(Mostly) Spontaneous Baseball Road-Tripping

Inside my shirt there was a beetle.

I was driving south on Route 11, somewhere between New Market and Tenth Legion, traveling fifty-ish miles an hour, when I felt it crawling on my skin. Pitch black, 10:30 at night, no lights except for the occasional home or oncoming car and the glowing letters of the Endless Cavern sign on the distant mountainside — and there was this thing inside my shirt.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped a hand under my shirt and found the bug, closing my hand around it. It squirmed in my hand. In the dark I couldn’t see it; I only assumed it was a beetle. For all I knew it had a stinger, and I was risking my health and sanity the longer I held it in my bare hand. I then unrolled a window, held my hand out over the highway, and let it go. Who knows what happened to the beetle, suddenly buffeted by the still air? I didn’t stop to think that it was far removed from its habitat, nor that decelerating from fifty miles an hour to nothing as I let it go could have killed it. I certainly didn’t care. I was simply glad that it was gone. After all, what’s a road trip without a random, unexpected, and very much unwelcome encounter with nature?

Summer is made for the road trip — the open road, blue skies and clouds, distant vistas, the sense that there’s a new and interesting adventure somewhere over the next hill or beyond the horizon.

I haven’t had many moments like these of late. Or really, in a long time. It’s been years since I’ve taken anything even approaching a vacation at work; the trip to Chicago and Wrigley in April was the closest thing I’ve had to a vacation, certainly the longest time away from my desk in five years, and that was a working trip. Yet the open road is a siren lure, and even I’m not completely immune to its call, even if only for a weekend. Since a friend was having a birthday party in Virginia on Saturday, on Wednesday it occurred to me that perhaps I could drive down on Friday and do… something, especially since I’ve been putting in massive hours at work and was already approaching Stupid Levels of Overtime for the week. But what sort of something? In summer, one’s thoughts naturally turn to baseball. Baseball, then, it would be.

Virginia is home to the Valley Baseball League, a collegiate summer league. I knew it from my childhood, from when I lived in Rockingham County and my father worked for James Madison University; we would often get free tickets for Harrisonburg Turks games at the local grocery store. Several years ago I read a book about the New Market Rebels‘ 2009 season — Austin Gisriel’s Safe at Home — and I felt a kind of nostalgic pull for a purer kind of baseball, where it’s about the game, not the t-shirt tosses or the Air Guitar Cam.

I took a look to see who would be playing on Friday and where, saw that New Market was playing at home on Friday evening at 7:30 against the Waynesboro Generals, and began to think. There was an obvious aesthetic appeal to New Market — a ballpark in a small town with a mountain looming over the outfield wall — though I had no rooting interest one way or the other, and even I have moments, like Bilbo Baggins, where I want to cry out, “I want to see mountains again. Mountains, Gandalf!” A plan was forming — Google Maps said the drive from the office to New Market would take 2 hours and 45 minutes, so I could leave at 3:30 (allowing myself four hours in Friday traffic) and still be into overtime on the week. Thursday evening I packed a bag to cover Friday’s game, as well as the birthday party on Saturday (plus clothes for Sunday if needed), made a hotel reservation, and everything was set. The weather was chancey — there was a possibility of thunderstorms on Friday evening — but fortune favors the bold, and when 3:30 rolled around, the last of my articles for work loaded into the CMS, I clocked out, shut down the computer, and hit the road.

I didn’t need Google Maps’ help. I knew exactly the route I wanted to take — west on Interstate 70, down US 340 from Frederick through West Virginia to Stephen City, down Interstate 81 into the Shenandoah Valley to New Market. But the route was a slow slog from Hunt Valley to Frederick (especially the whole 270 intersection area), reaching the Potomac took longer than I thought it would and crossing it took even longer, but once I was into West Virginia the trip became pleasant. I drove through small towns of the Eastern Panhandle and the northern Shenandoah Valley. I was stopped at a stoplight outside a cemetery in Berryville. For a stretch of the road train tracks ran alongside and I kept pace with a freight train. I drove past the entrance to Dinosaur Land and stopped at the 7-11 across the street where the young woman behind the counter said, when I mentioned that I had never been to Dinosaur Land, despite going past it many times as a child, “You can go inside the shark.” I was glad I’d left when I did; it was roughly an hour and a half to Frederick, and it was another hour to Interstate 81. I had thought I’d be able to check into the hotel, change clothes, and go to the game, but I realized that simply wouldn’t be feasible. I’d have to go straight to the ballpark — and I didn’t know precisely where that was.

