Sitting in the near end of the dugout, George Schaefer and his coaching staff weren’t very optimistic about the evening practice. The tarp, unrolled across the infield earlier in the day was glazed with the afternoon rainfall. With the grass still slick, the need for practice wasn't worth the injury risk with the season opener two days away. And mother nature didn’t seem to be done yet. Beyond the outfield wall and out past the rolling cow fields, storm clouds were hanging low in a thick and white fog that spilled over the spine of Massanutten Mountain like a foamy ballpark beer. The forecast for the night was less than stellar and the return of the hypnotic sound of rain on the dugout's aluminum roof wasn’t a matter of if but when. But for this moment, the afternoon had provided a window-as small as it was-without rain. Rebel Park found itself sandwiched between two large weather systems, one on its way out, and the other making its way in from the west.
Out in left field, just past where infield dirt meets outfield grass, PJ DeMeo waggled a broomstick over his shoulder with his knees bent staring at the pitcher. Roberto Rivera, lobbed a tennis ball over the baseball glove doubling as home plate on their makeshift diamond. And as PJ shifted his weight to his back foot, he took a swing, stroking the ball back up the middle just like he’s done thousands of times before. Itching to play ball-it didn’t matter what form it was-the young men hand-picked to play in a Rebels uniform this summer had broken out a spontaneous game of stickball while they waited on the verdict of the evening practice. They had hopes of one day playing a boy’s game for a man’s paycheck, but tonight’s game was a reversion to their childhood. When the coaches canceled practice, it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the young ballplayers who were just excited to be here. The New Market Rebels, one of the flagship ball clubs of the 119 year-old Valley Baseball League, in this small Virginia town for the summer, were playing ball. For the rest of the summer they'll be living and breathing just baseball. It will be without the worry that comes with their college teams, and it will be in a small town they-and many others-have never heard of.
For 377 miles, Interstate 81 is an asphalt ribbon winding through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Its huge swaths of farmland line both sides of the highway dotted with livestock, poultry houses and sprinkler systems stretching across huge alfalfa fields. 81 unrolls through, over and around the Blue Ridge Mountains, a sub-section of the Appalachian Mountains. A large portion of the interstate cuts through central Virginia, the Holy Grail for leaf watchers and Civil War buffs. It lines the Valley’s floor, yielding an endless convoy of semi trucks, the bane of existence for locals, but a necessary evil to move it’s agricultural output across the lower 48.
Tucked into these towns off the interstate is a love affair with baseball. The closest Major League ballpark is nearly two hours away, but the distance between these players and the big leagues is defined by how far they will go to get noticed. In the Shenandoah Valley, the All-American game is played in All-American towns like Strasburg, where Strasburg Express baseball rules until the summer heat is snapped by football practice at Strasburg High School. Towns like Covington, home of the Lumberjacks, are situated on the western edge of the state along the banks of the Jackson River. For 119 years, the Valley Baseball League, one of the nation’s oldest collegiate summer baseball leagues, has been an anchor in these towns. For the college ballplayers lucky enough to earn an invitation to play, it is the incubator of baseball dreams. Despite its modest roots, no pay, and small town charm, a roster spot in the Valley Baseball League is not easy to get. Thousands would love to suit up, but only a few get the invitation. From the valley’s north end in Winchester, home of the 4-time champion Winchester Royals to the Staunton Braves in the south, this is where nearly 300 ball players from all corners of the country will come in hopes of fixing their swing, tweaking their fastball, and most importantly, catching the eyes of grizzled major league scouts who mine these ballparks for the next five-tool star.
The ballparks of the Valley Baseball League are modest, where capacity crowds hover in the low three digits, and double as high school fields during the spring season. Stadium lights reach high into the sky and pitchers often throw against a bright backdrop of the town’s summertime carnivals and fireworks. There is no pay here, the compensation is the chance to be seen and the prestige that comes with earning an invitation to play. They will be scattered across homes in each town, with volunteers happy to accommodate guys who might be the next Clayton Kershaw or Mike Trout.
On opening night of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, there were 30 players across the Major Leagues who had made their way through the Valley Baseball League. In 2008, 79 players selected in the Major League Baseball draft were Valley League alumni, a testament to the league’s quality of play and attention it gets from local scouts. The message in this league is direct and understood when they are selected to play. You can get noticed, and if you’re good, you will. Over the years, for thousands of college baseball players, the Valley Baseball League has been where the chance to continue playing professionally continues living. But for most, it’s where the baseball gods decide, without notice or warning that the road to a baseball career will abruptly end.
The small stoplight town of New Market is situated off exit 264, home to one of the most vital battles of Stonewall Jackson's Shenandoah Valley Campaign. The New Market Battlefield, the largest attraction in town, is lined with the split rail fences of the Civil War era and Congress Street slices the town in half. On the southern end is The Southern Kitchen, a meat-and-three where gravy is served with virtually every meal and the hardware store, a few blocks up, rarely pulls in their plants after closing.
Heading north past the lawyer’s office and antique shops and the bank called “Your Hometown Lender" a right turn puts you onto Dixie Avenue and leads into Rebel Park, home of the Valley Baseball League’s New Market Rebels since 1966. Deep fly balls here fade at the doorstep of Massanutten Mountain, the panoramic dividing line between Page and Shenandoah County. By anyone’s assessment, Rebel Park is not the most modern baseball facility in the league, but standing in the dugouts, there’s a consensus around here that it is certainly the prettiest. The fence running down the first and third base lines is an aging, forest green wood that fades with each passing summer. The outfield wall is a string of hand painted billboards for business sponsors like Valley Tobacco and Wease Automotive, whose owner, Bob Wease, is also coach and general manager of the rival Harrisonburg Turks down the road. Rivals or not, the teams of the Valley Baseball League support each other-except between the white lines.