On the Virginia League

I was probably eight or nine when I went to my first baseball game.

The Harrisonburg Turks vs. the… Somebodies.  The New Market Rebels?  The Winchester Royals?  I don’t remember at the span of thirty years.

There’s a baseball league in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Valley League.  It’s a collegiate summer league, not a minor league, but when you’re eight or nine that’s a meaningless distinction.  The Turks played at Harrisonburg High School’s ballpark — I think they called it Memorial Stadium — and when I was eight or nine it was big and impressive and exactly what a ballpark should be.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I an that that first game was against the Royals.  And the Turks did not fare particularly well in that game…

In my college years I started going to real minor league games.  The Hillcats play in Lynchburg, there were teams in Durham and Zebulon in driving distance from Raleigh, and Frederick and Aberdeen are both a little further from Baltimore but still doable if I wanted to go.  I haven’t been to any in a few years, though I did a few weeks ago drive up to York, Pennsylvania, to take in an independent league game there.

The point to this preamble — minor league baseball has been around in my life for a long time.  I’ve occasionally said that if I ever hit the lottery, I’d buy a minor league team. While I don’t really want to win the lottery for myself — I’d much rather win it for others — owning a minor league team would be fun.

But, statistically speaking, lottery wins don’t happen.  So when I pitched Bob Greenberger a story for ReDeus: Divine Tales, coincidentally a baseball story, I decided very quickly to set the tale in the world of minor league baseball like the film Bull Durham or Michael Bishop’s novel Brittle Innings.  Even though I’ll never own a minor league baseball team, I could certainly imagine it. 🙂

I didn’t want to use any existing teams. “The Ginger Kid” takes place in a world where the ancient gods of myth and legend return to Earth in 2012, and I wanted to explore the sociology of a world where the gods interact with man through the prism of baseball — two minor leaguers play out a season in a world where the gods walk the Earth.  I thought I would have more creative freedom if I created a fictitious league with fictitious teams.

Thus was the Virginia League conceived.

There was a Virginia League, once upon a time.  There are many defunct minor leagues, of which the Virginia League is one, and the VL folded after the 1928 season.  For “The Ginger Kid” the VL was reborn — but where to place its teams?

Decision one. I wanted to ground the story in places I was familiar with, so that meant putting a league somewhere in the mid-Atlantic states. There are already several overlapping leagues there, from college summer leagues to independent leagues to the low minors. I decided teams would be in Virginia and adjacent states. Why Virginia? I needed a league that was in easy travel distance to Washington, DC because of a scene that I wanted to set in DC.

Decision two. Home cities to Virginia League teams needed not to currently have a baseball team.

Decision three. Priority was given to cities that once had a minor league baseball team but currently did not.

Decision four. If the city had a defunct baseball team, the Virginia League team would have the defunct team’s name. Within reason.

I spent an evening with Baseball Reference, plugging in names of cities and towns, making copious notes as I went along.

The Virginia League, per “The Ginger Kid,” has eight teams in two divisions, the Albemarle Division (the southern teams) and the Potomac Division (the northern teams).

The Albemarle Division’s four teams were:

  • Raleigh (NC) Capitals (named for a Piedmont League and Carolina League team in the middle part of the 20th-century)
  • Rocky Mount (NC) Buccaneers (named after the Eastern Carolina League team that folded in 1929)
  • Williamsburg (VA) Burgesses (no historical team)
  • Wytheville (VA) Statesmen (named for an Appalachian League team of the 1950s)

The Potomac Division’s four teams were:

  • Rappahannock Rifles (from Fredericksburg, Virginia — no historical team)
  • Charlottesville (VA) Sounds (not named after the 1914 Charlottesville Tuckahoes of the Virginia Mountain League)
  • Clarksburg (WV) Generals (named for the Middle Atlantic League team of the 1930s)
  • Martinsburg (WV) Blue Sox (named for the Blue Ridge League of the 1920s)

Raleigh, Rocky Mount, and Martinsburg are all in easy driving distance of current minor league teams — Raleigh has the Durham Bulls and the Carolina Mudcats (who play in Zebulon) nearby, Rocky Mount also has the Carolina Mudcats nearby, and Martinsburg has the Hagerstown Suns right up I-81. Charlottesville and Fredericksburg are both large enough to support a ballclub, and Clarksburg is getting a ballclub in neighboring Bridgeport. To round out the league, Wytheville and Williamsburg both seemed like good places on the map that weren’t out of the way, but I don’t know if they’re big enough to support a low-A minor league team now. Fayetteville was in the running for a while to replace Wytheville, but Fayetteville has a team in the Coastal Plain League, another summer collegiate league.

