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A Braves new world

July 14, 2000

A Braves new world



Everyone loves a winner.

And perhaps more than that, everyone loves to be part of a winner.

In baseball, it might explain the overwhelming number of New York Yankee hats and shirts worn by people who can barely find New York on a map let alone to be from there.

Players dream about the day when they might wear the pinstripes, walk through history of the monuments in center field and play for the game's most recongnizable franchise. Those lucky few put on the uniform with pride and can't imagine playing for any one else once they have been part of the tradition.

A small band of players in Hagerstown know that feeling. OK, so they don't don pinstripes. There aren't the shadows of Mantle, DiMaggio and Ruth hovering over them. And most probably will never play near Yankee Stadium.

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But to them, playing for the Hagerstown Braves of the Blue Ridge Adult League has much of the same flavor.

OK, so the Braves Batters will never be confused with the Bronx Bombers, but the locals have the same understanding of the game that the famed Yankees own - a sense of family ... a sense of pride ... a sense of tradition.

"I'll play for as long as I'm able to play," said Danny Cunningham, the Braves player-manager. "I love playing. I love coming out and seeing all the guys. When I was growing up, you always dreamed about playing for the Braves. We are just thankful they started the Braves."

In reality, to the untrained eye, the Braves are nothing more than an adult baseball team. Every player has played the game for most of his life and can't get enough of it.

But it's so much more. For some, like Cunningham, the Braves represent a way to play, learn and teach the game he loves while satisfying the drive for competition and the fun of being part of a successful team.

For others, like Pat Sweeney, there is a possibility of more at stake. Sweeney is a recent college graduate who would love to have the chance to play professional ball. He hasn't been drafted and he hasn't been signed as a free agent, so the Braves offer him decent competition with at least four games per week to keep his skills sharp until he's discovered.

"It's still in my mind to go to the pros," Sweeney admits. "I'm hoping for someone to pick one of us up. But right now, I'm having fun playing."

Fun, competition, success, teamwork and hope. They are all main ingredients that make the Hagerstown Braves the brass ring that everyone on the local adult league baseball carousel is trying to reach.

The Braves are the annual favorites to win the Blue Ridge League, as they were in the Franklin County Adult League in years past. They flourish and improve while other teams in the area struggle to keep their heads above water.

From the humble beginnings as a local team featuring local talent, the Braves have transformed into a statewide powerhouse that other teams use to see just how good they are.

And in spite of the league's decision to switch from aluminum to wood bats to help create parity among the teams, the Braves are presently 29-4 and still handily leading the league's standings.

In fact, on Tuesday they earned the top ranking in the Maryland Adult Semi-pro Baseball Top 10 poll for the first time in team history.

And it all starts from a tradition that was born 23 years ago.

"When Reno Powell started this team in 1977, it was something to give kids somewhere to play after they got done with Legion ball," said Cunningham, a seven-year veteran of the league. "It was pretty good quality baseball that was more like a college league. The first year he established the Braves, they went 31-3. It was just the tradition they set with guys like (former South Hagerstown star) Mike Brashears and the others. They started out and said to everyone, 'You can't take us lightly.'

"I know I was watching them and I'd be around with the other guys and say that I wanted to play for them. You dreamed about playing for the Braves. Then one day, I got the call."

Success allows the Braves to be selective. It keeps new talent coming in and adds versatility to the ranks.

"Our pitching is strong, year in and year out," Cunningham said. "We get a huge draw out of Hagerstown for the competition and the camraderie. We sell this team by the competition. A 32-game league schedule ... the Firecracker Tournament where we play the 32 best teams around. We get a lot of kids who pitch and play another position, so that helps. But we get kids who want to play."

Success demands that the Braves be selective.

The old guard consists of the likes of Cunningham, pitcher Deron Crawford and infielder Mike Martin. The youth movement has Sweeney and infielders Nate Reeser and J.R. Fitzwater, both from West Virginia. The Braves recruit players and look for players who are serious about playing the game. The practice allows Hagerstown to stay on top of the local game while getting young players to help keep that tradition for excellence alive.

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