MARNEY — Susan Marney has become well-acquainted with Kiwanis-Wallas Park on the western edge of Ellicott City. She should be.
Marney - along with many mothers and fathers and grandparents and brothers and sisters - spends a considerable amount of time gallivanting through it to glimpse boys and girls playing Howard County Youth Program baseball.
On Tuesday, Marney was trying to keep track of her two sons playing on separate teams. She watched the older one, Patrick, 14, bat for the Pony League Cardinals on Field No. 6. Then she headed downhill, past the concession stand and over to Field No. 3 to see Collin, 10, take the field for the Minor League Cardinals. Then back past the concession stand and up the hill to see Patrick again.
"I used to try to watch both games at once, and you just can't," Marney said. "You always come just as somebody's done something really great, and you miss it. Occasionally, you get to see it. It works out well sometimes."
Watching one or both of her sons the past eight years, Marney has experienced what many say is one of the top sandlot baseball - and softball - complexes in Maryland.
The Howard County Youth Program, which began as the Ellicott City Little League for baseball 50 years ago this month, has turned Kiwanis-Wallas Park, on Route 144 just as drivers turn off U.S. 40, into a purists' paradise.
All eight baseball and four softball fields have outfield fences and foul-poles; swinging for the fences is an option. On Field No. 2, the clearly marked dimensions are 165 feet to right field, 174 to left and 211 to straightaway center. On Field No. 6, it's 200 to left, 229 to right and 270 to center.
Four of the baseball fields and two of the softball fields are equipped with lights. The baseball fields have dugouts, and grass mowed to a perfect length. Every field has at least a manual scoreboard; Fields No. 6 and 8 have electronic scoreboards and press boxes. Advertisements by HCYP sponsors hang from some of the fences.
Between fields are two batting cages, renovated restrooms and a concession stand, which helps the club financially and provides a place for players and parents to mingle. A small building houses meeting space used by senior citizens and others during the day.
Any spring evening, at least 10 of the 12 fields are in use, and finding a parking spot can be nearly impossible.
"It's wonderful," Marney said. "It's a great, great place. It's great for the kids, and playing baseball has been wonderful for them, just for the people they've gotten to know. When Patrick went from elementary school into middle school, he knew kids from all over the county from playing on the team here."
The HCYP and Kiwanis-Wallas Park have grown exponentially since the club's early days at U.S. 40 and St. Johns Lane, long ago transformed into a shopping center.
Now, HCYP leases the park from the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. The name honors the land's former owners, the Kiwanis Club of Ellicott City, and before that Anton Wallas, a Polish immigrant farmer and merchant who wanted it preserved for use by young people. Except for big-ticket items, such as county-built sewers and roads, the club manages, maintains and is responsible for improvements to the complex.
"It's a fabulous facility," said Rich Francis, the softball commissioner, who has two sons and a daughter playing under the HCYP emblem. "There's a lot of work [here] that a lot of people don't realize. ... It's all run by volunteers." Francis said there soon will be more improvements on the softball diamonds, including dugouts and new bleachers.
Kiwanis-Wallas is a far cry from when Ellicott City native Cindy Hall began playing in 1973. She remembers playing for HCYP until 1979. Now 37, she, like many others on any given evening, helps another generation use the facility. She is coaching daughters Sarah, 10, and Emily, 8.
Hall remembers starting out in two slow-pitch softball leagues. Today, there are five fast-pitch leagues and a travel team.
"It really makes me proud of what Howard County stands for," Hall said. "It's a way of life, of families coming out and playing together. The importance here in the softball program is basically girls coming out, building relationships and having a good time.
"I still play in the Howard County Park and Rec softball league with girls I played with here in HCYP when we were little kids. And that's amazing."
Under the lights on Field No. 5 Tuesday night, Matt Beck, 10, scored the winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning, capping a three-run rally and giving his Minor League Athletics a 7-6 victory and a first-place regular-season finish. Coaching the squad was Matt's father, Paul Beck, who played baseball at Kiwanis-Wallas in the HCYP from 1967 to 1973.
As the elder Beck said: "There really isn't any place like this in the state."