The couple behind Bethesda Big Train baseball.
In 1929, 12-year-old Tinsley Adams’ friend, Eddie Johnson, lived in a big, white house at the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Cedar Lane. Eddie’s father was Walter Johnson, known as The Big Train, a legendary baseball pitcher who was then managing the Washington Senators. (Walter Johnson High School, just a few miles from the family home, honors the ballplayer, who also served as a Montgomery County commissioner.) On many summer mornings, Johnson would drive Eddie and Tinsley to Griffith Stadium in D.C., where the Senators played.
The boys “just hung out all day with Walter Johnson,” says Bruce Adams, Tinsley’s son. “I try to explain this to my kids. It’s like Cal Ripken picks you up and takes you to Camden Yards. They did this for three summers.”
That legacy lives on. Today, Bruce Adams is the president of Bethesda Big Train, a summer baseball team composed of amateur collegians. The team plays about 25 home games during May, June and July at Shirley Povich Field, a spiffy little stadium nestled in Cabin John Regional Park. On many nights, 800 fans fill the ballyard named for a longtime Washington Post sportswriter, and since its first season in 1999, the team has been a family affair.
In the early years, Bruce’s wife, Peggy Engel, ran the concession stand and even took a course from the county board of health. “These are certified food handler hands,” she laughed as we talked one rainy afternoon in the press box at Povich Field. After a full day of running the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which awards grants to journalists, Peggy would find herself scrubbing out “greasy hot dog pans” at midnight. She was also chief trash collector until she started giving prizes to the kids who picked up the most garbage after a game. The two Adams children pitched in. Hugh was the batboy, Emily ran the scoreboard, and both did tours as Homer the Dog, the team’s mascot.
They had little choice. Baseball was in their blood. Bruce grew up in Potomac and played on a Little League team sponsored by Mitch & Bill’s gas station on River Road. When the community built a field next to the station, Bruce and his mother made the numbers for the scoreboard. The lad was a good-field, no-hit first baseman, and to this day he blames his paltry batting average on poor eyesight.
While Bruce was attending Senators games with his dad, an insurance salesman, Peggy was studying hard in a Cleveland suburb, where students who earned straight As won free tickets to Indians games. She and her twin sister, Allison, would eat “frosty malts,” a local specialty, while cheering for their hero, Rocky Colavito, a hard-hitting outfielder. Bruce eventually went to law school, Peggy pursued a career in journalism, and, in 1979, they both won fellowships to spend a year at Harvard. Their first outing together was to a Red Sox baseball game.
The romance took time to blossom, but by 1982 they were both living in Washington and going on dates to Orioles games. Bruce admits he “didn’t plan well” when he proposed a year later. As the 1983 Orioles were winning the World Series, the young couple was in Paris on their honeymoon. “I was really good about it,” Bruce recalls. “I said, what the hell, there will be plenty of Series for me.” Wrong. The Orioles have not appeared in a World Series since.
After they returned home, Peggy set one condition: She wanted a cat. Bruce named the feline “Ripken,” after the Orioles’ star infielder. (Ripken emulated her namesake’s durability and lived for 21 years.)
Bruce then served eight years on the Montgomery County Council, and Peggy became an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and wrote books with her sister about regional food. After the kids arrived, they started taking family trips that often included minor league baseball parks. One evening, sitting in his basement office, Adams contemplated a problem: “I have no money, I need a vacation, I really want to see America. How the hell am I going to do that?” He rushed upstairs with a brainstorm: Why not do a guidebook to baseball sites across America? “I braced myself,” he recalls, certain Peggy would call him an idiot. Instead, she replied, “That’s a great idea, I’ll call my agent.”
For the next six summers, the Adams-Engel clan roamed the country in a minivan, gathering material for three editions of a book called Fodor’s Baseball Vacations. Emily and Hugh watched movies in the back while their parents drove, and the entire family can recite every word from their two favorite baseball films, Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own. One day in Oneonta, N.Y., where the family was attending a minor league game, Hugh wandered into the bullpen and started chatting with the young relief pitchers. When his dad came looking for him, the pitchers were describing where they had played the previous summer, an amateur league in the Shenandoah Valley. Bruce thought the league would make a good feature story, and after it ran in The Post, a reader called and said, “Why did you go all the way out there? Don’t you know there’s a league for college players right here in Washington?”
That league was named for Clark C. Griffith, the former owner of the Senators, and after checking it out, Bruce was determined to field a team and build a new stadium in Bethesda. The idea contradicted conventional wisdom: Summer college leagues usually flourish in places like the Shenandoah Valley, where there are few entertainment options. And Adams was often greeted with some version of the question: “Why would a bunch of fancy people in Bethesda go watch college kids play baseball?”
But the former first baseman for Mitch & Bill’s was convinced that his home county would support a team, and one of Adams’ first converts was car dealer John Ourisman. The two “made the rounds” to local businesses to drum up support. Miller & Long, the construction company, donated labor and materials. Ledo Pizza, Sandy Spring Builders and a dozen others joined up. Don Graham, then the publisher of The Post, wanted to honor Shirley Povich, but asked that some of the profits be directed to youth programs in Washington. The team turns a small profit from tickets and concession sales, but it augments its income with an annual fundraiser and donates about $50,000 a year to refurbishing ball fields and running after-school programs in inner-city neighborhoods.
Adams, now director of the Montgomery County Office of Community Partnerships, always wanted Big Train to be a locally based project. Every season, several dozen families take in a team member (as amateurs, they don’t get paid) and tight bonds form. Bruce and daughter Emily recently attended the Kansas wedding of a former ball-playing houseguest. (Five Big Trainers have made it to the majors, but only pitcher John Maine of the New York Mets has stayed very long.)
Now, another generation has taken up the family game. Emily was a softball pitcher for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and went on to star at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. Hugh was a standout hurler for St. John’s College High School in D.C. and made the varsity baseball Team as a freshman at Florida Atlantic University. This summer, he’s pitching for Bethesda Big Train, a team named for the man who drove his grandfather, Tinsley, to Senators games 80 years ago.
Steve Roberts, a professor of politics and journalism at George Washington University, will publish his new book this fall, From Every End of This Earth.