Down in Charles County, Md., off Bryans Road, the boys roll into the parking lot in trucks and vans and old, shined sports cars. Music booms from the open windows. John Adams, tall and dark-haired, who plays second base for Smitty's Lounge, sits sideways in the driver's seat of his polished black '75 Firebird and pulls on his white athletic socks. It's blistering hot, and the infield is hard and all dirt. Dust surely will rise.
"I always wanted baseball to be a career," says Adams. He's just beaten the traffic from Washington, where he works as a computer programmer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. "To me, baseball is being in the right place at the right time. I'm 22, plenty young. You never know. That's why I want to be in this league."
True, playing in the Industrial Baseball League has its benefits. A player can hit a home run, then lean over to the front row of the little stands and be kissed by his sweetheart. A young prospect, maybe even one 22, can see dreams come true -- be discovered by a pro scout and signed. An older player can play on for the joy of the sport.
The games take place in Maryland and Virginia parks, usually evenings after everyone gets off work. Team names have a familiar ring, and history: Fairfax Furniture, the Black Sox, Mercury Van Lines, the Union Printers. It's baseball with little fanfare and no glitter, but it's baseball, personal and vital. What they all share -- players, managers, umpires, regulars who peer through backstop screens and call encouragement -- is an unquenchable love for the game.
"I don't know what I'd do with the summer without this," says Smitty's bespectacled Bill Kennedy. He's getting baseball gear out of his car trunk; his wife, Lynn, takes her beach chair. At 34, Kennedy would play almost any position for Smitty's if he could help out. "Except catcher."
He's coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, and he's sure the problem was caused by the few innings he spent crouched behind the plate last season. Mostly, he's a shortstop but, above all, a team man. "We need to get just a few better players every year," he says, "and we'll be right there with the elite."
The elite, he says, is Fairfax Furniture.
This summer, Smitty's has added a fast ball pitcher, Mark Calvert, recently of the Cincinnati Reds' farm system, plus a whole new heart of the batting order, which includes tall, blond third baseman Lew Jenkins, who plays for the University of South Carolina. "Lew was in the College World Series," says Kennedy. "We all managed to see him on ESPN. We all crowded around."
Mike Steinhauser, Smitty's manager, pulls up in his truck. He has the game balls. A few years ago, his brother, Carl, bought the lounge back at the crossroads and kept the name. Smitty's was it, and when he founded a team, he had the lounge's name put in script across the front of the uniform shirts. After games here at Swann Park, the players -- visiting teams, too, sometimes -- retire to the big cool dark room that's Smitty's and replay the games. They can't linger too long on weeknights, though; these ballplayers have to get up for work in the mornings.
At 7:20, William Mack, who runs the refreshment stand, turns on the field lights. "Not a dark spot out there," he says.
On the night the major league All-Stars are playing their gaudy game in a domed stadium, Smitty's Lounge versus Bowie in the Maryland countryside touches baseball's rural roots. Tucked behind trees off the main road, the field looks plunked down in the middle of primal landscape.
During the game, reserve players go off into the woods and brush, looking for home run balls and fouls. It costs money to give up a search for a ball, and so, while a voice sometimes cries out, "I don't see it," they keep at it until returning with the prize.
Happily, the Smitty's reserves chase balls hit by Paul Grzyb, a center fielder who as a junior last season at American University batted .470. With a swift, compact swing, Grzyb hits two home runs, and a rout is under way. Grzyb, many say, has a baseball future.
Jenkins, too, looks as if he was born to play, the way he confidently gloves everything hit his way over the pebbly infield, the way he lopes across the field to the bench, the way he turns on speed on the basepaths. Following an inning in which he steals second with a graceful slide, Jenkins announces to teammates, while rubbing his leg, "Second base is like a driveway."
Kennedy fills in a few innings as manager while Steinhauser runs an errand, but Steinhauser returns in time for Kennedy to replace starter Dick Naber at shortstop. Naber has been hit by a pitch near his left elbow, and the arm is swelling. "Should have hit me in the head, couldn't have hurt nothin' then," says Naber, laughing despite the pain.
That's the kind of night it is, a 20-4 laugher. Then, to Smitty's.
Could there be a man who loves the game more than William (Doffy) Jones?
Jones is synonymous with the name Black Sox. He is 69. He has owned and managed the team 56 of those years.
He started the team as a kid, living in the Deanwood section of Northeast. The Black Sox were a force for decades.
Earlier this summer, Doffy (pronounced Doe-fie) Jones had to play right field just so the Sox could field a team. Balls were hit out to right that he simply couldn't get to, according to a man sitting in the stands one evening at Wheaton Regional Park, and the Sox lost. It sounds sad.
Wheaton Regional is a gorgeous field, manicured and green. The wire outfield fence is ringed by trees. Two bleachers flank a little press box behind home plate. In the early innings, Black Sox and Sikes Construction players are bathed in the evening sun's glow. The air is clear and cool. It feels like Vermont.
The Black Sox are known as a hitter's team -- "They have nine guys who come up to the plate swinging," said an opponent. But against Sikes, they also got a big pitching effort from slender Charlie Williams, his black cap with the white block W tilted to the left. He has the form of Boston's Oil Can Boyd.
