For many folks during the pandemic, “out at home” probably means being on the couch with some fast food wishing this hectic year would be over as the same Netflix series is re-watched for the third time.
However, in the Rockingham County Baseball League (RCBL), being “out at home” still means the umpire just called a baserunner out as he unsuccessfully tried crossing home plate for a late-game insurance run. As it should be.
Baseball fans in the Shenandoah Valley may not have been aware while they’ve patiently waited for pro ball to resume, but baseball has already been in full swing for Virginians in the Valley and throughout Rockingham County since late June.
The RCBL is one of the oldest continuous running baseball leagues in the U.S., spanning from its humble beginnings in 1924 and surviving to see another season here in 2020.
The league is composed of eight teams whose rosters consist of high school and college-level baseball players. Many represent local state colleges and universities such as JMU, Bridgewater College and VCU, while also sporting some local high school athletes from Turner Ashby high school (Bridgewater, Virginia) and Riverheads high school (Staunton, Virginia), among others.
Game locations are spread throughout small towns in the Shenandoah Valley and are held in a unique range of stadiums and ballparks. Some offer an on-campus experience, such as JMU’s Eagle Field, while others offer a “Field of Dreams-style” country experience with gorgeous mountain views beyond the park’s outfield like at Montezuma Ruritan Park in Dayton, Virginia –– home of the Montezuma Braves.
Athletes and parks aside, the country’s experienced a summer lacking in sports ranging from intramural to pro levels.
Despite the threat of the pandemic and the neighboring Valley Baseball League (VBL) canceling its 2020 season April 2, the RCBL came together and decided that baseball would be played regardless. While the usual full season won’t happen this summer, it was announced that a shorter, month-long schedule would be played instead, beginning the season June 27 as Phase III of Virginia’s COVID response neared at the beginning of July.
RCBL Commissioner Randy Atkins knew canceling the league was a possibility but said he was optimistic it wouldn’t have to come to those measures. He and others in the league were hopeful that baseball would be played. While their initial June 12 Opening Day was delayed, baseball has resumed in the Valley.
“We were always aware of what was going on with the governor’s orders,” Atkins said. “Of course it [the cancelation] was an option for us, but it was something we were hopeful would never happen.”
However, just because the league decided to play this summer doesn’t mean that they’ve thrown aside their concerns for the safety of their players, fans, coaches and additional staff. In the face of the coronavirus, Atkins and the RCBL have made safety the highest priority of the league this year for everyone in attendance at their games.
“Safety of our fans, our coaches, our players is the most important thing to us,” Atkins said. “We wouldn’t play if it wasn’t safe.”
Some of the season’s guidelines and protocols passed to better protect on-field safety in games include all players receiving symptom assessments by their coaching staffs before games, no sharing of equipment, social distancing in bullpens and dugouts when not playing on the field and no touch and no spit rules.
While all these new guidelines may seem like a barrier on the sport to some, the games have shown no shortage in action, fun and enjoyment for the competing teams or fans in the stands. Clutch plays still result in a collective gasp before a roar of applause — or a chorus of jeers — erupts from the fans in the bleachers, emotion still bleeds in the dugouts and kids in attendance still make it their mission to fetch foul balls in the midst of what’s been a tough year for many Americans.
For some, having the RCBL play ball this summer despite the pandemic has meant more than just getting to watch a favorite sport and pastime –– it’s provided a great relief for all the troubles and hurt that’s happened in 2020.
Bob Wease, an RCBL Hall of Famer and assistant coach for the Broadway Bruins, has been in the league since he was a 13-year-old second baseman for the now-defunct Linville Patriots (now Broadway). The County League’s youngest player ever entered the league in 1958 said he’s glad to see baseball still being played 62 years later.
“I’m just glad that the County League did have some baseball,” Wease said. “You need to have an outlet for some people to get out; it’s tough sitting at home all the time.”
For many Valley residents who’ve been looking to have their sports itch scratched, the RCBL reigns in the Shenandoah’s collective backyard and is waiting for fans –– new and old –– to return to the ballpark for a great night of baseball and to possibly escape the pressures of the pandemic, even if just for a little while. Some games have offered free admission, and all games can offer Valley baseball fans a much-needed serving of America’s national pastime.
While local residents and fans may be excited to catch a ballgame this summer, it can be argued that the people who really wanted baseball back the most were the baseball players themselves.
JMU Baseball catcher Travis Reifsnider is one of the many Dukes and DI athletes now on the Bruins’ roster. How this year’s college baseball season suddenly and shockingly ended for him and his JMU teammates back in early March wasn’t easy to swallow. Reifsnider described the initial news of the season’s cancellation as “gut-wrenching” and the ensuing clubhouse atmosphere as “pretty morbid.”
“I had two seniors to my left and they lost it,” Reifsnider said. “They were crying; other guys were crying.”
Despite the pandemic, Reifsnider’s drive to continue playing the game eventually led him to finding the RCBL where he could pick up his bat and get back to work alongside some of his JMU teammates again. This opportunity came to him right here in the RCBL — and he’s enjoyed it.
“Having this is the opportunity to come out, be able to compete and just have fun,” Reifsnider said. “It’s a blessing to be able to play.”
From legendary coaches, to hungry players, to the Commissioner himself, the RCBL has had baseball fans covered this summer. Whether one fan decides to attend games in person or another prefers to stay safe at home in hopes of flattening the curve of the coronavirus, the league has both covered.
“Some of our games are streamed online or played on local radio,” Atkins said. “It’s an opportunity to keep in touch with the league.”
The small towns of Rockingham County and the Shenandoah Valley are at the plate under the big lights this summer, looking to provide local Virginia baseball fans some summertime baseball as its eight teams collectively take the mound during a summer that’s been almost entirely void of our nation’s game. They’re in business, they’re playing and they’re always ready to welcome anyone to the park looking for a great game in the particularly tough dog days of summer.
“I think the Valley needed baseball this summer,” Atkins said. “I would definitely encourage everybody to come on out.”
Contact Jordan Simal at email@example.com. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.