ON BALMY SPRING and summer nights, fans flock to the local baseball field -- named for a prominent Washington figure -- to watch inaugural-season contests of skill between the home team and its competitors.
Naturally, the scenario applies to Washington Nationals games at RFK Stadium, but starting next Friday, it also will play out two or three times a week at Shirley Povich Field, where the Bethesda Big Train baseball team takes on five regular opponents during the 40-game first season of the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League.
"If the weather is good, we pretty much fill the ballpark," says Bruce Adams, founder and president of the team, which bears Washington Senator Walter Johnson's nickname. Bethesda Big Train opens its seventh season with free exhibition games this weekend at its home field, named for The Washington Post's legendary baseball columnist. Showcasing the skills of amateur college athletes 22 and younger, the games typically attract neighborhood residents, especially young families looking for inexpensive entertainment in a wholesome atmosphere where smoking and alcohol are prohibited.
"It's a fun evening out, and that's what we're selling," says Dick O'Connor, president of the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts, Big Train's friendly county rival. "For $25, a family of four can have seats, dinner and enjoy a ballgame."
Formerly part of the Virginia-based Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League, the two clubs in February joined the Baltimore area Maryland Orioles and Maryland Redbirds, the Maryland Bombers of College Park and the new Rockville Express to form the all-Maryland league, named in honor of the Baltimore Orioles' late coach.
Modeled after the popular Cape Cod Baseball League, which draws 1,500 to 2,000 fans each game and boasts players of first-round draft caliber, the new league aims to build strong ties with each team's community, says Bill Spencer, league commissioner. The ball clubs also strive to draw top young talent.
"The real thrust of the whole thing is to try and create as competitive an environment for collegiate baseball players as we can," Spencer says.
Though players such as second baseman Greg Lemon and outfielder Jonnie Knoble, last season's Big Train co-MVPs, aren't household names -- yet -- they just might be future big-league stars. About a quarter of collegiate players are drafted into the professional ranks, says Alex Thompson, general manager of Bethesda Big Train. Former Big Train pitcher John Maine pitched a game for the Orioles last year, Thompson says, and teammate Steve Schmoll pitched for the Dodgers this spring.
Although they aren't paid, the athletes welcome the opportunity to play before enthusiastic fans and professional scouts, who "want to see the best college hitters hit off wood," instead of the aluminum bats used during college games, Thompson says.
The players are also accessible to starstruck young fans, who often come away with signed baseballs. Birthday parties are allowed to join players on the field during the national anthem, and the birthday girl or boy typically throws out the first pitch. Players, who hail from all over the country, even live with volunteer host families throughout the season.
The Bethesda and Silver Spring teams in particular draw fans by offering entertainment along with the games.
"We do all these zany Minor League-type things at our games," says Thompson, recalling last season's fried cicada cookies promotion and extras such as a moon bounce and visiting mascots. Every game includes a water-balloon bash at the end of the second inning, a race between a youngster and costumed mascot Homer the hound after the third and, at the end of the fifth, a softball-hitting contest featuring a representative from the game night's sponsor.
Adams, who with wife Margaret Engel wrote the family travel guide "Fodor's Baseball Vacations," became hooked on summer collegiate-level games in 1996 when he discovered the Valley Baseball League in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, about 90 minutes from Washington.
"I just fell in love with it! The guys were swinging wooden bats!" Adams recalls. Watching the New Market Rebels play, he noticed that about half the town showed up to cheer on the team.
"It was the sweetest combination of baseball and community-building that I had ever seen," he says. Adams, a former Montgomery County Council member who runs several nonprofits, sought a way to finance much-needed improvements to the county's youth playing fields. Inspired by the valley league, he formed the nonprofit Bethesda Community Base Ball Club (BCBBC) in 1998, collaborating with local government to raise money to improve the field at Cabin John Regional Park, then to launch a college-level team to play there starting in 1999.
Run mostly by volunteers, the ballclub generates revenue from ticket sales, concessions and such special events as an annual auction. The money improves ball fields in Montgomery County and the District, and helps fund the "Fields of Dreams" baseball and values education program at six D.C. elementary schools.
Speaking of the District, how might the city's new home team impact amateur organizations like Big Train? Adams is optimistic, expecting the teams to coexist with no long-term loss of support for collegiate ball clubs.
"I think that the enthusiasm over the Nationals is just making tons more baseball fans in the area," he says.
BETHESDA BIG TRAIN -- Cabin John Regional Park, Shirley Povich Field, 10600 Westlake Dr., Bethesda. 301-983-1006. www.bigtrain.org. Gates open at 6 and games start at 7:30 (except June 5, when the game starts at noon). Admission to regular-season games is $7 for adults; $5 for students and military and public safety employees with IDs; $3 for children 6 to 12; and free for youth baseball and softball players in uniform, children 5 and younger, and Major League Baseball scouts. Standing-room-only tickets are $4 adults, $2 children. All seating is general admission, with the exception of reserved seats for registered picnic and party groups. Visit the Web site for the season's full schedule.
SILVER SPRING-TAKOMA THUNDERBOLTS -- Montgomery Blair Baseball Stadium, Montgomery Blair High School, 51 E. University Blvd., Silver Spring. 301-270-0598. www.tbolts.org. Gates open at 6 and games start at 7. Admission is $5 adults and $2 ages 5-18; free for youth baseball and softball players in uniforms and children younger than 5. Upcoming games include preseason outings on Wednesday and Thursday, and a season opener against Bethesda Big Train June 11.
CAL RIPKEN SR. COLLEGIATE BASEBALL LEAGUE -- 103 N. Adams St., Rockville. www.ripkensrcollegebaseball.org. Visit the Web site for links to information about all six league teams, including the College Park Maryland Bombers, the Maryland Orioles of Glen Burnie, the Maryland Redbirds of Cockeysville and the Rockville Express.
MORE COLLEGIATE BASEBALL:
CLARK C. GRIFFITH COLLEGIATE BASEBALL LEAGUE -- 703-273-2255. www.clarkgriffithbaseball.com. Five teams make up this 60-year-old Northern Virginia league, named for the Washington Senators owner/manager: the Herndon Braves, Reston Hawks, Vienna Senators, Fauquier Gators and the new Fairfax Nationals. Games take place almost daily now through July 24, beginning at 7 on Saturdays and weeknights and 3 on Sundays. The Web site includes a schedule, directions to playing fields and links to the individual teams. Admission, ranging from free to $4, varies among teams.
EDWARD W. BROOKS LEAGUE (EDDIE BROOKS LEAGUE) -- 410-965-1111. www.eddiebrooksbaseball.com. This all-Maryland league, named for the organization's former president, features eight teams from five counties, including Anne Arundel and Frederick. Most players are from the area. Visit the Web site for a schedule of each team's 35 games, running through July 24, and directions to fields. Free.
VALLEY BASEBALL LEAGUE -- www.valleyleaguebaseball.com. The 44-year-old league has 10 teams, from Winchester to Covington, which play 44 games. The Web site includes links to the individual teams, directions and ticket information. Adult admission is $5; other prices vary by team.