There’s a TV commercial currently running for MLB featuring Baltimore Orioles slugger Adam Jones. In it, the narrator says of Jones, “When he’s not playing baseball, he’s watching baseball. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s reading about baseball. When he’s not reading about baseball, he’s listening to baseball. And when he’s not listening to baseball, he’s playing baseball.”
Let’s just say: I hear ya, Adam.
If you’re a baseball junkie you know what I mean. I just came off a Little League season in which I managed my daughter’s softball team and my son’s tee-ball squad while serving as tee-ball commissioner. I often joke that when I’m not announcing it, I’m coaching it, watching it, listening to it, reading about it, talking about it, or, in this case, writing about it.
The father of a host family for the Helena Brewers once put it to me this way: “Baseball ’til you can’t stand it.” For guys like him and me we never actually reach that point.
Case in point: this just finished All-Star break. I gleefully tweeted: “I am officially on All-Star break! Happy break to all! #AllStarBreak.” Sounds like someone ready for a vacation. Sure enough the family and I did head to Virginia for a few days. But the baseball bug bit. While on break and seeing no major league or minor league ball, I sought out and found America’s pastime. And I took it all in, every ounce of it.
The Wednesday after the MLB stars shined in Cincinnati, I decided to fill the baseball void by attending a Valley Baseball League game in Charlottesville, Virginia. The league was established all the way back in 1897. It’s the earliest chartered amateur baseball league in America still operating. The hometown Charlottesville Tom Sox—it’s their first season—make for the perfect mix of a brand-new club with an old-time feel.
On the night I headed to the game, the Tom Sox—named after Thomas Jefferson—hosted the New Market Rebels. College players from across the country comprise the rosters but unlike the ping of metal bats usually heard on their respective campuses, these boys swing the lumber, wood bats for young men who hope to one day get paid to pick up similar sticks.
As if a talented crop of rising stars isn’t enough of a draw, this Tom Sox-Rebels match-up also featured concessions, an energetic fan base, and a professional delivery from the public-address announcer. The game presentation included many elements straight from minor league parks. The overall picture, though, was almost a carbon copy of something many of these same fans enjoy just down the road from the Tox Sox field.
The University of Virginia baseball program has turned into a powerhouse in recent years. Things culminated this season with a College World Series title for UVA. If you ever take in a Cavaliers game, which I do every year, you’ll see some things there that go hand-in-hand with the experience. Unlike college baseball in the northeast, which usually remains free to see and often takes place in front of empty bleachers with little atmosphere, baseball at Virginia draws. Fans pack the place. UVA offers full ballpark fare. Hoos baseball is a hot ticket. You can see some similarities at a Tom Sox game.
Just like at Cavs games, Tom Sox fans sit everywhere. Sure, many remain in their seats. But they also line the sides of the field with beach blankets and folding chairs. Others sit on the grass behind the outfield fence. Fans come in all ages. It’s a great baseball environment.
Something else the Tox Sox share in common with UVA is a couple of players. Two Cavs fresh off a championship now spend their summer in the VBL. Pitcher Jack Roberts and outfielder Christian Lowry both went straight from their college campaign to this respected summer league. They’re joined by players from all over the country. Tom Sox come from such places as Florida, Yale, Rider, and Wake Forest just to name a few.
Fans are treated to local stars that they’re familiar with as well as young men they’re seeing play for the first time. Of course, for local guys such as Roberts, there are advantages to staying in Charlottesville all summer long.
“I take classes at UVA while playing for the Tom Sox,” Roberts told Breitbart Sports. While hitting the books during the day, he’s trying to limit hits from opposing lineups by night. “I try to bust them inside and work on self improvement,” said Roberts. “With wood bats you want them to hit. The ball doesn’t go as far and there are more grounders. I want to throw strikes and get outs.”
