By Jeff Nations
The Valley Baseball League will have a new look next season, that much is certain following last week's announcement that the Rockbridge Rapids will not field a team in 2014.
Whether or not the VBL will find a replacement to restore the current 12-team, two-division alignment is still uncertain. VBL commissioner Don Lemish said Tuesday that the league does have some possibilities to add a 12th team, but could decide as early as next week to go ahead with the 11-team alignment next season.
Lemish said that he's heard from at least two potential groups interested in fielding a team in the VBL next year.
"I would say that one option is very good for our footprint, and the other option is not quite as ideal for our footprint," Lemish said. "From that standpoint, we possibly could be going back to 12 teams. My sense is we'd be pretty satisfied with an 11-team league, although it's harder to manage the schedule with an uneven number of teams."
Lemish said Rockbridge team officials informed the VBL before making last week's announcement that they would not field a team this season after five years of operation.
"Some of the issues were having trouble getting enough host families, and that seems to be an issue we have with franchises that are located in college towns," Lemish said. "I don't know why, maybe they've seen enough of college kids from having them on campus throughout the school year. Some of their high-dollar advertising was beginning to wane some. They probably could have limped along and struggled on, but they made the decision that if they were going to be in this league they wanted to be a good, stable franchise."
Lemish said Rockbridge could rejoin the VBL at some point.
"They want us to leave the door open to coming back in the future," Lemish said. "I think everybody in the league would welcome Rockbridge back because the leaders down there are such class people. The love baseball, they do everything by the book and they've always been very supportive of the league."
Possibilities for expansion will be discussed at the league's Sept. 19 meeting. The loss of the Rapids leaves the VBL's South Division with just five teams -- Covington, Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, Staunton and New Market. The North Division, comprised of Aldie, Charles Town, Woodstock, Strasburg, Winchester and Front Royal, still has six teams.
Travel concerns will likely be a major consideration on possible expansion. One team that has expressed interest, the Beckley Miners (currently a member of the collegiate Prospect League), would present daunting road trips for many of the VBL's current franchises. The extreme case, Aldie, would have a one-way trip of approximately six hours. Even the South division franchises would have more than an hour longer to travel to Beckley than any of their current road trips. Beckley also offers some real benefits -- the Miners play in a first-class baseball facility (Linda K. Epling Stadium) and draw an average of 1,800 fans per game. The top-drawing VBL teams generally draw about 500 fans per game.
Lemish said the league's directors and club representatives will discuss possible expansion, as well as the format for an uneven 11-team league next year during the Sept. 19 meeting. Lemish anticipates that the VBL will continue with the current two-division alignment at least one more year, although the VBL has gone without divisions in the past. Lemish said he's even heard some backing for returning to the old three-division alignment the VBL discarded several years ago.
One possibility would be to simply eliminate the Rockbridge games from the 2014 schedule, creating more open dates during the season.
"We could just drop those dates, and that would give us some flexibility for open dates," Lemish said. "If we have another [rainy] summer like the one we just had, that could be a good thing for the league."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD