Posted May 21, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Boys of summer: Season wouldn't be the same without America's pastime

Valley League fans watch a game
Valley League fans watch a game under evening skies at Bing Crosby Stadium during the 2007 season. Rich Cooley/Daily file

By Brian Eller - beller@nvdaily.com

James Phillips can remember a time when the Valley Baseball League was nothing more than a Sunday sandlot activity. There were no expensive charter buses to ship the players from town to town, no lights to play games after dusk. Players would gather each weekend, most of them scrounged together from around the local town, and play baseball.

It was a humble beginning to what's now blossomed into one of the most nationally recognized summer leagues in the nation. Players from all over the country, eager to capture their dreams of one day playing in the major leagues, sign up to be a part of the Valley Baseball League.

"If you didn't love baseball you wouldn't be in the league at all," Phillips said. "It's so nice to see kids come in and hone their skills. Playing almost every night of the week gives them a tease of what the big leagues are like. It does a good job of separating the ones who want to go on and play baseball for a living from the ones that don't."

The league was formed back in 1923, a time when baseball was at the forefront of the American sports culture. Over the years, it began to see its popularity grow, and in 1961 the league became sanctioned by the NCAA.

By the time the Winchester Royals joined in 1979, the VBL had expanded to six teams and was beginning to allow a handful of college players to be a part of the league. At first only two or three college players were allowed, but today's teams are made up primarily of college athletes.

As the league rolled into the 1980s and '90s, more expansion was needed. In 1993 the VBL began receiving funds from Major League Baseball and added new franchises as more players became interested in the league. That year the league also switched to wooden bats rather than aluminum ones, a decision that would allow major league scouts to better assess a player's skills.

With more teams and funds from Major League Baseball coming in on an annual basis, the VBL suddenly became a serious business. Along with the added popularity came additional responsibility.

"It gets harder every year, to be honest," VBL Vice President Bruce Alger said. "We bring players from all over the United States and even other countries, and these young men are used to playing on good facilities. It's our responsibility to make sure the facilities are up to standards."

For Alger, his involvement in the VBL started back in the 1960s. When he wasn't watching his favorite player Roberto Clemente light it up with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Alger would attend New Market Rebel games at Rebel Park as a young boy and hang numbers on the outfield scoreboard. Ensconced in baseball from an early age, Alger never left his affiliation with the league, eventually becoming manager of the Rebels in 1981. There he coached players like Tom Browning and John Kruk, both of whom went on to have successful careers in the major leagues.

Following a brief hiatus, Alger again took the reins of the Rebels, becoming general manager in 2001. This time he had the privilege of coaching a young, talented center fielder named Riley Cooper, who went on to play football at the University of Florida and roomed with a slightly well-known athlete named Tim Tebow.

"I'll tell ya, when Riley played for us in New Market, we took him in at our house," Alger said. "Tim would sometimes call Riley to catch up, and one day my boys answer the phone and it's Tim Tebow on the other line."

Those players are just a sample of the talent that has passed through the VBL over the last few decades. Through the years the VBL has produced more than 50 major league ballplayers, including David Eckstein, Mike Lowell and former Baltimore Orioles Sam Perlozzo and Aubrey Huff.

But while those players have used the league as a gateway to the majors, the VBL is already preparing for another batch of young players to try their hand at becoming superstars. This season the VBL will have 11 teams competing for the title, with its newest franchise, the Strasburg Express, expected to join the league in 2011. Each team will play through a 44-game schedule and the top eight teams make the playoffs. From there the teams will be seeded one to eight, and the opening round is a best-of-three. The final two series are best-of-five, and teams will be re-seeded after each round to declare the winning team.

Funding from Major League Baseball, nearly a dozen teams and hundreds of college players hoping to make it to the big leagues: Today, the Valley Baseball League is a far cry from its roots in the 20th century. The dusty fields have given way to glamorous stadiums. Seasons that consisted of one game a week have transformed into weeks with four and five games in different towns. The league may have changed, but both Alger and Phillips will tell you the goal of the VBL is still the same.

"Every year I have players or parents of players ask me, 'How can I thank you for this opportunity?'" Alger said. "My response is always the same. If at some time you have the opportunity to help a young person chase their dream, then you give them the chance to do so. To see the guys I coached on TV and to think of all of the doors and avenues that it opens, it's an unbelievable experience."

Covington Lumberjacks

Front Royal Cardinals

Haymarket Senators

Harrisonburg Turks

Luray Wranglers

New Market Rebels

Rockbridge Rapids

Staunton Braves

Waynesboro Generals

Winchester Royals

Woodstock River Bandits

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