(Photo via the Big Train’s site, seen here)
While many of the top prospects in college baseball are sent out to the prestigious Cape Cod League, many other summer leagues exist. One such league is the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League (CRCBL), based in the Baltimore-Washington DC metropolitan area.
The Bethesda Big Train are a staple of the league and have employed only one manager since 2005: Sal Colangelo. Colangelo was an assistant coach since the team’s inception in 1999, until being promoted when the Big Train switched leagues. Colangelo’s goal is to get “good kids, which we can make better by motivating them and holding them accountable.”
Colangelo treats the summer league as a way for players to get extra playing time and conditioning, while at the same time being a part of a winning tradition. The Big Train, who share a field with Georgetown, have won six championships and eight regular-season titles since the CRCBL began in 2005. Before the CRCBL, the Big Train played in the now defunct Clark Griffith League and won the championship in 2004. They have only had one season in which they did not have a winning record, and that season was at .500. Overall, the Big Train’s record since they began to play is 519-254 for a .671 winning percentage.
Big Train culture mimics a professional atmosphere as much as possible. According to Colangelo, “[The coaching staff] knows what school our opponents come from and what they’ve done. Based on this we create game plans and tendency charts and follow guys in the league.” In addition to pregame plans and early work, the Big Train coaching staff is in touch with all player’s college coaches to help assist with a player-improvement plan. “Our pitching coach is in touch with the pitching coaches from all universities. We have our own conditioning program, but there is open communication. A lot of players come in with their own plans and are very dedicated to improvement,” explained Colangelo.
The Big Train have played host to 13 players who have gone on to play in the MLB. The first player to ever make it was John Maine (who was with the Big Train in 2000), a journeyman who played for UNC Charlotte in college. Maine accumulated a 9.7 K/9 and a 2.3 K/BB ratio before getting drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the sixth round in 2002’s MLB Draft. Maine played five seasons with the Baltimore Orioles before being part of a trade to the New York Mets for Kris Benson. Maine then pitched another three seasons with the Mets before making four final appearances with the Miami Marlins in 2013.
Another player from the Big Train is Brian Dozier (2006), an elite offensive infielder who plays with the Minnesota Twins. Dozier has played his entire career with the Twins and was drafted in the eighth round out of Southern Mississippi. Dozier, who was an All-Star in 2015 and a Gold Glove Award winner in 2017, has put together four consecutive 20-plus home run seasons, including a 42 home run season in 2016. His OPS each of the last two seasons has been north of .850.
Cody Allen, a member of the Big Train in 2008, is the current Cleveland Indians’ closer. He took over the closer role in 2014 after John Axford struggled in the same role. Allen has since blossomed into one of the MLB’s premier closers. According to FanGraphs, since Allen took over for Axford, he has pitched 259 2/3 innings and has a .267 ERA with a K/9 of 12, a WHIP of 1.09, and a FIP of 2.87.
One of the top prospects to come out of the Big Train organization is Bubba Derby, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. Derby, a 2015, sixth-round pick out of San Diego State by the Oakland Athletics, has had a stellar yet under-the-radar career in the minors. He was traded before the 2016 season as part of a package for Khris Davis and most recently pitched in Double-A Biloxi and Triple-A Colorado Springs. Derby produced a 3.26 ERA and a 7.5 K/9 while in the upper levels of the minors. However, even with all the success he’s having, he is not inside the Brewers’ top-30 prospects according to MLB.com.
Colangelo believes in the importance of promoting a family atmosphere. He describes how he, “stay[s] in touch with many of the former players and am there if they ever need anything.” He emphasizes that players are “treated like first class, but also must act like first class.” It’s this philosophy that led the Big Train to a number one overall rating by Perfect Game across all collegiate summer leagues in 2011. Colangelo understands the Big Train has always had a winning culture and is starting to attract big-name college athletes. He emphasized, “We want to be the New York Yankees of summer baseball.”