All Aboard the Big Train
Thursday night was the last regular season game for the Bethesda Big Train at Cabin John Park in Montgomery County. What? You haven't heard of it?
Allow me to explain because I didn't know much about it either and entered a world out of time, just 12 miles from Georgetown.
The Bethesda Big Train is part of a non-profit collegiate summer league designed to inspire kids through baseball player role models. The players are hosted by local families for the summer and most of the stadium jobs are also held by volunteers. My son was invited to a birthday party at the game against the Vienna River Dogs at Shirley Povich stadium (named for the beloved Washington Post sports writer of nearly 75 years). Beltway traffic and stadium parking were mercifully easy, so we were off to a good start. We arrived early for the 7:30 game in the stifling heat not really sure what we were in for. The entrance of the stadium had been transformed into a carnival complete with rides for "Fan Appreciation Day" and as we approached the entrance we were met with a Hawaiian band playing Beatles songs (seemingly without irony) and given cardboard fans to cool ourselves. There was a misting station nearby, where children frolicked in the cool water to escape the suffocating heat. We joined our party under a large shady gazebo to commence the birthday celebration. What's better than hotdogs at a baseball game? When the players warming up in a batting cage nearby come over to the picnic tables to sign baseballs for the kids. These gracious young college All-stars clearly haven't forgotten what it's like to be a kid with a love of the game.
The pre-game activities include a kid's run on the field with the players, throwing out the first of many "first pitches" for the birthday boys and girls in attendance as well as individual and heartfelt thanks to the sponsors which include local and small businesses as well as Whole Foods Market. There is a designated non-profit beneficiary at each game and a representative of the organization gets to throw out a ball, too. The excitement continued to build as three former Maryland Terps basketball players threw out pitches and for the first time ever since the team was founded a player's number was retired (Hunter Renfroe #11). Our seats were just beside the Big Train dugout near first base and all were instructed to keep their eyes (and gloves) open as lots of balls were likely to come their way. My nine-year old sat in the front row and his eyes barely left the game. Kids visited the dugout throughout the game to ask players to sign balls and one child even arrived with a hotdog as an incentive. Between innings there is a race around the bases with the mascot, a raffle for a signed Cal Ripken baseball (alas, we didn't win), dancing with the mascot for prizes (a no-brainer for my 6 year old), as well as other silly and fun activities. It's all part of the schtik at Big Train games where the team competition is very real, but everything else is devoted to a good old-fashioned good time. Children get to be a part of almost every aspect of the game and they clearly love it. The stands are filled with families and grandparents with kids. A few I talked to admitted to coming to nearly every game, much to their own surprise.
It finally cooled off and The Train was killing the Dogs in the fifth (18-4), when a strong wind started blowing leaves in the direction of the field. Over the loudspeaker came the announcement that a severe thunderstorm was ten or fifteen minutes away and the game would be called. I was somewhat relieved as it was already ten PM and I was anxious to get home safely, but what clinched it for us was when Hunter Renfroe stuck his head around the dugout and said to my son "You better get going, it's going to be pretty bad". From the look of wonder and admiration on his face, I could tell my son was thrilled by the personal connection and Renfroe's kindness.
That was our Field of Dreams moment and we raced to the car just ahead of the storm.