund for Montgomery, and last year he won the Peacemaker of the Year award from the Conflict Resolution Center of Montgomery County.
In June, Adams MC’ed a 20th anniversary Big Train ceremony before the start of a game that was attended by many local legislators and community organizations, as well as by Walter Johnson’s grandson, Hank Thomas. Each threw out a pitch.
“At a time when there’s so much division in Washington, it’s great to get together on something we can all agree we love, Big Train baseball,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
“You all know that line in the great movie [Field of Dreams], ‘If you build it, they will come?’ [Bruce Adams] built it and all of you came.”
While Big Train’s players are college athletes, older adult amateurs have a number of opportunities to join softball teams across the Washington area.
- Northern Virginia Senior Softball (NVSS) is a slow-pitch softball league open to men 50 and up, and women 40 and up. NVSS has more than 550 players.
There are three conferences based on skill level. There are both spring/summer and fall seasons, when seven-inning doubleheaders are played Tuesday and Thursday mornings, as well as a winter conditioning program.
NVSS started in 1980. David Scheele, 85, the nonprofit organization’s publicity chair, has been playing since 1985. He took up softball as a way to help de-stress after his first wife was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. He’s one of at least 40 players over 80.
The NVSS motto is “fun, fitness and friendship,” and Scheele believes this combination helps explain why no league members that he knows of have developed Alzheimer’s disease while they are part of NVSS.
“No one is getting it. Why? The exercise. You’ve got to be in shape,” Scheele said. “And there’s the mental exercise. How many outs? Where do I throw the ball? There’s constant thinking out there.
“And the social aspect, let’s have a beer together after the game. The combination of those three factors has made it really special,” he said.
To learn more, see www.nvss.org. Forms to register to play are on the website.
- The Golden Girls league began more than 25 years ago, for women ballplayers over 40. This 180-member league, based in Vienna, Va., is composed of teams that play each other twice a week — on Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings.
Women who have never played softball are welcome to join, and are provided special coaching. Organizers work to balance teams with players with a range of ages and skill levels. Skill drills are held Monday mornings during the winter.
- Fairfax Adult Softball is the largest ASA nonprofit private softball organization in the United States. It was recently voted the Number 1 amateur sports organization in Northern Virginia.
While it includes dozens of men’s, women’s and coed teams of all ages, the Fairfax Adult Softball’s senior league is for men over 50 only.
To learn more, see www.fairfaxadultsoftball.com or call (703) 815-9007.
- The Montgomery County Senior Sports Association manages eight leagues: three daytime and five nighttime. All games are played on fields located in Olney, Wheaton and Cabin John.
Among its numerous leagues are ones for men over 50, 55, 60 and 70. Women’s leagues include players 40 and older.