The scoreboard shows the temperature at 91 degrees, another sweltering Sunday afternoon. The muggy air greets 6-year-old Sarah Siegel and her 3-year-old brother, Jeremy, as they enter Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda.
“She’s the enthusiast,” father Adam Siegel of Fairfax says as they settle in the third row behind home plate. “He is here for the fire engine.”
The Bethesda Big Train are preparing to play the Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts in a Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League doubleheader.
Players on the Big Train come from as far away as California, Mississippi and Florida to play in the wooden-bat league — colleges use aluminum — hoping to improve their chances of being drafted by a major league team.
The crowd, which includes an elementary school worth of kids, comes largely because it hardly has to go anywhere at all.
“We came here before for a birthday party,” says John Barker of Potomac, who is with his 6-year-old son, Jack, and Jack’s friend Jona Aronson. “You are close to the ballplayers. It is very clean, safe, well-run, efficient. And it’s close by.”
Parents see it as a safe, affordable night out with the kids, many of whom seem oblivious to the game and prefer to run through the quaint ballpark.
This is Fire and Rescue Appreciation Night at Povich Field, also known as Cabin John Park Field No. 1. The entertainment includes a moon bounce, free ice cream and tours of fire trucks. Sparky the Fire Dog, sweating in his faux fur, is high-fiving pint-sized patrons.
Povich Field, named after the legendary sportswriter from The Washington Post and opened in 1999, is just a relay throw from Montgomery Mall. The throwback ballpark — complete with a hand-operated scoreboard in left-center field — has 606 comfortable seats with backs and routinely draws standing room-only crowds that sometimes exceed 1,000.
Most summer league teams and even some in the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League play on high school fields or at regional parks.
Those games usually have little atmosphere and few amenities and draw only a handful of people — mainly players’ families and friends. The bleachers are uncomfortable and the lighting poor, if there is any at all.
But the Bethesda experiment, with its miniature minor league-style park, has become a suburban success story, carving out a niche for itself despite competing against a multitude of entertainment options.
Some fans choose to stay close to home at this cozy, tree-lined park rather than take a short ride to see a minor league game in Frederick or Bowie or venture to a nearby major league game in Washington or Baltimore.
“It is pleasant,” Adam Siegel says. “And after an hour, if I have to leave, they aren’t $45 tickets.”
The Big Train, the nickname of longtime Bethesda resident and Washington Senators great Walter Johnson, is a team of players aged 22 and under. The players live with host families during the 40-game season, do household chores and even work as part of the grounds crew by lining the field and dragging the infield.
It is all worth it: They are treated like big league stars in this little baseball shrine.
“We get 700 fans a night,” says Greg Lemon, a second baseman from Salisbury (Md.) University. “We sign autographs. They have on-field promotions during games. It really feels like you are doing something pretty professional.”
About $2 million — mainly from private donors — has been spent to make Povich Field the gem it is. A grandstand and seats; a two-story press box/office; and an arched entryway modeled after the one at the Hall of Fame field in Cooperstown, N.Y., were built. The park held its first college summer league game June 4, 1999.
“The scoreboard is really cool,” 6-year-old Jack Barker says of the hand-operated linescore like the one at Fenway Park in Boston.
There is a full concession stand under the press box with pizza, pretzels, sodas and Big Train Popsicles, which cost $1. There is one baseball staple notably absent: beer. Alcohol is prohibited at Cabin John Park.
“Somebody in the business told me, ‘You can’t make it if you don’t sell beer,” Big Train president and founder Bruce Adams says. “I looked at him and laughed. I said, ‘Man, this is Montgomery County. This is family-friendly. I am going to sell it as no-tobacco, no-alcohol, and they will flock to it.’ The guy looked at me like I was nuts.”
Adams is the driving force behind the Big Train, taking an unusual route into the baseball business. He spent eight years on the Montgomery County Council and left public office after losing the Democratic primary election for county executive to Doug Duncan in 1994.
The self-proclaimed “baseball junkie” then went on a nationwide baseball tour in a van with his wife, Margaret Engel; 8-year-old daughter Emily; and 5-year-old son Hugh. The couple wrote a Fodor’s guide to baseball vacations and learned about summer college baseball when Hugh struck up a conversation with players in the visitors’ bullpen during a stop at a minor league park in Oneonta, N.Y.
Adams wrote a newspaper article on the Shenandoah Valley League, another summer college league, during the summer of 1996 and learned of the Clark Griffith League in the Washington area. The civic-minded Adams then dreamed up the idea of building a ballpark in Bethesda and used his political contacts to get the Big Train rolling.
“Who knew if it would work here or not?” says Adams, who raised funds for the nonprofit operation with co-founder John Ourisman of the Ourisman Automotive Group. “But the formula was find a good location, build a nice ballpark and run it like a minor league operation with something going on every night.”
Adams is a blur on game night, doing everything from putting signs at the park’s entrance to advertising the game, wiping seats, emceeing on-field promotions and selling raffle tickets in the stands.
The Big Train spent its first six seasons in the Clark Griffith League but is now the cornerstone in the inaugural season of the Ripken league, which has six teams in Maryland. Adams envisions the other Ripken teams becoming like minor league operations as well.
Meanwhile, Bethesda has become a sought-after destination for college players.
Players flocked to the Big Train from 14 different states and programs like San Francisco, Southern Mississippi and Jacksonville (Fla.) State this year. The club celebrated last season when pitcher John Maine, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2002, became the first alumni to reach the majors.
In all, 23 graduates have played professional ball. Pitcher Steve Schmoll, a former Maryland Terrapins star who spent the 2000 season at Povich Field, is in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen. That kind of track record helped persuade players to pass on invitations to more prestigious summer leagues in Cape Cod and Alaska to play in Maryland.
“The ultimate goal is to play professional baseball,” says Lemon, who is hitting a team-high .328. “That is why we are all here because this is a league that puts you in position where you can play in the pros. You are playing with wooden bats against some of the best college players and getting pretty good exposure to scouts.”
But baseball is only the centerpiece at Povich Field.
Jeremy Siegel, the 3-year-old fan, munches on a box of popcorn before getting his tour of the fire truck. His sister Sarah, who enjoys hearing the crack of the bat, gets a close-up look during her first visit to a “big” sporting event as the team and fans enjoy the nation’s pastime in a miniature setting.
“I have been to the Cape Cod League, and they will get some fans,” Big Train manager Sal Colangelo says. “But no, this is probably the nicest ballpark in the country.”