A Ground-Zero Start to Building a Baseball Team and Ballpark

This article was written by Bill Hickman

This article was published in the The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)


Many SABR members have dreamed of starting up and running a baseball team. Their fantasies have run the gamut from building a ballpark, to recruiting a manager and his coaching staff, to attracting a talented group of players with the potential to play professional baseball. Bruce Adams has accomplished just that, and this article is meant to share his experience with you. This is the story of the Bethesda Big Train summer collegiate baseball team, located in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.

The Inspiration

Bruce Adams had held a position of prominence in Montgomery County, where Bethesda is located, for a long time before he made a move into baseball, having served on the Montgomery County Council for eight years. In 1997, he coauthored, with his wife Peggy Engel, a Fodor’s travel book entitled Baseball Vacations. The book covers their experiences traveling to minor and major league towns all over the United States. That experience would serve Adams well in envisioning how a baseball entertainment package could be put together to entertain a crowd.

During the course of his travels, Adams and his family visited Oneonta, New York, to see a game played by the Yankees’ Class A affiliate. While there, his five-year-old son became engaged in conversation with some of the players, who told the boy of their summer in the Valley Baseball League in the Shenandoah Valley, not far from Washington, D.C. The Valley League presented summer collegiate baseball using wooden bats. Adams went to observe the Valley League’s New Market Rebels and decided to adopt their operating style as his model. Upon further exploration, he discovered the Clark Griffith League, which had been around the Washington, D.C., area since 1945. The Griffith League — originally named the National Capital City Junior League — also featured wooden-bat baseball played by college players from around the country. From its beginnings until 1966, the League’s games were played on the Ellipse, just behind the White House. Clark Griffith, the Washington Senators’ owner and Hall of Fame pitcher and manager, had provided considerable support to the League in the form of bats, balls, and gloves. When Griffith died in 1955, the League was renamed in his honor.

Adams realized that the Griffith League would be a natural place to enroll a new team of summer collegiate players. He spread his enthusiasm among people he knew, including John Ourisman, a top executive for a chain of local auto dealerships. Ourisman agreed to become the cofounder of the baseball organization as well as its chief fundraiser.

What Ground Zero Looked Like

Adams envisioned using a baseball field at Cabin John Regional Park in North Bethesda, Maryland. There was a field available, but it had a very limited capacity for seating fans who wanted to watch a game. Some bleacher seats existed, as well as an ancient press box, but there was certainly no readily available ballpark, in the sense of a stadium with fan-friendly facilities. Also, at the inception of Adams’s idea of starting a team, there was no manager or coaching staff. And, of course, there was no team.

Historically, this brand of baseball had been unsuccessful in busy suburban/urban settings. Many of the minor league teams Adams had visited, and all of the successful summer college teams he researched, were located in towns that could not be considered large cities. Bethesda had a reasonably large population, and was located next door to Washington, D.C., where there would be a load of competing activities for summer entertainment. Summer collegiate baseball was virtually unknown in Montgomery County; the conventional wisdom was that a collegiate baseball team would not draw crowds in a place like Bethesda. But Adams felt that a high-quality program had a chance to be successful in Bethesda, in part because the families of the hugely popular youth baseball program in the area-Bethesda-Chevy Chase Baseball-would be a significant part of the fan base.

Developing The Business Model

Bruce Adams and John Ourisman decided that the enterprise should stress the involvement of the community. The team was to be owned not by private individuals, but by a nonprofit entity named the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club, with the spelling of “Base Ball” being a nod to the history of the game. A major purpose of the enterprise was a charitable one — to use any profits for fixing up youth ball fields in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia. As a youth baseball coach, Adams had learned that where ball fields were under the purview of school systems and parks departments, the local government often did not allocate sufficient funds to maintain the fields in satisfactory playing condition. A pressing need existed for the kind of financial assistance that a successful community ball club could offer to area youths who wanted to play baseball. Because of this charitable component of the program, the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club was granted Section 501(c)(3) status by the Internal Revenue Service.

Another goal of the club’s business model was to seek capital funding from a broad range of sources to build the ballpark and run subsequent operations. The baseball games would be presented as entertainment packages (the same as with minor-league games), so there would be revenues not only from admissions, but from concession-stand operations, souvenirs, and programs. A nightly raffle for baseball-related souvenirs would bring in additional revenues. An annual auction and dinner would be held to raise a significant amount of money to support improvements to youth ball fields. Game-night sponsorships would also bring in revenues, as would advertising in the nightly game programs and in the annual souvenir program. Summer baseball camps would be held, providing the players with paying jobs for instructing the youngsters and bringing in additional revenue for the club.

