Big Train 2011: A Team of Excellence

by Ian Domeika

Championships are not a rare sight for the Bethesda Big Train. The team has captured ten Cal Ripken Sr. League Championships since 2005. But one of those many championships that hang outside the press box of Shirley Povich Field has a special distinction.

A roster stacked with 11 future MLB draft picks, the 2011 team took home Perfect Game’s ranking of #1 overall summer collegiate baseball team in the country. 

Manager Sal Colangelo reflected on the historic team’s successes, “It gives you chills, the amount of big leaguers on that team, and they just had that mindset, the IQ, they were smart, good kids who had the work ethic and the ability to win.”

The team’s work ethic was undeniable, driving them to an outstanding 33-9 record on the year. A key leader on that team, major league veteran Hunter Renfroe, owes Colangelo, “about 5,000 dollars, because he wouldn’t stop hitting balls out of the ballpark.”

Renfroe’s success in the 2011 season put him on the map to move to the Cape Cod summer baseball league.

But the Mississippi State star chose to stay with the Big Train in 2012, blasting an all-time league record 16 homers while batting in 53 runs, another all-time league record, en route to a Cal Ripken League MVP, adding on to his First Team All-League award in 2011.

“He could’ve went to Team USA, but he came back here because he had such a valuable experience and got better, and he knew what mattered was the end result,” recalled Coach Sal, remembering the impact Renfroe had on the Big Train.

Renfroe’s number is retired and hangs on the light pole beyond the left field fence, a spot he would constantly hit home runs to during his Big Train career.

But Renfroe is not the only player on the 2011 roster who has broken through on baseball’s biggest stage. Matt Bowman, a 2012 MLB draft pick to the New York Mets, is still pitching at a high level twelve years later. The 2011 First Team All-Leaguer out of Princeton was the ace for the Big Train throughout the championship season.

“You look up, Matt’s done throwing his five innings, and you go to talk to him, and he’s gone, he’s back in the woods getting his running in to get better for the next day.”

Bowman’s relentless hard work landed him one of the highest awards in the Ripken League, Most Outstanding Pitcher. He also helped the team to an astounding 2.41 ERA on the season, which stands as the 6th lowest ERA in Cal Ripken Sr. League history. 

Defense was one of the team’s best traits according to Colangelo, who said, “They were just so fundamentally sound defensively, and they executed when they needed to execute, they were just tremendous.”

Execution was everything, as the Big Train stormed through the competition, ending with a 79% winning percentage, which sits as the 5th best winning percentage in league history. Both Renfroe and Bowman were inducted into the Cal Ripken Sr. League Hall of Fame.

The team not only came together every night on the field but created lasting bonds off the field that stand to this day. Brendan Middleton, a Washington Nationals draft pick, still lives in the area, keeping up with his former coach and teammates.

“I talk to him all the time, he’s like a son to me. He was our shortstop for 3 years and came back to continue to work. He’s like family, we do Christmas together, it’s a big party.”

The team that took the field every night in 2011 was a culmination of hard work for Colangelo and his staff. The third title in as many years capped off an incredible era of Big Train baseball.

“I remember I was sitting at my desk. I got kind of teary-eyed… to say you worked so hard in this organization, with all the stakeholders, your board, and your GM, to put a product like that on the field, it gives me chills now. I just closed my eyes for a minute, it was a dream come true.”

The Big Train have gone on to win six Ripken Sr. League championships since 2011, the most out of any team in the league since. Colangelo has taken much away from every season, developing his coaching philosophy to continue to win championships.

His big takeaway from 2011, “Never forget the kids that are at the bottom of the roster. Because they all made a difference at some time that season, whether it was a big hit or making a pitch, and when you do that, they believe in you and will run through a brick wall for you.”

The winning ways in Bethesda have much to do with the coaching of Colangelo.

“I’m not about getting the best players all the time; I’m about getting the best players for my system that are going to not just win but develop as players and human beings.”

The best players for his system in 2011 just so happened to be 11 future draft picks whose work ethic drove them to the top of the Summer College Baseball mountain.

“It was a team of excellence that just wanted to get better.”