By Austin Gisriel
Summer in the Shenandoah Valley begins not with the solstice or swimming but rather with the first pitches in the Valley Baseball League. For the 11 small towns with teams—the Winchester Royals and Waynesboro Generals, the Front Royal Cardinals and Haymarket Battle Cats among them—this is baseball “as it ought to be”: simple, inexpensive and good.
(Reprinted from the Sport Section of the August 2008 issue of Virginia Living magazine with permission. Back issues are available from Virginia Living at www.virginialiving.com/store/back-issues/ or (804) 343-7539.)
It’s the first evening in June, and though the skies are overcast, there is a bit of a buzz in the little Shenandoah town of New Market. The roughly 500 people filing into the town’s modest Rebel Park know that summer is about to begin, and it has nothing to do with the solstice or the weather. It’s the home opener for the New Market Rebels of the Valley Baseball League (VBL), a summer, wooden-bat league that features some of the nation’s best collegiate players.
Fans entering Rebel Park pay their $5.00 admission price to a volunteer who is manning the ticket “booth,” which is nothing more than a folding table set up in the driveway entrance to the park. Several people quickly make their way to the General Lee concession stand behind home plate, where the “best fried onions in the league” are heaped onto cheeseburgers or hot dogs. Lynne Alger, a volunteer, runs the concession and the Rebel Yell Souvenir Store. Her husband, Bruce Alger, is New Market’s General Manager—it’s another volunteer position. His duties include everything from organizing the team’s corp of volunteers (called the Shenandoah Grandstand Manager’s Club) to manning the public address system. For the 1,700 or so folks in New Market, GM Alger says, every Rebel game is “an event.”
Inside the park, there is an incongruous sight. The players are out on the field, as one might expect—but instead of stretching or taking batting practice, they are lining the base paths, raking the mound and dragging the infield. This is low-budget baseball and a far cry from the life of a major league ballplayer, which is something most of these young men aspire to be. Indeed, most of the players, after the game, will go to sleep in the homes of host families with whom they live during the summer.
The Valley Baseball League, people in the valley say, is baseball as it ought to be—simple and honest and largely free of the trappings of commercialism that have come to define professional sports in America. The amateur VBL has been in existence in some form since 1923, and it has been an officially sanctioned summer league for the last 46 years. There are 11 teams in the league—in the towns of Fauquier, Haymarket, Winchester, Front Royal, Luray, Woodstock, Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, Staunton and Covington, in addition to New Market. The crowds are small—Staunton drew the biggest opening-night crowd in the league, with about 1,000 paying fans—and some of the teams play on high school fields. Most of the teams are privately owned, but certainly nobody is in it for the money. For these places, Valley League baseball is the only quality sports action in town—and so, from late May to late July, when the 44-game season ends, the locals cheer for their adopted hometown boys. As Dave Biery, president of the league, says: The games offer “great family entertainment at a very reasonable price.”
John Leonard, an English teacher who lives in Harrisonburg, is a VBL aficionado. He attends games up and down the valley and runs the All Things Valley League website. He says that the accessibility of the players, the small-town settings and the family atmosphere all conspire to make the league special. Leonard, who says he followed the Philadelphia Phillies as a child, began attending league games in 2004. Within two years, he was so taken with what he saw that he began his website, which is filled with player profiles, interviews, rankings and commentary.
While most Valley League fans don’t drive more than a few miles to see games, there are exceptions. Albert Smith, a Baltimore resident and 51-year-old analyst for the Department of the Army, has been driving to New Market to see a game or two every summer for the last four years. It’s a 360-mile round trip. “The Valley League is my fantasy baseball league,” says Smith. He and his wife were staying at an inn two blocks from Rebel Park in 2004 and ended up going to a game. Smith says he was taken with the “romantic” baseball setting—a warm night in July, with the moon coming up over Massanutten Mountain, out over right field. He’s been has been coming back ever since. He describes the VBL experience as “going back in time to experience baseball the way it was and the way it was intended to be. Pure fans and pure baseball.”
