Big Train to keep on running

Baseball: On June 4, a Bethesda team named for a Hall of Fame pitcher will begin its first season in the Clark C. Griffith league for college players.

January 14, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

BETHESDA -- On a green field ringed with pines, men who become boys at the crack of a bat are building a tribute to some of their heroes.

When the floodlights go on and the red brick ticket booth opens June 4, Bethesda will have a baseball diamond and team named for two Hall of Famers -- Shirley Povich and Walter "Big Train" Johnson.

The Bethesda Big Train will play in the six-team Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League, where the bats are wooden and the promotions are pure corn.

The team's ballpark, Shirley Povich Field, honors the Washington Post sportswriter who logged more than 15,000 columns in a 75-year career that ended with his death June 4.

The diamond in Cabin John Regional Park is down the road from the high school that bears Johnson's name and the Victorian farmhouse in which he lived during his final seasons with the Washington Senators.

"What we're trying to do is build a sense of community, that thing everybody says they long for," says team founder Bruce Adams, who is deep in the details of scouting players, designing a scoreboard and ordering 600 Camden Yards-style seats for his soon-to-be built brick grandstand.

Adams and his fellow baseball dreamers have struck a familial nerve.

In less than a year, the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club has collected more than $500,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from businesses and just plain folks. To help raise the final $100,000, the club is selling commemorative plaques for the seat backs.

One man, Adams recalls, sent him a check for $200 for two seats and asked that the plaques be inscribed with his name and that of his late father "so I'll always be at the ballpark with my dad."

The team's new general manager understands those feelings. Henry Thomas is the Big Train's grandson. "Baseball is my life," Thomas says.

Adams and Thomas have been friends for years. Adams' father and Thomas' uncle used to sit in the Senators' dugout with Johnson, who managed the team after retiring as a pitcher. Thomas wrote "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train," a 1995 award-winning biography of his grandfather, who won 417 games, including 110 shutouts, in a 21-year career.

When Thomas heard about the team, "I was one of the first five people to send in my $100 for a seat."

One thing led to another, and Thomas agreed to keep the Big Train running.

"It borders on the bizarre, really," he says. "It's just one of those things that was, I guess, meant to be."

For Adams, fielding a team of collegiate players caps a 4-year baseball odyssey that began with a political defeat and took him to minor-league ballparks around the country.

After he lost a primary election for Montgomery County executive, Adams, his wife and their two children spent two summers researching a baseball travel book for Fodor's.

Ballplayers told Adams of a summer league about 90 minutes from Washington where college athletes hone their skills in between day jobs and community work.

After taking in about a dozen games in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Adams was hooked. "New Market, a town of 1,500, was getting 500 people to a game," he says. "It's as good as it gets."

His search led him to the 54-year-old Griffith league, which had teams in Annapolis and Northern Virginia and is named for the former owner of the Senators.

"Frankly, they didn't have the same feeling, the same fan base," Adams says. "But what they did have was great baseball."

And that's what Adams, Thomas and coach Derek Hacopian hope to bring to Bethesda.

Bethesda Big Train is stocked with players from University of Maryland, Clemson, Miami and Kentucky who will live with local families.

Because players won't be paid, operating costs are low. Promotional nights will urge children to go to the library, thank schoolteachers and honor the Negro Leagues. Profits will go toward fixing baseball and softball diamonds in the region.

"I call it entrepreneurial philanthropy," Adams says with a grin. "It's like Paul Newman's salad dressing, only it's more fun."

And Thomas is thrilled that his grandfather's name is linked to a league so close to the community he lived in and will raise money for youth games.

"I love baseball with a small `b,' " says Thomas. "Can you imagine? There I'll be in June and July, right in the middle of what I love."

For information about the team, call 301-983-1006, or check its Web site, www.bigtrain.org.

Pub Date: 1/14/99

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