The forecast thunderstorms struck somewhere between Edinburg and Woodstock. The rain was intense, visibility was nil, and yet the sun shone through the rain, casting rainbows everywhere, until the rain stopped, as quickly as it had begun. Soon I reached the exit for New Market, turned left into town, saw a clapper board announcing the night’s baseball game, and quickly pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot to consult Google Maps for directions. Alas, there was no signal at all — all I had in Google Maps was a blue dot in the middle of an expanse of gray — but I had forty-five minutes until the (theoretical) first pitch, and I was certain I could find Rebel Park on my own. Fortunately, once I turned back onto the street, I saw signs — one telling me to take a left, another telling me to go straight — until at last I saw the lights of a ballpark off the road.

Voila! I was there.

Admission was five dollars, and I parked in a field adjacent to the ball field. There was no grandstand, per se, just two banks of risers, a section of seating directly behind the plate, a covered pavilion beyond the third base dugout, and a detached building overlooking the infield with restrooms, the press box, concession stand, and team store.

Unsure of where to sit and having no rooting interest, I decided to see where the best view was — of the field, of the game, of the mountain beyond. I started on the first base side — what I discovered was the visitors’ side — and while the view was nice, the mountains weren’t really in my view.

From the top of the third base bleachers was the view I’d come to find — a baseball field and the looming mountain over the outfield wall. The only issue I had was that the dugout obstructed the view of left field, and there would be plays throughout the nice that I would be unable to see.

I poked my head in the team store. It wasn’t an especially large space — my cubicle at Diamond is about the same size — but they had t-shirts (Rebels specifically and Valley League in general) and team hats and some other knick-knacks. Nothing I particularly needed, though, and I went ahead and took a team schedule card, even though I wouldn’t be back for any of the three remaining home games this season.

The Rebels players prepped the field before the game, driving a tractor or using rakes to smooth the infield dirt, painting the batter’s boxes and the lines, in general doing everything a grounds crew would do. Rebel Park has a real grass and dirt infield, unlike the turf field of Carlo Crispino Stadium where the Baltimore Redbirds play, and the grass, especially around the plate and the mound, showed signs of age and wear, like a ballpark out of an older era. Adding to that feel was the uneven outfield wall, made of hand painted wooden signs for local businesses and sponsors of the Rebels, not to mention the retired number for former Rebels hitting coach Mo Weber. Some signs clearly stood a little higher than others, others seemed to not fit quite right, resulting in a wall of uneven height and quirks. Rebel Park, field and outfield wall, reminded me, really, of my desktop wallpaper at the office, a picture of Swampoodle Grounds, Washington’s baseball field of the 1880s.

There was, even before the game, a palpable sense of community in the stands. An elderly man chatted with the umpires through the screen, people socialized, families took seats throughout the stands. The crowd ranged in age from nine months to 90 and, even though I thought of the 7:30 start time as “late,” people arrived throughout the game, even as late as the sixth inning after the sun had gone down. All told, I would estimate the crowd Friday night numbered somewhere in the vicinity of 170, and it was a passionate 170. Fans called out players’ names and applauded enthusiastically during the line-ups and when they stepped into the batter’s box.  Someone down front, the elderly man who spoke with the umpires before the game, had a cowbell that he clanged this way and that when the Rebels’ pitchers struck a batter out or the fielders made a spectacular play or the Rebels baseunners scored.  This was an engaged crowd.  So many times I’ve been to minor league games where it seems like the crowd is into everything happening at the ballpark except the game on the field in front of them.

At last, the field was ready, and line-up cards were exchanged at home plate. I noticed the Valley League only uses two umpires in a game, like the High-A Carolina League, while the Cal Ripken League (of which the Baltimore Redbirds are a part) utilize three umpires in a game like the AA Eastern League.

