BIG TRAIN RIDES WAVE TO #1 NATIONAL RANK
by Alan Simpson, Perfect Game USA
Bethesda Big Train manager Sal Colangelo is fully aware that the Cal Ripken League is not in the same ball park as the Cape Cod League, in terms of national prestige and reputation. With more than 125 years of history to draw on and a documented track record of producing volumes of elite-level draft picks, the Cape simply dwarfs the seven-year old Ripken League in tradition, and as a talent source.
But Colangelo firmly believes that his 2011 Big Train team, which handily won its third straight Cal Ripken League title, was so special that it not only could have competed on an equal footing with Cape Cod League teams this summer, but might have even challenged the top teams in that league.
“We had a bunch of kids this summer that really knew how to play and our pitching staff was so good that I believe it was Cape Cod quality,” Colangelo said. “I would be surprised if our club couldn’t have won 25 games this year if we had played in the Cape Cod League.
“This was a very special team, definitely the best one we’ve had in the last three years. Pitching was the separator.”
Even if it won’t get the chance to take on the Cape, the Big Train handily took care of its competition in the Cal Ripken League, finishing first with a league-record 33 wins, and closing out its season in style by capturing the league title with three straight playoff wins. Overall, the Big Train went 36-9 on the season.
On the strength of its wire-to-wire domination of the Cal Ripken League, the Big Train’s success enabled it to finish the 2011 season atop Perfect Game CrossChecker’s weekly ranking of the nation’s top summer league clubs. In the process, it secured an unofficial national summer-league championship for the Maryland-based franchise.
The Big Train concluded its summer schedule in late July, long before most other leagues concluded play, and simply ascended to the No. 1 position when all the other contenders faltered down the stretch.
The Coastal Plain League’s Edenton Steamers (49-14) and Cape Cod League’s Hyannis Harbor Hawks (30-17) had traded the No. 1 spot all season long with impressive regular-season ledgers, but both teams bit the dust in their league playoffs, opening the door for Bethesda.
Edenton, which had been ranked No. 1 for five straight weeks, needed to win just one of two games on the final night of the CPL playoffs to secure a final No. 1 ranking, but fell twice, 4-2 and 2-0, to sixth-seeded Gastonia in a major upset.
Hyannis would also have been in line for a No. 1 final ranking, but it failed to even make it out of the first round of the Cape playoffs.
In the final ranking of the nation’s top 50 summer clubs, Edenton finished at No. 7 and Hyannis at No. 8.
In the end result, Bethesda had to withstand stiff challenges from the California Collegiate League’s co-champion Santa Barbara Foresters (44-13), which finished No. 2, and the No. 3-ranked Harwich Mariners (30-20), the Cape League playoff champion.
Santa Barbara was proclaimed the unofficial 2008 national champion after winning that year’s National Baseball Congress World Series, and nearly achieved the feat again after easily winning the 2011 NBC World Series. The Prospect League champion Quincy Gems (40-18), New England Collegiate League champion Keene Swamp Bats (34-16) and West Coast League champion Corvallis Knights (44-18) were also in the running for the top spot.
None of those clubs, however, put together a season to remember quite to match Bethesda’s.
“Half of our kids probably should have played in the Cape this summer,” Colangelo said, “and the best part of it all is our kids got the experience of a lifetime by playing here. They all bought in to what we were trying to achieve as a team, and I told them all at the end, ‘what you accomplished was very, very special.’
With almost no head-to-head meetings among the nation’s 30-some summer leagues, teams in the running for No. 1 are ultimately measured by various established criteria such as overall record, league dominance (in both regular season and playoffs), number of bona-fide professional prospects and the overall strength of the league. No teams with sub-.500 records are considered.
With the exception of one local player, every player on the Bethesda roster came from a major Division I college program, with almost half coming from California.
“Our recruiting network extends to all areas of the country,” said Colanglo, the longest tenured coach in the Cal Ripken League. “With the success we’ve had, we’ve started to get a lot of name recognition among college coaches, and they’ve started sending their better players to us.”
Big Train third baseman Adam Barry wasn’t drafted in June as a red-shirt sophomore out of Cal State Northridge, but was named the league’s most valuable player after setting league records with a .414 batting average, 67 hits and 43 RBIs. Though he homered just once on the summer, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Barry roped a league-best 14 doubles and enjoyed his greatest success as he continues his transition to baseball after playing two years of football at Wyoming in 2008-09. In the process, he may have taken big strides in improving his standing for the 2012 draft.
Barry aside, Bethesda’s best prospect was unquestionably catcher Hunter Renfroe, a freshman from Mississippi State and projected first-round draft pick in 2013. He excelled on both sides of the ball, leading the Cal Ripken League with eight homers while showcasing extraordinary arm strength behind the plate. The powerfully-built Renfroe flashed a 1.7 pop time during the league’s Scout Day and also reached 98-99 mph in limited pitching action.
“Time will tell whether he’ll be a pitcher or catcher,” said Colangelo, “but he was by far the best prospect in this league this summer. He has the best raw power and arm strength I’ve ever seen from a player in this league, and if he continues to hit and hit with power, he’ll be a catcher at the next level. If he struggles at the plate, he’ll most likely become a pitcher.”
Mississippi State coaches wanted to see Renfroe get a steady diet of at-bats this summer so he could learn to hit breaking balls with more authority, and also focus on his receiving and blocking skills. He excelled at the plate with five of his eight homers, including several tape-measure shots, coming on breaking balls.
Renfroe worked in only one game on the mound for the Big Train, earning a save in his only appearance, but easily had the best arm strength of any pitcher on the Bethesda staff. He also flashed a quality slider. But on a deep and talented staff, Renfroe’s arm was considered expendable.
Staff ace Matt Bowman (Princeton) went 5-2, 0.82 with six walks in 51 innings, and was selected the league’s outstanding pitcher. Righthander Mike Aldrete (San Jose State), who also played shortstop for the Big Train when not pitching, was the team’s primary closer and didn’t allow a run all season while saving five games. His fastball reached 94 mph.
Aldrete, son of the former major leaguer, was named MVP of the league’s four-team championship series after hitting a game-winning two-run homer to win Game Two and saving the deciding contest. As a team, the Big Train posted a 2.41 ERA.
The Cal Ripken League, with nine teams based in and around the metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, has made significant strides in its seven years of existence, and it has been the two-team tandem of the Big Train and Youse’s Maryland Orioles that have dominated the league pretty much from the start.
The Big Train joined the league as an original franchise in 2006 after leaving the since-disbanded Clark Griffith League, while the Orioles, who have been in existence since 1952 under various names and sponsorships, came on board the same season after dominating the annual All-American Amateur Baseball Association World Series in Johnstown, Pa., through the years. That team is named in honor of the late Walter Youse, a long-time area scout who coached the team from 1957 until his death in 2005.
Despite finishing well behind the Big Train in the Cal Ripken League standings this summer, the Orioles recently waltzed through the 16-team AAABA World Series for its 28th title at that event.
Combining the success enjoyed this season by both the Big Train and Orioles, it’s been a break-out season, of sorts, for the Cal Ripken League—maybe not quite noteworthy enough to put the league on a par with the more-established Cape Cod League, but enough to enable it to continue its steady climb up the hierarchy of the nation’s top summer leagues.