On the expenditure side of the business model, most of the labor would be performed by volunteers, keeping the number of paid positions to a minimum. In the Montgomery County school system, students are required to perform a certain number of hours of community service in order to graduate. The club’s 501(c)(3) charitable status allowed it to be registered with the school system as a preapproved provider of services, permitted to grant credit hours to students for volunteering. By attracting volunteering adults and students, the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club could staff every game with nearly 40 volunteers — not including the players, who as college athletes could not be paid.

Another goal of the business model was to provide a wide array of family entertainment. The club wanted to generate an atmosphere that would attract families and give a feeling of community. (This had been the key to the revival of minor league baseball that Bruce Adams and Peggy Engel had celebrated in their Fodor’s book.) Accordingly, the club has featured celebrities at each game, stunts between innings, a pair of mascots (a dog named Homer and a puppy named Bunt), guest singers to perform the National Anthem, and sometimes singing groups, including a barbershop chorus. The club has built a picnic pavilion where birthday parties can be held; the club provides special events to the party-goers, such as honorary first pitches for the birthday kids and the opportunity for the honorees’ friends to run out onto the field when the Big Train players are introduced. In line with the family atmosphere, the club does not permit alcohol or tobacco on the property, nor does it tolerate offensive language. To give a sense of the old-fashioned purity of the game, the ballpark has a hand-operated scoreboard modeled after the one at Ebbets Field.

Initial Fund-Raising And Partnerships

Substantial donations were raised through personal contacts with local people of means who appreciated the benefits of community baseball. To reinforce the community spirit of the organization, John Ourisman insisted that no single family or business would dominate the fund-raising. Many fans willingly paid for their names to be placed on nameplates on the backs of the ballpark seats and on bricks in a commemorative wall erected in front of the stadium.

The Montgomery County Parks Department and Montgomery Parks Foundation entered into a partnership with the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club; as part of the agreement, the Parks Department funded new lights and an irrigation system for the field. As was the case with the preexisting field, once the ballpark was built, the new field was to be available to a variety of local amateur leagues, as well as to the Big Train collegiate team. The Parks Department now controls the scheduling for the use of the field and is responsible for maintaining the field.

Many local firms contributed their labor and materials for the construction of the ballpark and for some of the administrative operations. A concrete-construction company, Miller and Long, built the grandstand. Sandy Spring Builders built the clubhouse. Hopkins and Porter built the hand-operated scoreboard, the dugout benches, and the bullpen benches. The FloydE. Davis Company funded the picnic pavilion. EuroMotorcars funded the concession stand. Long and Foster Real Estate funded the souvenir shop. Numerous other construction firms also lent a hand. Lawyers at Lerch, Early, and Brewer donated their time to draft the articles of incorporation. Text Design, a printing firm, has donated thousands of work hours over the years producing the club’s schedules, flyers, souvenir programs, and daily program inserts with the lineups for each game.

Planning and Building The Ballpark

Peter Kirk, who as owner of the Frederick Keys, Bowie Baysox, and Delmarva Shorebirds ball clubs oversaw the construction of their ballparks, served as a significant mentor in the planning of Big Train’s ballpark. It was Peter who proposed the idea of major league quality seats on a concrete grandstand. He then responded to numerous requests for advice on how to build a fan-friendly ballpark. Alan Sparber of AIA and Associates labored long hours as the club’s architect to produce a jewel of a ballpark; the park was to have features that conjured up thoughts of other ballparks, such as an entrance similar to that of Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, a scoreboard reminiscent of Ebbets Field, and a dark green seat and red brick motif similar to Camden Yards.

Because the field was already being used during the spring and summer baseball season, construction of a ballpark on that site would need to take place during winter and early spring. The ground-breaking occurred on December 18, 1998. By April 1999, the 606-seat grandstand was ready, and amateur teams began to play on the field. By June 4, the ballpark had been completed, with a total seating capacity of 756including 150 seats in the bleachers-and fans were moving through its front gate to attend the first Big Train game.

It was decided to name the ballpark in memory of Shirley Povich, the noted Washington Post sports reporter. Members of the Povich family were present at the ground-breaking ceremony, and continue to make appearances at Povich Field. Povich Field is also the home of the Georgetown University baseball team.

Recruiting Management Of The Team

The Big Train team was named after Walter “Big Train” Johnson. Johnson, one of the first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, is a revered figure in Montgomery County and throughout the baseball world. A local high school is named after him, and he lived just a couple of miles from where Povich Field was erected. He is buried in a cemetery in nearby Rockville. The first general manager of the team was Hank Thomas, Walter Johnson’s grandson. Thomas is a SABR member and authored a comprehensive biography of Johnson. Thomas and Chuck Carey coauthored an article, “The California Comet,” that appeared in Joe Wayman’s 1995 Grandstand Baseball Annual. The writers received the Macmillan-SABR Research Award for the article.

