SALISBURY — This is Tom Brown's favorite time of day.
The 74-year-old has just ambled from his single-story brick home to the cozy baseball diamond in the back corner of his 7 1/2-acre property. He has hammered in the bases and dragged out garbage bins filled with gloves, bats and helmets.
Now it's almost 4 p.m., and he sits under his preferred shade tree, waiting on the children and their parents to arrive for one of the last lessons he'll deliver in this place.
It's a bittersweet time for the many who've been affected by Brown. He's retiring this week after 40 years of running his nonprofit league in one form or another.
To the wider world, Brown is a former Maryland star who became one of the few dozen men to play in both the NFL and Major League Baseball. He won two Super Bowl rings for Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers and started on Opening Day for the Washington Senators in front of President John F. Kennedy.
But in this corner — the one Brown cherishes most — he's the gentle, patient soul who has introduced generations of children to baseball (and football and basketball) through a league built on self-reliance and plain old fun. The Rookie League, he calls it, and Salisbury parents speak of it in reverent tones as a place where their children escape the rigidity and pressures of modern youth sports.
"It really is a treasure," says Karl Maier, a psychology professor at Salisbury University who has two sons in the league. "I wish every community could have a Tom Brown."
Though his daughter, Jessie, will continue coaching basketball in the winter, these are the last days for the patch of green Brown calls "my baby." No more will parents gather to laugh under the shade tree as they marvel at Brown's intuitive connection with their children. No more will they pull their cars over the grass and flip on headlights so that the kids can finish flag football games in the autumn dusk.
They happened upon something rare and remarkable when their lives intersected with this former two-sport professional athlete who teaches the simple joy of a well-contested game.
"It's just the fun of it," says Lauren McGovern, a Salisbury pediatrician who has three sons playing in Brown's league, "The kids come out here and they know no one's going to yell at them. There aren't going to be any overwhelming expectations. He puts them in charge, and they love it."
You'll never hear Brown speak a harsh word to the kids, ages 6 to 12. But you might see him shoot a disapproving look at a parent or grandparent who yells instructions.
One of the central tenets of the Rookie League is no hollering parents.
Kevin Gates, who played college football for Brown almost 30 years ago, learned this the first time his son, Mac, stepped to bat. Gates shouted at Mac to get his elbow up. Brown immediately came over. "Now, Kevin," he said firmly, "just let him play."
Brown expects the players to police themselves. Before every game, he tells them he's merely going to call the outs and keep score. They make the lineups, sit together on the bench without managers and guide one another through base-running and fielding decisions.
"He's really helped coach the parents about how to let their kids enjoy the sport," says McGovern's husband, Scott. "I see my kids go back home and do the same things in the yard."
A few years ago, a parent asked one of Brown's players why he didn't run to second base on a given play. "Coach says it's my decision," the boy replied.
Brown liked that so much he put the slogan "It's My Decision" on the league T-shirts he gives to every child.
He grew up in Silver Spring in a time when kids organized their own games without any concern for practice schedules, matching uniforms or travel teams. Those things have their place, he says, but he wants the games in his league to feel more like the pickup games of old.
"That's all it is, really, a pickup game with me as the umpire," he says. "If a kid makes a mistake, we don't care, because kids make mistakes."
It's not that the players don't care about winning. McGovern's son, Ben, spent a good chunk of his afternoon plotting the optimal defensive alignment for Wednesday's championship game. And after his team surrenders a spate of early runs, he runs to his mother, upset, feeling responsible.
Brown doesn't discourage that kind of passion. He simply puts it in perspective.
"One team is going to win and one team is going to lose," he tells the kids before the game. "All we want to do is our best."
When Brown tells the story of his league's evolution, he speaks most often of Lombardi, the great Packers coach. It might seem odd that an NFL coach known for his blustery manner and obsession with winning begat a man who preaches against yelling or fixating on the score. But Brown says people misinterpret Lombardi. He remembers a wonderful teacher who loved his players and urged them to find a calling beyond their fleeting careers.
Brown had worked at a recreation center in Montgomery County when he was a rising young athlete and learned that mentoring kids felt natural. He says he developed patience by helping to care for a family member.
Though he took sports seriously and practiced every day, he played because he enjoyed himself, not because anyone drove him to it.
It worked for him, so why not for other kids?
Brown played part of one baseball season for the Senators as an outfielder and first baseman, and then six as a safety for the Packers and Washington Redskins. When he considered Lombardi's advice to find a passion beyond football, coaching seemed the obvious fit.
He did other jobs over the years, from selling real estate to serving as a liquor inspector for Wicomico County. But in the end, they all served mainly to prop up the Rookie League.
He relocated to Salisbury in 1981 and bought his current property, with room for the fields, in 1991. Some neighbors objected to the notion of a youth sports league operating adjacent to their subdivision. But Brown ultimately won permission from planning-and-zoning officials, agreeing to plant 440 Leyland cypress trees as a buffer.
Driving along Nanticoke Road, you'd never guess the legacy that's grown behind the Browns' modest home. The only hint is a clump of low bushes, cut to spell the letters R and L, for Rookie League.
The for-sale sign on the lawn speaks to the era about to end. Brown says he and his wife likely will remain in the area, perhaps moving a bit closer to the beach.
A family business
The Rookie League became a true family business. Brown's wife, Nancy, stays away from the field, but she keeps the league running on time and on budget from an office in the house. Both his children, Jimmy and Jessie, played in the Rookie League. Jessie Brown grew into an excellent point guard at UMBC, then moved back to Salisbury, where she teaches special education and helps her father with coaching. Brown's son lives in Virginia but also works as a teacher and coach.
As the years rolled on, Brown found himself coaching the sons and daughters of his early players. The kids he coached became coaches themselves.
The league, which cost $170 per player this year, always filled up, almost entirely by word of mouth.
"It's just kind of part of the lore in this area," says Maier, the Salisbury psychology professor.
Brown doesn't offer any one driving reason as to why he's retiring now. He enjoys selling items autographed by his old Packers teammates, so he's eager for more free time to attend memorabilia shows. Mostly, this just struck him as the right time.
Unbeknownst to him, his wife and daughter and several league parents organized a tribute banquet last Saturday night. There were speeches and a video. Some current players, who know Brown only as a grandfatherly presence, were surprised to see him wearing a Super Bowl ring.
He always imagined riding into the sunset with nary a word, like his favorite old cowboy, Roy Rogers. But the truth is, he was deeply touched by the tributes he heard from the crowd of more than 200 players and parents. Some went all the way back to those initial games in Germantown, with the Concorde flying overhead.
"I knew I'd made a difference," he says. "But I didn't realize it would be such a lasting experience for them."
He believes Lombardi would be proud, and that makes him happy.
His routine is tied to the league. He rises at 5:30 every morning for a trip to the YMCA, where he walks around the track and works on the rowing machine. He takes care of other business, and then by mid-afternoon, it's time to walk out and set up the field.
"I'll go through withdrawal," he says, thinking ahead to next week.
He's not the only one who cherishes the pregame quiet. Jeff Dean, who has run the pitching machine for every game this season, always brings his son, 8-year-old Will, before the other players arrive.
Brown hits the boy grounders, just the two of them on the field.
"What a gift," Jeff Dean says.