Anyone who doubts that you can build a small-town sense of community in the suburbs should have paid a visit to Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda this summer.
Despite the importance of sports in the development of young people, Montgomery County doesn't have enough athletic fields, and many of the ones it does have are in dreadful shape. But government can't do it all, so a community partnership seemed the right approach to this problem, and my partner, John Ourisman, and I enlisted businesses and individuals to join us in creating the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club.
Our plan was simple: We would raise private money to renovate a hardball field in a regional park. Then we would form a team of college stars to play in the wooden-bat Clark Griffith Collegiate Baseball League in the summer. And then we would run the operation like a small minor league team, devoting the profits to improving youth baseball and softball fields in Montgomery County and the District. Heavy thinkers call this entrepreneurial philanthropy. We call it community building.
Ourisman and I went to the busiest, most overcommitted people we knew. They would take an hour to hear about our field of dreams and swap baseball stories. And then, no matter how unreasonable our request, they would say, "I'm in."
It takes an army of talents to build a ballpark and run a team, even on a community scale. Everyone pitched in and contributed their special talents -- from printing programs to pouring concrete. In a Herculean effort, the local building industry, led by John McMahon and Phil Leibovitz, built our $1 million ballpark in five months. Our miniature Camden Yards in Cabin John Regional Park opened on schedule on June 4 as Shirley Povich Field, honoring one of the nation's greatest sportswriters.
Scores of volunteers staff the ballpark, run the concession stand and sell souvenirs. An average of 500 fans came to each home game in June and July to watch the Bethesda Big Train (named after the incomparable Walter Johnson) play ball. These were our guys, if only for a summer, and we took them not only into our homes to live but into our hearts and our hopes.
Our fans were delighted. One young boy told me, "This was the best day of my whole life."
Another fan pulled me aside to say that his family had been having some rough times. "Coming to Povich Field has been the bright spot in our summer," he confided.
Still another fan summed up what many seemed to feel: "When I'm here at a Big Train game, I feel like I live in a small town."
A father of one of the players also commented on the value of the experience to his son: "Mark Twain said every boy is entitled to one great summer," he said. "And now, my boy has had his."
My favorite moments usually came after the games when, win or lose, dozens of young fans would flock onto the field for autographs from their 18- and 19-year-old heroes. The Big Train players gladly complied. To their young fans, they might as well have been big league all-stars, the likes of Cal Ripken. And, who knows, maybe one day one of them -- or even one of the autograph seekers -- will be.
-- Bruce Adams
is the president of the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club.