In seeking a manager, Bruce Adams wanted someone from the local area who, in addition to being qualified to lead the ball club and teach the players, would be willing to run a baseball camp so that the coaches and players would have job opportunities for the summer. The first team manager was Derek Hacopian. Hacopian had played in the Clark Griffith League for three years. He was a star at the University of Maryland, where he batted .490, hit 23 homers and 83 RBIs in 1992, and won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Triple Crown. He spent five years playing in the minors, and performed well. He was a League All-Star three times and he batted .31 with 60 homers and 251 RBIs for his professional career.1 A knee injury cut short his career before he had an opportunity to make the majors.

Hacopian came to the Big Train with coaching and teaching experience. He ran the Derek Hacopian Baseball Academy in a nearby suburb, and had served as a high-school baseball coach. Once Hacopian became the team’s initial manager, he recruited the assistant coach and pitching coach.

Sal Colangelo was the initial assistant coach. His background included being an assistant coach of a varsity high-school team and an instructor at a baseball school. He was an associate scout for the Anaheim Angels. (Angels fans may recognize his last name; former Angel Mike Colangelo is Sal’s brother.) After Derek Hacopian moved on following the 2004 season, Colangelo became the manager of Big Train and remains in that position today.

The initial pitching coach was Kelton Jacobson. Jacobson pitched minor league ball for four years in the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners systems.2

Selecting The League And Gaining Entry

The Clark Griffith League was the oldest and most notable summer collegiate baseball league in the Washington, D.C., area. In 1966, after 21 years, the League moved off the Ellipse and away from the White House to Northern Virginia. In 1993, the League underwent a major upgrade by introducing wooden bats and play in professional and collegiate ballparks. However, going into 1999 there were only four teams in the League. With a solid business plan and the design for a top-notch stadium, the Big Train team was welcomed into the League as the fifth team.

The Big Train played in the Clark Griffith League for six years. After the 2004 season, the Bethesda team collaborated with other Maryland teams and formed the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate Baseball League, leaving the Griffith League. Cal Ripken Sr. had spent a lifetime developing young baseball players, so the Ripken Foundation agreed that establishing a summer collegiate league in his name would be a suitable fit.

Building Excitement In The Community

It takes more than assembling a team to gain a crowd of fans. People have to know about it. So the organization undertook advertising donated by the local Gazette newspapers. It set up an exhibit at the local shopping mall, put together a mailing list, and sent out brochures and the season schedule. It briefed members of the media and gained some favorable newspaper articles. And it set up a special event one evening at Walter Johnson High School to launch the team and recruit volunteers.

As John Ourisman took responsibility for recruiting the major donors who funded the lion’s share of the ballpark’s construction, Bruce Adams realized that it would be important to start developing a fan base early on. In the fall of 1998, Adams sold seat plaques for each of the 606 Camden Yards–style seats. Each family and business that bought a seat plaque also received a 1999 Inaugural Season Pass and a copy of either Adams’s Fodor’s book or Hank Thomas’s biography of his grandfather, Walter Johnson. The seat plaques sold out quickly, and Adams began selling commemorative bricks that are now displayed at the Povich Field entrance.

Recruiting Volunteers

It is important not only to have volunteers, but also to establish a clear understanding about the various roles. Host families are needed to house the players and coaches who do not live nearby. Game volunteers include ticket sellers, ushers, public address announcers, official scorers, scoreboard operators, scoreboard communicators (to let the operators know the ball and strike count), mascots, concession-stand operators, souvenir sellers, National Anthem singers, batkids, and general helpers with between-inning stunts, retrieval of foul balls, mascot security, and clean-up during and after the games.

In the first year, a few volunteers did double duty on some of these jobs, but in the ensuing years, the organization became more specialized in its use of volunteers. In its third season, the organization started using a volunteer coordinator and set up a more formal staffing schedule for each game. In addition, the Booster Club meets monthly to plan the operational aspects of running both the ball club and its charitable activities.

In an area attached to a large city, there are people with the talent to score games, sing in public, and announce with authority. Those are probably the most skilled of the team’s volunteer jobs. Many such people are willing to volunteer their time to offer these skills; the trick, of course, is to find them. The team uses the Big Train website, volunteer job descriptions filed with the County’s Volunteer Center, announcements during the game, and messages in the game programs to induce potential volunteers to get in contact. The team also actively makes contact with people who might be interested in volunteering and who can offer the needed skills.