Rebels players took the field as they were announced over the PA system, and then a color guard of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Department paraded the American flag onto the infield for the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

The game started a few minutes later than the scheduled start time of 7:30. New Market’s Austin Bogart started off the game with a hit batsman on his first pitch of the night. He ran into early trouble in the top of the first, allowing the first two batters to reach, then giving up a run after a double play, putting the Generals ahead 1-0. Plus, the Rebels’ center fielder, Blake Reese, collided with the outfield wall on the run-scoring double and was pulled from the game either due to an actual injury or merely a precaution.

The Generals very nearly gave that run back in the bottom half of the inning due to a mental error. With two outs, Chase Sudduth drove the ball into center and ran for second, and on the throw in from the outfield the throw missed the second baseman entirely and, as no one was backing up the throw, Sudduth reached third. However, cleanup hitter Hunter Lipscomb flew out to left on the first pitch of his at-bat, and the Rebel threat was ended.

The game settled into a pitcher’s duel with both Bogart and Generals pitcher Grant Suponchick (who, interestingly, also batted) pitching fairly efficiently. Bogart did give up a home run to Joe Vranesh in the fourth (a shot off the face of the scoreboard), and he was pulled in the top of the 6th when he allowed the first three batters to reach base and gave up a third run.

The mechanics of the pitching change were somewhat different than anything I’d ever seen before. The Rebels manager, Zac Cole, walked out to the mound and made the signal. But rather than take the ball and send Bogart on his way, Bogart waited on the mound for his replacement to arrive, the ball was handed over to Thomas Durant, and then Bogart walked back to the mound to the applause of the crowd. This confused me slightly, as I expected Bogart to leave the mound almost immediately after Cole arrived to take the ball, and so I applauded for Bogart at the wrong time.

The partisanship of sports reared its head in the differing ways the crowd reacted to pitching changes. When Waynesboro made a pitching change of their own in a later inning, the crowd heckled the umpires for allowing the Generals’ relief pitcher to take warm-up tosses after the mound conference and change, saying things like the Generals had used up all of their time in the managerial conference. The crowd was certainly willing to let the umpires know loudly when they weren’t happy with strike calls or bang-bang plays on the basepaths. The complaint about the umpiring that seemed strangest to me came when someone shouted out, “That’s a balk, ump! That’s a balk!” However, the Rebels didn’t have anyone on base, so whether or not Suponchick balked didn’t matter; there were no base runners to advance.

One thing that strikes me as strange is to see the number 42 worn in the college leagues, and for the Rebels Oklahoma State’s Michael Nuestifter wore it that night. I’m so used to seeing Jackie Robinson’s 42 retired at major and minor league ballparks that seeing a 42 worn on the field feels weird.

In the bottom of the fifth inning the sun fell behind the mountains.

The bottom of the fifth also saw the Rebels get on the board. Pablo Cabrera hit a double, and he scored from second when catcher Alex Raines hit a single into the right field corner. At this point in the game, with the Rebels down by a run and no outs, I thought that some “small ball” would have been the right strategy, so I expected at least one attempt at a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner. But the next three batters — Nick Barber, Jacob Rhinesmith, and Chase Sudduth — couldn’t manage a single productive out between them, and Raines was left at first.

I was feeling peckish, and it had been a long time since lunch. So I dashed down to the concession stand, ordered a cheeseburger, and returned, not more than two minutes later, to find that two people had taken the seat in the bleachers where I had been sitting! I’d even left my notebook, my sunglasses, and my hat there, to show that the space was taken. It was a damned fine cheeseburger, I have to say.

The Generals scored another run in the top of the 8th. Joe Vrenash reached third on exactly the same sort of error — a double to the deep outfield and no one backing up the throw, allowing him to advance — that put Chase Sudduth on third for the Rebels all the way back in the first. He scored on a fielder’s choice, and the Generals now had a 4-1 lead and the Rebels were running out of outs.

In the bottom half of the inning, the Rebels finally found their offensive mojo. Chase Sudduth worked a walk, and Michael Neustifter hit a triple to score Sudduth. The Generals brought in Garrett Bye to pitch, and a wild pitch to Alex Aleywine scored Neustifter to bring the Rebels to within one. But Bye, despite some issues with finding the strike zone, was able to get out of the inning with the score in the Generals’ favor, 4-3.