Saying the ball doesn’t go as far with wood bats is an understatement. The Tom Sox didn’t hit a home run until a month into the season. Still, baseball players are often a stubborn lot. Be it wood or aluminum, the mound presence doesn’t vary much for Zach Cook. The Winthrop product who features a fastball, slider, and split-change goes at hitters like he always does.
“I take the exact same approach,” Cook said. “Sure, you may be able to get away with a mistake pitch against a wood bat as opposed to in a regular game but you can use that to learn from.” Clearly a baseball maniac, Cook referenced the latest on-field exploits he witnessed from Anaheim Angels superstar Mike Trout to close out our conversation. When he’s not playing baseball, Cook’s talking about it. I get it.
You have to be a baseball nut to get involved in a summer league in any capacity. From GMs to coaches to players to staff, summer ball is long and hard work. Everyone pitches-in in all ways. After the Tom Sox beat the Rebels in a thriller that went into extra innings, the celebrations and Gatorade showers were followed by tired players moving tarps and raking mounds. This is the way it works.
It seems this particular group enjoys every moment of it. They feed off of each other and they follow the lead of their gritty manager. Mike Goldberg, a Virginia native, is the skipper of the Tom Sox in their inaugural season. Goldberg shined as a closer at Davidson, cracking the Wildcats’ top-five list for most saves. He’s currently the volunteer assistant at Richmond. So, he certainly fits the profile of someone who would take on the task of blending a diverse group of college players together into a cohesive unit in a short period of time.
“Baseball is my favorite thing,” Goldberg said. It better be. The hours are long and the time commitment is grueling. But, it’s working. These VBL teams put on a show every game, and people come out to support them. One of the loudest fans I heard during my recent visit was a woman—a senior citizen no less. She cheered for the visiting Rebels at every turn, seemingly living and dying with each pitch. I suggested to my daughter that she must be a host-family mom. On the way out of the park I asked a New Market player just that. “Nope,” he said with a big smile. “She’s just our biggest fan.”
You have to be a big fan to get your hands dirty in such an endeavor and Goldberg gives it his all as a manager. “We bunt more in this league so it gives the guys a foundation when they return to their schools,” said Goldberg. “They will leave here being better fundamentally. My goal is to allow our players to develop over the course of the season as much as possible.”
His goals don’t stop there. Goldberg clearly cares about his club and that goes beyond baseball.
“Guys get here and some are quiet,” said Goldberg. “They don’t know each other. Then you see the chemistry start to build. They find out someone likes the same music or they have other things in common. Once that takes hold, they click.”
It translates on the field. “We have a group that never checks out,” Goldberg told Breitbart Sports. “It comes down to loving baseball and going out and trying to win. Develop for sure, but win, too. We find out who wants to play the hardest, the longest.”
On this night the proof was in the pudding. After blowing a late lead in a game that included multiple runners retired at home plate, the Tom Sox persevered and eventually triumphed in extras. The players on this team and in this league are committed to the game of baseball.
It’s not just the players who exude love for the game. Tom Sox staff, radio broadcasters (who I had the honor of calling a couple of innings with), and fans alike help to create a fun, family-friendly event with our grand-old game as the showcase.
There was plenty to see on this particular night. Thomas Jefferson, the Washington Nationals mascot, made an appearance at the game to check out the team named after him. Tom met with happy spectators and even raced against the Tom Sox dog and a Chick-fil-A cow, coming out on top. The Tom Sox wore their “throw back” uniforms. Picture an ensemble that combines the ’80s duds of the White Sox, Astros, and Padres in navy and lime green. It may not sound appealing, but for this league and team it works. Fans gobble up the merchandise with Tom Sox caps and shirts all over the park.
The Valley Baseball League started when William McKinley served in the White House. Now, well over 100 years later, the league features a team named after Thomas Jefferson. One thing remains constant. Those who play and coach in this league love the game of baseball. The 2015 season winds down, but some games remain. So, if you live near any of the twelve VBL teams, catch a game. If not, put it on the list for next year. For those of us who can’t get enough baseball, this league is a real American treasure located right in the heart of where much of our great nation became great.