The First Year’s Team

Big Train players are primarily recruited by the manager through his contacts with college coaches around the country. College coaches are always looking for their best players to get additional training during the summer and to experience high-level competition in wooden-bat leagues. The 1999 Big Train team consisted of 28 players from 22 different colleges and universities. One of them, outfielder Charlton Jimerson, went on to gain major league playing experience with the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Nine other players from that team would later play professional baseball in the minor leagues.

The 28 players came from hometowns in 13 different states, with many from Maryland and Virginia that first year. Others came from distances as far as California, Florida, and Maine. As the years have rolled by and the program has become more widely known, the team has come to recruit from an even broader geographical range.

The Big Train team was successful from the outset, defeating the All-American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA) national champion Arlington Senators in its inaugural game. It finished the first half of the 1999 season in third place with an 11-9 record, merely two games behind the leaders. Big Train finished the second half of the season in second place with a 12-6 record.

After the regular season ended, Big Train competed for a berth in the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF) College World Series. The team won the berth and went on to win two games in the NABF World Series before being eliminated in the semifinals.

Measures Of Success

The fans have embraced Big Train baseball and constantly say how much they appreciate the family-oriented atmosphere at its ballgames. Over the ten-year period of Bethesda Big Train’s existence, about 150,000 fans have been to Povich Field to see the games. In 2007, attendance per game averaged more than 700 for the Cal Ripken Sr. Collegiate League games.

Volunteer participation has been highly successful. Every year, the team has enlisted a sufficient number of host families to house the players and coaches. Over one thousand people have worked at the games on a voluntary basis. As many as 40 volunteers staff the ballpark for many of the games.

Exciting action has occurred on the field. The team executed a triple play. Dirk Hayhurst, who is now with the Toronto Blue Jays system,3 struck out 18 batters in one game. Four pitchers have hurled no-hitters over the years. Adam Redd played all nine positions in one game. We hosted seven League All-Star games and two games against the U.S. Military All-Stars, as well as numerous League playoff games.

The Bethesda Community Base Ball Club has raised and dedicated around $500,000 for the improvement of youth baseball and softball fields. They built Jackie Robinson Field in the District of Columbia for the Fields of Dreams after-school program and a replica Povich Field for age-12-and-under teams right next door to Povich Field. Each year, they collect sneakers, gloves and other equipment and send them to needy kids in Manny Mota’s Campos de Sueno (Fields of Dreams) project in the Dominican Republic. In 2008, the club financed the home run fence for a new Bethesda Little League team.

During regular-season play, the team has won 256 games and lost 148, for a .634 winning percentage. In 2004, the team won the regular-season race and the championship playoffs of the Griffith League. In 2005, the team won the Ripken Senior League regular season and was co-champion of the playoffs. In 2006, the team won the regular season race.

As of June 1, 2009, five former Big Train players have played in the major leagues, including John Maine, Charlton Jimerson, Steve Schmoll, Bobby Livingston, and Dirk Hayhurst. Seventy-six of the team’s former players have appeared in the minor leagues and/or independent pro baseball. Many of those whose playing careers have ended have gone into baseball-related occupations, such as coaching in schools or baseball academies.

The Big Train experience has been integrated into the lives of the local community. At each night game the ballpark features a nonprofit organization. Representatives of the community organization are introduced during the pregame ceremony on the pitching mound. The team provides them with 100 free tickets to the game and a table near the grandstand where they may display their brochures and poster boards. Through participating in these kinds of events, the nonprofits are able to attract additional volunteers and donors. The team also donates season passes to local school auctions.

The local media have been kind to Big Train. Two magazines—the Washingtonian and Bethesda Magazine—have lauded the Big Train experience as an excellent form of entertainment for families. Marc Fisher, a columnist for the Washington Post, penned an article headlined “For Baseball that Feels Right, Try Bethesda,” and said about Big Train baseball:

In a video game world, this is as retro a summer’s eve as most kids will know, and they can’t get enough of it It makes you forget about all the politics and the money and the wrangling that have soiled the big league game. This is the real thing.

Although the operation has been successful thus far, the Bethesda Community Base Ball Club does not rest on its laurels. It uses the Booster Club, consumer surveys, and discussions with fans to uncover weaknesses that may need correction and to generate new ideas for improvements in its second decade of community baseball.

 

Notes

1 Baseball-reference.com credits Hacopian with 58 homers and 246

2 Baseball-reference.com lists the Tigers system but not Seattle-affiliated teams for According to their records his last year was 1997, with Kalamazoo of the independent Frontier League.

3 Hayhurst was claimed off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays on October 6, 2008, but was released four months later before the season started, before re-signing with the Jays to a minor-league deal.

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