Monday, July 25, 2016

Take me out to the ballgame

Yesterday evening my dad and I attended a Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts baseball game.  The Thunderbolts were playing the Gaithersburg Giants in the first round of the playoffs in the Cal Ripken League.  While the Thunderbolts have played at Blair Stadium here in Four Corners since 2002, I somehow hadn't attended a game until tonight.  I'm very glad I did, since it was a great experience.

The Thunderbolts banner along the fence of the bullpen.  All photos by the author.

Who are the Thunderbolts?

The Silver Spring-Takoma Thunderbolts are a wooden bat collegiate baseball league.  They are a charter member of the Cal Ripken League, where they play against teams including the Bethesda Big Train, the Rockville Express, and the Gaithersburg Giants.  The team consists of college ballplayers who play in the summer to keep their skills sharp, and ideally, to get noticed by MLB scouts.  Players are recruited from colleges across the country in the fall prior to the summer season, which runs from early June to late July.     

Players from outside of the D.C. area live with host families for the summer while they play for the club, in a similar manner to exchange student programs.  During the seven week season, the team plays nearly every day, similar to the schedule of a prop team.  The season also includes an all-star game during the first week of July, in which several Thunderbolts participated.      



Thunderbolts merchandise for sale at the game.

The stadium

The Thunderbolts play at Blair Stadium, a public facility on the grounds of Montgomery Blair High School managed by M-NCPPC.  The Thunderbolts signed a 20 year lease with M-NCPPC in 2002, and the team has made several capital improvements to the facility over the years.  Admission to the stadium on gameday is $5 for adults, $2 for kids under 18, and free for those under 5.        

The ballpark from the first base line stands.

The ~400 seat stadium has three sets of stands, with a small building behind the center stand containing the announcer's booth, restrooms, and concession stand.  The playing field measures 325' to left, 315' to right, and 403' to straightaway center (these dimensions are only slightly smaller than the playing field at Nationals Park).  The field is lit, and it has proper dugouts and bullpens for each team.  The park also has a warning track for player safety, and a net behind home plate to protect fans from foul balls.  

It's no MLB stadium, but it's great for a facility of its size. 

Panoramic view of the stadium.

Gameday experience 

As a newcomer to the Thunderbolts, I found the ballpark atmosphere friendly and welcoming.  Many people seemed to know one-another, and it helped that most fans in attendance were Nats fans like my dad and I.  Within a minute of sitting down, we were talking with a fan next to us about the implosion of the Nats bullpen during yesterday's game (ironically, Nats relief pitcher Jonathan Papelbon played for the T-Bolts in 2000).  

The game experience had the elements of an MLB game, but at a much smaller scale.  The Star Spangled Banner was sung at the beginning of the game, and there were activities between innings such as raffles, giveaways, and kids-run-the-bases.  During the 7th inning stretch, "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" is sung in true baseball tradition.  Peanuts and Cracker Jacks can be purchased at the concession stand, at a much cheaper price than any MLB stadium.    

Gaithersburg Giants at bat in the top of the 7th.

The smaller scale does add some fun aspects to the game.  When a ball is hit foul into the stands, fans are asked to return it, since the team doesn't have infinite baseballs.  If a ball is hit out of the stadium, foul or otherwise, fans are encouraged to go find it and retrieve the baseball for the team.  The location of Fire Station 16 just beyond the left field fence also provides some ambiance to the experience, with sirens and lights sporadically drawing the attention of the fans (and perhaps distracting opposing batters).  Traffic on the Beltway also adds some consistent background noise, including the occasional whine of a speeding motorcycle or the rumble of a truck's engine brake.  

The stadium also seemed to be a family-friendly atmosphere, with lots of kids in attendance with their parents and friends.  At some points, the kids started and led cheers of "Let's go Thunderbolts!" which caught on among the crowd.          

Thunderbolts players wetting down the infield prior to first pitch as the umpires look on.  

Quality of play

While the Thunderbolts play in collegiate baseball league comprised of college players who may still be perfecting their game, the level of play was quite good.  There were a few more wild pitches and errors than would be seen at a professional level, but the players certainly had talent.  While there were no homes runs in this game, there were several hard hit line drives, including two would-be home runs caught up against the left field fence.  The Thunderbolts catcher caught at least three players stealing, two at second and one at third.  Several of the outfielders also made some impressive throws home to prevent runs from being scored.  

While the starting Thunderbolts pitcher had a rough start, giving up six runs in two innings, the pitcher who replaced him in the top of the third pitched six scoreless innings, allowing the Thunderbolts offense to close the lead to 2 (it had been 6-0 Giants at one point).

Thunderbolts at bat in the second inning.
         
Local connections

The best part of a Thunderbolts game is just how localized everything is.  Several Four Corners businesses sponsor the team, as do nearby civic groups.  In right field, a sign sponsored by a iGlasses@4corners offers free eyeglasses to one lucky fan if the sign is struck by a line drive.  A pizza box contest for kids between innings is sponsored by the Four Corners Papa Johns.  While corporate sponsorship is common in sports, its nice to see nearby businesses support a small local team like the Thunderbolts. 

The team's program also contains ads for nearby businesses, along with messages of support from local elected officials.  Politicians supporting the team include the county executive, a few county council members (including Tom Hucker), and the entire District 20 state delegation (state senator Jamie Raskin, along with delegates Moon, Smith, and Hixson).  Given how politically active this area is, it's only fitting that political ads nearly outnumber business advertisements in the program.  

The 2016 Thunderbolts program.

Unfortunately, the Thunderbolts lost yesterday's game 6-4, eliminating them from the playoffs.  Despite the loss, the game was still exciting and enjoyable.  I look forward to going back next year and supporting our hometown team.  

The teams lining up to shake hands after the game.
   
                                         

2 comments:

  1. Series ended July 24, with the Bolts in econd place finish in the North Division and the 4th best record in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. See you next year!

    ReplyDelete
  2. They also run a baseball camp for 8-13 year olds for most of the summer. Those guys are busy!

    ReplyDelete