Like Chinese water torture, the Hal Piercy men's slow-pitch softball league in Montgomery County is suffering a slow, agonizing death.
What was once the most competitive slow-pitch softball league in the metropolitan area, attracting the best players from around the Beltway, is steadily becoming just another league of recreational softball playing doubleheaders on lazy Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday summer nights.
The league was formed in 1961 by the man most responsible for softball in Montgomery County, Hal Piercy. After Piercy's death in 1977, the league was renamed in his honor.
But the league that started in a Wheaton park, moved to Cabin John Regional Park six years later and finally settled at its current home at Olney Manor Regional Park, is only a shell of what Piercy created.
At Cabin John, the league flourished and became the most competitive and best known in the area.
"You couldn't get into the park," recalls Joe Albert, a member of the metropolitan Washington Softball Hall-of-Fame. "The streets were lined with cars and people were standing three-deep behind the backstop."
Albert, who has played Montgomery County softball for 33 years and now plays for Ken Michaels, one of the top teams in the country, says the league was good for several reasons.
"It had good teams," he said. "That might be as simple as saying night follows day . . . but leagues perpetuate themselves. The first thing a team asks before joining a league is, 'Who's playing?' "
Very often only the best were playing. Many ex-professional athletes found the same competitive level of play in the Hal Piercy league.
Pat Heenan, a one-time defensive back for the Washington Redskins, found refuge there. Fred Rodriguez and Rick Eisenacher, both in the Washington Senators minor league system for a number of years, played in the league. Chuck Hinton, who played in the major leagues for 11 seasons including four with the Senators, played there. And Albert remembers when Hank Allen played in a Hal Piercy game one Saturday, received a call from the Chicago White Sox the next day, and was in the major leagues on Tuesday.
Albert cites another reason for the the excellent reputation the Hal Piercy league acquired, but has slowly been losing. "Prince George's County didn't have the facilities that we did then, but it does now. Montgomery County had the nicest facilities -- it still does."
Ironically, the same fields that once drew the best in the area are now making them look elsewhere to display their talents.
The league moved to Olney in 1976. The fields are immaculate, but the fences are 285 feet -- a short distance for today's caliber of Class 'A' and 'B' players who aim to hit a long ball in virtually every at-bat. The league also adopted a rule allowing only five home runs per game (all fair balls over the fence after five are foul balls).
"The rules don't suit my team at all," said Dick Buzik, manager of Jolles Brothers, a team that had regularly been one of the league's best, but is not competing this summer, lowering the number of teams from the all-time high of 18 to the current five. "They allow only five home runs a game. My team hits five home runs in the first inning. Quite a few people used to come watch the Hal Piercy league to see home runs, but no one wants to see a home run be a foul ball."
And although the number of homers allowed has decreased, the fee to play in the league has increased to $1,150. In the best Prince George's League, played at Fairland with 300-foot fences, yearly franchise fees are only $550.
"You're getting less and paying more" in the Piercy league, said Tom Burke, manager of Livingstons, one of the top teams presently in the league. "The fields are short and you get only one umpire instead of two now. The attitude is less than professional."
But Fred Agnello, who's been scorekeeper for the league since its formation, has seen a change in players' attitudes as well.
"Young kids don't play the game anymore," he said. "The players aren't dedicated like they used to be when we were the No. 1 league."
Albert agrees that while the number of people playing softball in the Washington area has increased, the number of hard-nosed players that play every night -- the kind that gave the Hal Piercy league its reputation -- have declined.
"I think this is an affluent area," said Albert. "Softball is a blue collar sport . . . and these people go to cocktail parties and can't play softball at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. There's too many other things to do."
Montgomery County has sent teams, many from the Hal Piercy league, to national tournaments for 27 straight years. There are those who feel losing such a historically rich league would be shameful.
Some past and present Piercy league members say changes could help help revive the league. One suggestion is to allow more home runs per game. Another idea is to install a 20-foot netting atop the outfield fences to make home runs harder to come by, but still give players an unlimited target for all seven innings.
But Ralph Pryor, the director of adult recreation for the Montgomery County Recreation Department, is not overwhelmingly concerned with the league's current status. He said the league has had up and down cycles before and believes this is one of the downturns. But he was unsure whether the mandated high fees would enable the league to recover.
Pryor said, however, the county was not going out of its way to preserve the Piercy league because the increasing demand for softball at less competitive levels would step in to fill any void.
"It is nice to have a prestigious league . . . but we are certainly not going to let one division of five or six teams dictate the philosophy of an overall program," he said. "If they want to hit a ball over a 300-foot fence, let them go find someplace else to do it."
Albert, like most of those who once played in the league and has since gone elsewhere, would like to see efforts made to revive the Piercy league. Agnello feels the same way.
"It's hurting," said Agnello. "We have to do something about it next year."