The Generals went down easily in the top of the 9th, and Bye came out for a second inning of work in the bottom half of the inning.

He got the first batter, Pablo Cabrera, to fly out to right. The second batter, a pinch hitter named Seth Hunt, struck out on three pitches.

Hunt, according to the roster sheet I was handed on my arrival, attends Lincoln Memorial University. I had this momentarily confused with Lincoln University, where my father was the special collections librarian and part-time history professor fifteen years ago. Two completely different universities, one in Tennesse (Lincoln Memorial) and one in Pennsylvania (the one my dad worked for).

Bye needed only one more out to secure the Generals’ win, but he put Nick Barber, the tying run, on base, hitting him with the first pitch of the at-bat. He then walked Jacob Rhinesmith, putting the winning run on base. The Rebels were down to their final out… and yet the Generals seemed ready to give them every opportunity to tie or walk off this game.

And, notably, the Generals had no one warming in their bullpen beyond Rebel Park’s right field fence.

Chase Sudduth stepped in. The first two pitches from Bye were balls. I was beginning to think that Bye would give this game away. The next pitch, a called strike. The crowd groaned. Some told the umpire he was blind. The next pitch, another called strike. Sudduth had gone from 2-0 to 2-2, from a count in his favor to the edge of the game-ending out. The next pitch? A ball, high. Full count. The sense of relief from the crowd was palpable. Meanwhile, on the visitor’s side, people were standing atop the bleachers, trying to will Bye to the win. The next pitch, Sudduth swung… and fouled the pitch back over the screen. “That was a protect swing,” I thought. Bye was set. Sudduth was locked in. Bye uncorked the pitch…

…and Sudduth swung over it. Strike three.  Game over.

The Waynesboro Generals 4, the New Market Rebels 3.

Tactically, I thought New Market’s manager could have been more aggressive in the ninth inning. Consider the situation — two outs, down a run, runners on first and second, a pitcher on the mound who has had issues with the strike zone. It’s risky, but a double steal attempt during Sudduth’s at bat could have put runners on second and third. An errant pick-off throw by the catcher could have allowed the lead runner to score, tying the game. Or, a runner on third could have provoked a wild pitch. Yes, it’s a risky call, because if the double steal doesn’t work the game is lost. But the risk justified the reward, in my opinion.

It had been a nice experience all around. I hadn’t brought a jacket, and fortunately I hadn’t needed it. The air was a little damp — my roster sheet seemed a little soggy by the late innings — but not humid. It was well past ten o’clock, and the night in the Shenandoah Valley was dark. The crowd filed out of the stands and into the parking lot, and from there they departed in the dark and moist night. In short, it had been a pleasant night for baseball under the lights in a small town in a lovely part of the world.

The Rebels fought to the end. I know the team is named for the Confederate rebels who fought at New Market during the Civil War, but it was different soldiers and different words, those of Laurence Binyon from his famous World War I poem, I thought of as I left New Market:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

And then, not more than five minutes later, I felt the beetle crawling inside my shirt.

On Saturday I drove to my friend’s birthday party. I took a long, roundabout route, going east to 340, then driving up through Elkton and Shenandoah and Luray, towns nestled among the mountains. Picturesque country, off the beaten path.

Sometimes a person needs mountains and the open road. Sometimes a person needs to see the shadows of clouds moving on the mountainside and feel the enormity and beauty of the world. Sometimes a person needs to recharge the mental batteries.

That’s what this road trip was — a chance to get away, a chance to just be.

Pity about that beetle.

2 Replies to “(Mostly) Spontaneous Baseball Road-Tripping”

  1. Fantastic. I invite you to check out the Purcellville Cannons for an altogether different, yet nonetheless homey, Valley League experience. Bigger stadium, more people, same wonderful ambience. Also, less chance of having your seat stolen.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I have thought about attending a Purcellville game. I have close friends who live near Gilberts Corner (the birthday party I attended the weekend I went down to New Market was in the area), so I’m down the Leesburg way a couple of times a year (either to visit friends or to visit my family, since through Leesburg is the easiest way to get from York, PA to Lynchburg, VA). Maybe next summer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *