This article is very passionate to me. Recently Yahoo! sports asked some of it’s contributing writers to do a piece on the best youth baseball fields in their area. As a recent Yahoo! contributor who has played and coached on just about every baseball field in Prince George’s County, Md. one would think that this would be right up my alley. Fifteen years ago it would have. But there is nothing for me to write about now, because hardly anyone plays baseball or softball here anymore.
Now when driving around the county all that I see are empty ball fields. There is no one at the little league diamond up the street from where I live or on fields from Brandywine to College Park. Pick up games are a thing of the past. Baseball fields in P.G. county are basically ghost towns.
I saw the end of baseball and softball in P.G. County take place right before my eyes. Fifteen years ago, I was the junior varsity coach at my alma mater Gwynn Park High in Brandywine and coached in the local Babe Ruth and county leagues as well. And I saw one coach and school all but kill interest in the sport whether they meant to or not. Here is out it happened.
When I was growing up, baseball was the sport among many here. I was a football man, but those of my father’s generation were more into baseball and talked about it constantly. Though basketball was always the sport of choice for most in the area at that time baseball was a very close second. It was nothing to go out on a weekend and find ball fields packed with players of all ages and levels. You could find a game on any weeknight, also. Baseball, slow pitch softball and fast pitch softball. Heck, we even had what they called donkey baseball games where people played while riding on the back of donkeys. If you wanted to watch or participate there were plenty of opportunities to do so. Pick up games were common and everyone had a bat, ball and glove lying around the house somewhere.
But there was one level where the game always seemed to lack interest and that was the high schools. Even when I played in the early 1980’s some schools struggled to get enough students to field a team. We had one team forfeit my sophomore year, because they didn’t have enough players.
The schools who did field teams in our county, however, were very competitive. Though never a hotbed for baseball talent P.G. County fielded some very good teams. The top team in the area was Bowie High. They won the state championship at the highest classification in 1981 and ’82 going undefeated both seasons. Then they won it again in 1984 losing only one game. We played them that season on their field and lost 4-0 though our pitcher threw a one-hitter. As for good old Gwynn Park? Well we were one class below Bowie and after that loss went on to win the state championship as well. Giving P.G. County half of the state champion baseball teams in Maryland for 1984. We would go on to the state championship game my senior year only to lose.
Baseball in the county was riding pretty high and there was no reason to believe that it would not continue. Little did we know that the sport was about to be in peril. When it happened Terry Terrill and Riverdale Baptist High School pushed it over the edge.
What happened over the next 20 years could not have been predicted by anyone. After Bowie and Gwynn Park won it all in 1984 P.G. County did not boast another state champion baseball team until 2004. Not only did the county not field a championship team it struggled to even place one in the state tournament. When the drought was finally ended the team that did it was none other than Bowie High. Three years later, Eleanor Roosevelt won it all, but these teams are an aberration rather than the norm. We will get to why later.
How could a county like P.G. with the largest population of any in the state of Maryland become so non-competitive in baseball over such a long period of time? The answer to that can be found at one school and with one coach. Riverdale Baptist High in Upper Marlboro and their manager Terry Terrill.
When I was in school Riverdale Baptist wasn’t very good at baseball. We scrimmaged them once and beat them pretty bad. Their coach Terry Terrill had played for Bowie High and in college and was just starting to get the program off of the ground. As far as I was concerned Riverdale Baptist was just an afterthought. A private school that just didn’t have the talent to compete.
But Terrill was working on a plan. His goal was to make Riverdale Baptist not only one of the the best teams in the area but in the country. After I graduated, Terrill set out to grab all of the best players in P.G. County. Private schools like Riverdale Baptist can recruit while public schools cannot. The recruitment of players by Riverdale Baptist is one of the most aggressive searches for talent that I have ever seen. DeMatha Catholic High is known as one of the most famous high school basketball programs in the country and exists right up the street from Riverdale Baptist. Riverdale Baptist baseball made DeMatha recruiting look like grade school.