Alger, the New Market GM, agrees. Born and raised in New Market, he’s been involved with the Rebel franchise since 1965 when he hung numbers on the old scoreboard. Now it’s electronic, and bats can cost as much as $130 each, but not much else has changed. Rebel Park is in the same location as it was when Alger’s grandfather played there at the turn of the 20th century. “Give me Rebel Park every time,” says Alger, especially compared to modern parks that he calls just “buildings.”
Front Royal’s newly renovated Bing Crosby Stadium is considered the best stadium in the league and the equal of many new minor league facilities being built all over the country. The fact that the center-field wall stands only a short 349 feet from home plate is a quirk that local fans don’t seem to mind. Yes, the park is named after the Bing Crosby. In 1950, a local resident and friend of the entertainer, Raymond Guest, asked Crosby to make a benefit appearance in Front Royal to help the recreation association raise the $10,000 needed to build a new park (those were the days). Crosby graciously consented and drew throngs of people, and the grateful town named their new park in his honor. The stadium, known as the Bing, was renovated in 2004 at a cost of nearly $4 million.
The Valley League touts itself the “Gateway to the Majors,” and that is not hyperbole. Stocked with players from the best college baseball programs this side of the Mississippi River, it is one of the country’s best summer leagues. Many of the players go on to professional careers—and some reach the Major League. David Eckstein, a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who was the World Series Most Valuable Player in 2006, played from Harrisonburg in both 1995 and 1996. Mike Lowell, the World Series MVP for the Boston Red Sox last year, played for Waynesboro in 1993.
League rosters boasts players from the University of Miami, Arizona State, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina State and Louisiana State—all participants in this year’s National Collegiate Athletic Assocation baseball tournament. “All the top schools in the nation have [guys] playing in the Valley, so obviously some of the best players in the nation are there, too,” says Mike Dufek, a first baseman/pitcher from the University of Michigan who is playing for the Winchester Royals for the second straight summer.
Dufek comes from a long line of … football players. His grandfather, Don Dufek Sr., was a Michigan man and the Most Valuable Player of the 1949 Rose Bowl—and his father and two uncles played in the NFL. “My whole family is banged up now; they’re all paying the cost of playing football earlier in life,” says Dufek with a chuckle. “They were all nudging me toward baseball instead of football, [toward] a less violent sport … I guess baseball is just my calling.”
Dufek’s Winchester teammate last summer, Luke Greinke, is an outstanding example of the talent level in the Valley League. Greinke, from Auburn University, was named the Most Valuable Player of the league last year after batting .417 with a .642 slugging percentage and compiling a 3-1 record with a 2.66 earned run average in 50-2/3 innings as a pitcher. He’s not playing in the valley this year, but after a solid year at Auburn, he was nominated for the 2008 Brooks Wallace College Player of the Year Award—an honor partly due to his stint in the Valley League. “[It] made a world of difference,” Greinke says. “I came [to Winchester] with a plan to change a whole bunch of things with my swing, and [the coaches] let me do what I wanted to do. They gave me the freedom to try new things. … Kevin Crum, New Market’s closer from George Mason University, has also been nominated for the Brooks Wallace Award—he and Greinke are two of 20 VBL players, past and present, who’ve been nominated for the prestigious Player of the Year Award. In the most recent Major League draft, held in June, the Cincinnati Reds selected University of Miami first baseman as the 7th overall pick. He played with the Luray Wranglers in 2006.
Jim Pankovits, a Richmond native and Harrisonburg Turk in 1974, went on to play for the Houston Astros in the mid-’80s and is now the manager of the Class A Salem Avalanche in the Carolina League. “If any young player at the college level has an opportunity [to play in the Valley League], he should jump at it,” he says. “Not only to … improve his play, but just to experience a different way of life.” With the league’s mix of beautiful scenery, warm people and good baseball, he adds, “it will be an experience that he’ll remember the rest of his life.”
The communities do all they can to welcome the players. One year, the Algers hosted six players in their home. Both Waynesboro’s Adam Liberatore (a pitcher from Tennessee Tech University) and Winchester’s Andrew White (a pitcher from Charleston Southern) describe their host families this year as “great.” Adds White, “[They] make me feel like part of the family, like their son.” Jobs are found for players who want them. Pankovits, the former Astro, painted dorm rooms at James Madison University as his summer job during his time in Harrisonburg. “I’ll never forget that,” he laughs, “because I never wanted to paint again.”
