By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
Change -- the good kind -- is hitting the Valley Baseball League next summer.
After weathering the constant rumors and machinations of a potential minor league franchise moving into Winchester -- prime VBL territory -- for much of this past summer, the league can concentrate on improving its on-field product without the worry of potentially devastating competition. The Hagerstown Suns, a Washington Nationals low-Class A affiliate, now appears almost certain to stay put and not move to Winchester, thereby sparing the Winchester Royals for the league.
"The last word I had on that is it's no longer an issue," said Don Lemish, currently the VBL's Assistant to the President who is expected to be elected as the new league president in November. "That's good news because Winchester has been a very stable franchise and has one of the stronger fan bases in the league. I would have hated to see the competition. I don't know how Winchester could support two teams at roughly the same level."
Instead, Lemish and the VBL can focus attention on the impending relocation of two franchises for the 2013 season. The Haymarket Senators are shifting to Aldie in Loudoun County, and will keep the Senators nickname at least. The Luray Wranglers are also moving, as Charles Town, W.Va., will become the first non-Virginia franchise in league history. That team, which will play home games at Jefferson High School's Sager Field in nearby Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., will be named the Cannons.
Shifting the Senators is the less drastic of the two moves, as the team is essentially just moving closer to its core fan base while at the same time allowing the VBL a foothold into populous Loudoun County.
"I think it's a good move for the league," Lemish said. "Certainly with Haymarket, they did a lot of work as far as determining their fan base, where the people supporting them were coming from. I think they made a smart move."
Relocating the Wranglers is a bit more dramatic, both for where the team is now headed and the community it leaves behind. Lemish admitted to having a few conversations with people expressing concern about the VBL making an out-of-state foray. And Luray, a long-time VBL town, is a tough place to leave. Lemish did say that the league could well return to Luray in the future, depending on potential ownership interest and facility upgrades.
"My heart goes out to Luray, but there are issues that couldn't be overcome," Lemish said. "One was really attendance was such that nobody could make a go of it. While we're a non-profit league, nobody who's running a ballclub sets out to lose money. And the other thing is facilities."
Both relocated franchises can look forward to field upgrades. The Senators will play at the new John Champe High School field, while the Cannons can settle into Jefferson's Sager Field.
Charles Town represents the bigger risk as an unknown quantity, since the VBL is completely new to the Eastern Panhandle. But thanks to longtime Jefferson High School coach John Lowery Sr., it is most definitely a baseball town. Lowery, already a member of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame, has built a baseball powerhouse at the school with multiple state championships in a career that has spanned four decades.
"I think there's tremendous potential over there as far as building a fan base," Lemish said. "It's a good baseball community."
Although discussions are still ongoing, the VBL's market shifting likely won't have an impact on the current divisional alignment. Both Luray and Haymarket played in the North Division along with Winchester, Woodstock, Front Royal and Strasburg, and Aldie and Charles Town are ticketed to replace them in the North. That leaves the South Division of Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, New Market, Rockbridge, Staunton and Covington unchanged for next season.
It also means a few long road trips, the longest being the Charles Town-Covington matchups.
"If you look at some of the other collegiate leagues, it's still not near the travel some leagues have," Lemish said. "And with the two-division aspect of it, we're just looking at one trip each."
Lemish, who is set to replace longtime VBL President Dave Biery, is busy trying to grow the VBL brand now that the dust has settled as far as minor-league competition and relocating struggling franchises is concerned, and that means marketing.
"We just need to do a much better job of marketing our league," Lemish said. "I think we're better than the current conception of us, but we have to market ourselves. We also have to raise some money so we can do those sorts of things."
Challenges, to be sure, but a much more manageable sort for the VBL.
-- Sports editor Jeff Nations can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.