Terrill began by grabbing most of, but not all, the best from his old stomping grounds Bowie. Then fanned out to cover the rest of the county. Terrill used the waning interest of baseball in the public schools to lure players to Riverdale Baptist. He told the kids and their parents the only way that they could ever reach their full potential was to leave their public school and play for his team. This made Riverdale Baptist an immediate local power. The team gained recognition and began to be ranked in the Washington Post Top 20. With this accomplished the next step was to become competitive nationally.
This was accomplished by expanding the recruiting circle outside of the county and into the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. Terrill went after so many players that by the mid 1990’s when I was coaching he had two varsity, one junior varsity and one freshman teams. The A varsity was the top team and they not only played locally, but traveled around the country to play other elite programs. The B varsity stayed at home and played the local schools.
How was Terrill able to stockpile so much talent? The same way that he recruited in P.G. County. By promising parents and kids the opportunity for better competition along with a chance to travel and be scouted by college and pro scouts. Because Riverdale was succesful locally and in the news constantly the parents bought into it. And the number of players grew and grew.
Though other areas where Terrill recruited were able to sustain and keep kids interested in baseball P.G. County could not. With most of the interest on basketball and football starting to catch up, the public schools began to have an even harder time fielding teams. Baseball became the uncool sport. Too slow in it’s pace and too hot to play through. When the county basketball programs began to put an emphasis on summer leagues than baseball was really in trouble. Before, the county could count on the athlete who just wanted to play a sport to come out for baseball. Now that athlete stuck to basketball. Some schools could field varsity squads, but not J.V. We had a heck of a time getting games at Gwynn Park, because there was no one to play.
As for those good players who did stay and play at the public schools they were overshadowed by Riverdale Baptist. Though many of them were every bit as good, if not better, than the kids Riverdale Baptist had. I saw many public school kids beat out players from Riverdale when trying out for summer league teams. It has gotten to the point where the local papers hardly cover baseball around here and rarely post game scores.
Once these players stopped getting recognition for their accomplishments they stopped playing. And with the best players either at Riverdale or not playing P.G. County baseball was all but dead. The sport lost a whole generation of kids. High school fields became empty. Youth league fields became empty. And adult league baseball and softball slowly died from lack of interest.
For some, the recent championships won by Bowie and Roosevelt would signal that quality baseball has returned to P.G. but as stated earlier these are aberrations. Both schools are in the highest classifications in the state and able to get players. They really don’t have much competition within the county. And at the lower classifications, baseball is still an afterthought.
Riverdale Baptist School has had a lot to do with the decline of baseball here. By taking the best players from P.G. County public schools Riverdale Baptist weakened the talent pool. They also took away an opportunity for good ball players who would have done very well at the public schools from showcasing their talent. If these kids had stayed in the public schools the competition would have been better and they would have gotten just as much, if not more, out of their baseball experience. And baseball in the county would still be strong.
Because the truth of the matter is that with all of the promises Terrill made to these kids Riverdale put no more players in college and the pros than the public schools did when I played. I know of only a handful of players who were drafted or signed to play pro baseball with the most noteworthy being pitcher Kenny Nelson who was drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Braves in 2000. And he wasn’t even the best pitcher in the county at that time.
Though Terrill is still at Riverdale their run of baseball dominance has ended for many reasons. For one, the dynamics of the schools student body have changed as more African-Americans are enrolled there. The emphasis has switched from baseball to basketball and football just as in the public schools. Many kids have turned to lacrosse instead of baseball.
But the damage has been done to baseball in P.G. County. Little or no one plays the game anymore and the high schools are still weak. I picked up the paper a couple of weeks ago only to see that Bowie had gone into a game with Reservoir High of Howard County undefeated and gotten killed 14-1.
To me, it is no coincidence at all that Prince George’s County did not field a championship program until Riverdale Baptist started to decline. The problem is that it is probably too late.
If Yahoo! sports wants to know where the best youth baseball fields in P.G. County, Maryland are they will have a hard time finding any.
No one plays on them anymore.