The reigning league champions, the Waynesboro Generals, are expected to have another excellent team this summer. The Generals are returning eight players from last year’s squad, which was ranked the nation’s sixth-best summer league team for 2007 by pgcrosschecker.com., an amateur baseball website. “The boys worked hard and were extremely elated [to win],” says team owner Jim Critzer. “We want to come back and do it again this year.” Critzer, who has owned the team for eight years, recalls watching the Generals when he was a boy and getting to play catch on the field with his older brother, who played for the team.
As the Opening Day ceremonies in New Market begin, the rain clouds that threatened an hour earlier have been have been replaced by white puffs drifting across an azure sky. The visiting Fauquier Gators score a run in the top of the first, and when the Rebels come to bat in the bottom of the inning, “the Legend of the Valley” emerges from New Market’s dugout. The “Legend” is Maynard “Mo” Weber, who exchanges greetings with many fans as he strides slowly to the first-base coach’s box. Weber, who turned 85 on June 24, is in his 12th season with New Market. He’s coached baseball, he says, for 62 years. “I enjoy the teaching, and I enjoy trying to make the players better,” says Weber, who also doubles as the Rebels’ hitting coach.
“Baseball is his life,” says Alger of Weber. “He’ll come up to me after the first game—‘Bruce we’ve only got 43 more games. … The season’s going fast!’ And he’ll do that every single night!” Weber is recognized by more than just the New Market baseball community. This year, for the first time, the VBL will hand out a manager of the year award, and it will be named in Weber’s honor.
Before the bottom of the 5th inning, the Dash for Cash begins. It’s a regular feature at Rebel home games. A fan has 30 seconds to grab as much money as he or she can out of a bucket located 50 feet from the starting line. The contestant has to use a shovel, however, to scoop the money and then try to dump the dollar bills into a waiting can before they all blow away. Tonight’s contestant, sporting a Rebels T-shirt, manages 2 trips, winning $49.00, and is roundly cheered during his dash. He donates the money back to the team.
By 8:30 p.m., dusk has settled over Rebel Park, and Massanutten Mountain has dimmed beyond the outfield wall, which advertises what must be every business in New Market. Four girls from North Fork Middle School are perched on a picnic table down the left-field line, enjoying the game. Miranda, Christina, Alaina and Ashlie attend almost every Rebels game, and they admit to being fans of both the game and the boys who play. Miranda states that she has been coming to Rebel games “since I was little.” Three of the girls live close enough to walk to the park.
In the eighth inning, Rebel first baseman Murray Watts, who stands 6'7", grabs a high chopper and fires to second, where shortstop Mike Mooney catches the ball and returns a throw to pitcher John Masklee, who has hustled over to cover first. It is a spectacular double play, but in the end, New Market falls to Fauquier 5-3.
For Mo Weber, there are only 42 games left in the season. Having coached or managed baseball teams from Long Island to Minnesota and from the American Legion level to Division I college, he has seen as much amateur baseball as anyone in the country—and he can’t think of a better environment for baseball than the Valley League. He says it’s “hard to describe” to city people how rural towns can attract some of the country’s best ballplayers, “but we have 5 or 6 [from New Market alone] in the big leagues now. They come here to play in the summer, and they love it here.”
At a little after 11:00 p.m., Alger hops into his truck (the license plate reads Rebel GM) and drives through town, taking down the hand-lettered “Rebels Baseball Tonight” signs that advertise every home game. It’s been an hour since the final out of the game was recorded, and 12 hours since he arrived at Rebel Park to prepare for opening night. Alger says that his wife will “cry for days, and I mean days” when the season ends and her “sons” return to their colleges.
For now, though, those tears are two months away. The weather is warm, bats whack balls, peanut shells get cracked, the chatter of players and fans courses the night. Baseball has again returned to the Shenandoah Valley. Summer has begun.
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