A fan, wearing an orange cap, chants: "You're just like a glass of fine wine, Charlie, babe. You can go nine."
The Sox wear gray pants and maroon jerseys with short black sleeves. Sikes has whites, with red and blue trim. Doffy Jones wears a black windbreaker, and when his team is in the field, he stands against a fence, his hands jammed into his hip pockets. When the Sox bat, he coaches at third, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, or giving signals. He'll call in to a batter, "Let's base hit it."
This the Sox do with regularity until they're leading comfortably in the seventh, 6-1. And every inning Williams works on the mound, the man in the orange cap sings, "You're just like a glass of fine wine, Charlie, babe. You can go nine."
In the top of the eighth, Williams hits a drive that disappears into tree limbs hanging over both sides of the fence near the 315-foot sign in left. Everybody looks to the umpire. The umpire rules the ball hit the limbs inside the park, a ground-rule double. Next time up, in the ninth, Williams looks down to third and hears Jones say, "Charlie, you get another base hit and I'll believe you're a hitter."
It's Williams' night -- he singles off the third baseman's glove.
"Get 'im a jacket," Jones shouts as Williams stands at first.
The score is 11-1 and growing, and the Sikes' first baseman calls back to Jones, in mock surrender, "He says he doesn't need a jacket. He's not going to pitch anymore. He's going to play third base or shortstop and bat fourth."
Lopsided as the score is, Jones conducts a seminar on the game's fine points. He talks with his second baseman on how to hit with two strikes; he explains to an outfielder different ways to catch a ball; he corrects the motion of a relief pitcher working in the bullpen.
Final: Black Sox, 16-1. The man in the orange cap sings: "Like a fine glass of wine, you went nine, Charlie."
The Sox gather around Jones, but everybody is talking. "Let the man talk, let the man talk," somebody says.
Jones speaks softly. He calls practice for the following Sunday morning at a field near his house. He says it's important to be there. When he's finished, he goes back to stuffing batting helmets and bats into a duffel bag.
"Let me take that, Mr. Jones," says a man, reaching for the heavy bag and hoisting it over his shoulder. He walks alongside the old manager to the cars in the parking lot. It's the man in the orange cap.
Joe Lomascolo looks more like a dapper businessman than a pitcher, but he's both. By day, he's an area sales manager for General Electric. By night, he pitches for Mercury Van Lines.
At 32, Lomascolo is the oldest Mercury player, a slender right-hander, 6 feet, 165 pounds. Raised in the Bronx, he went on to pitch at the University of South Florida. He hoped to be in the big leagues someday -- "That's an aspiration every ballplayer has." But, as he says, scouts "project," and they never projected Lomascolo as a fast ball pitcher. So he never was drafted. But he does have a sinker, a slider and a curve ball. And control.
"He's a cutie," says Mercury's manager, George Beck.
And he made it to his beloved House of Ruth anyway, as a batting practice pitcher for the Yankees. "Two good years, '77 and '78," he says. "World championship years."
With Lomascolo's help, Mercury Van Lines is making a bid for second place in the Industrial League. If it weren't for a slow start, Mercury would be right up there with Fairfax Furniture. "Next season, I want to start early -- February," says Beck.
He laughs. He's having the time of his life. "I just think I'm a young kid when I get around these guys," Beck says. He's 47.
Mercury is one of the hot teams in the league, and you can tell it. They're all out early for this game with Rockville Mailing Service at Wheaton. Their uniforms are snowy white. Everything they do is snappy, full of purpose -- batting practice, infield drill, stretching exercises. Around their bench, players keep up a banter.
"We're not going on strike."
"August 6 is not a deadline for us."
Beck, a thin man who wears glasses, says he was a typical kid, growing up near Philadelphia. "I lived, died, sweated baseball. It's the only sport there is.
"Years and years ago, Dad played baseball around Pittsburgh. He had the great pleasure of playing with the Waner brothers.
"He had three boys, all a year apart, and we were always playing ball. If you ever made an error -- I played shortstop -- he would take you out to the back yard, and after a hundred or so ground balls you'd get it. Mom would always be calling us in for dinner, and it'd always be another 10 minutes."
Top of the first. John Division, Mercury's right fielder who wears No. 19 like Fred Lynn and like Fred Lynn bats left-handed with his elbow back and bat cocked, unloads a long drive over the right field fence for three runs. "That," says Lomascolo, "is a major league homer."
With a lead -- Mercury eventually won, 17-1 -- Lomascolo pitches effortlessly. Like he says, he doesn't have much speed, but the ball moves.
"He'll be playing 'til he can't play anymore," says his wife, Julie, sitting halfway up in the stands behind the Mercury bench.
"I've come a long way since coming out here the first time with a novel," she says. "You learn to love it."
Jim Brooks, a left-handed hitting center fielder, is at the plate. Julie Lomascolo says he's a good hitter.
Brooks powders the ball over the fence.
"Hey, I ought to be doing some scouting myself," she says. "Sign that man up."
The more Joe Lomascolo throws, the more limber his arm gets, the more effective he is. He's out there on the hill, throwing dipsy doodle pitches at Rockville Mailing Service, playing as if he could go on forever. So it is in the Industrial Baseball League, where the old can be young and the young can prove they'll be great when they're old.