About those non-legacy teams…

I dubbed the Williamsburg team the “Burgesses” because of the House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in colonial America, which was seated in Williamsburg, then Virginia’s capital. I imagine their mascot is a colonial re-enactor, complete with powdered wig. (I’ll also mention that when Richmond received a new minor league team and they wanted suggestions for its name, “Burgesses” is what I suggested. Sadly, they went with the “Flying Squirrels” instead.)

The Rappahannock Rifles were called such because the two words together sounded good. Fredericksburg is on the Rappahannock River, there was a major Civil War battle in the area, so Rifles seemed like a good name. Rather than invent a ballpark for them, I placed their games at V. Earl Dickinson Stadium on the campus of the University of Mary Washington.

The Charlottesville Sounds, why that name? Charlottesville did have an historical baseball team, the aforementioned Charlottesville Tuckahoes of 1914. But “tuckahoe,” frankly, is a loaded word. “Tuckahoe” was an early American term of disparagement for the slave-owning and politically powerful landed gentry, used by those oppressed by the economic system of 18th- and early 19th-century Virginia. (In modern terms, a “tuckahoe” would be a 1-percenter. Mitt Romney may not be from Virginia, but he’s a tuckahoe.) So I started fishing around for another name, and since Charlottesville is, from what I remember from all the time I spent there, a hipster-ish place, something musical seemed like a good fit. Hence, the Charlottesville Sounds.

In the first draft of the story, I had a passage on the history of the Virginia League and the Raleigh Capitals, the team the titular “Ginger Kid” plays for.

The Virginia League is something of a misnomer, only half the teams in the league are based in the Old Dominion. Two teams — the Raleigh Capitals and the Rocky Mount Buccaneers — call North Carolina their home, and West Virginia is home to two more — the Martinsburg Blue Sox and the Clarksburg Generals. The other four teams are spread across Virginia like the four points of a compass — the Williamsburg Burgesses to the east, the Rappahannock Rifles in Fredericksburg to the north, the Charlottesville Sounds to the west, and the Wytheville Statesmen in the south.

The Virginia League was one of the younger minor leagues, “younger” being relative for a league that was formed in the early 70s. There’s another baseball tradition, its permanence. In the early days of the league Raleigh was a perennial contender. At that time, Raleigh was affiliated with the White Sox, and they had a good farm system. Raleigh won the Virginia League pennant three times — 1982, 1983, and 1986 — and they won the first two Triangle Series — a postseason series against the nearby Durham Bulls in the rival Carolina League — in 1985 and 1986. Then in the late 80s the team’s affiliation changed to the Padres, and then again to the Pirates in 1996. Though the team won no more pennants, the Capitals were competitive in the Padres era, finishing no higher than second in the Albemarle Division and no more than ten games out. The Pirates era, though, was an unmitigated disaster. For two decades, the Capitals were cellar dwellers. Winning seasons were rare.

Godsday didn’t change that. Why would it? Attendance was stable, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, maybe two thousand a night, and it had been that way for years. The team owned the ballpark in downtown Raleigh — it opened in 1977, after a couple of seasons sharing N.C. State’s ballpark — so there was no incentive to move the team to another market. The team’s ownership changed hands about two years before Godsday — the new owner was a video game developer whose company was based in the Raleigh suburbs — and if new ownership didn’t change Raleigh baseball, gods walking the Earth surely wouldn’t. Baseball, after all, was a game of traditions and institutions.

If I remember correctly, I rewrote that to about a third its length. Some of it’s awkward, some of it’s pointless, what I called “Godsday” became “the Day of Return.” Honestly, this was one of the earliest passages that I wrote, probably around June 21st or 22nd, and it was written so I could get a feel for the narrator’s voice. The important thing to take from all of this: “The team sucks, it’s sucked for a long time, and it’s going to keep right on sucking.”

The “early 70s” detail was to connect “The Ginger Kid”‘s Raleigh baseball team to the defunct Raleigh team, the Raleigh-Durham Triangles, that folded in 1971. I placed the Capitals in downtown Raleigh, but I didn’t specify a site; I suppose they could have played on the site of the old ballpark at Devereux Meadow.

I had some back-ups, as well. For the Albemarle Division, I considered the New Bern Bears (Coastal Plain League in the 1950s) and the Fayetteville Highlanders (Carolina League in the 1950s). For the Potomac Division, the Cumberland Colts (Middle Atlantic League in the 1930s) were a possibility.

Putting the league together and the evenings I spent with Baseball Reference were enjoyable. So, too, was the nights spent listening to radio broadcasts on staticky AM stations to get down some of the baseball lingo. And then there was taking a collection of Ring Lardner’s stories off the shelf and reading a few of them, just to reacquaint myself with a master of the short story form.

But those are tales for another time… 🙂

ReDeus: Divine Tales went on sale at Shore Leave over the weekend, and it’s now available at Amazon.

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