EMU ‘boys of summer’ join the Rockingham County Baseball League
When most collegiate baseball players head home, they resign themselves to summers of solo workouts. But for 14 Eastern Mennonite University athletes who have spent their summer playing in the Rockingham County Baseball League, their experience has been a little different: cow-milking contests during the seventh inning, homeruns and foulballs falling into cornfields, Old Order Mennonite girls in a cart pulled by a miniature pony beyond the right field fence and the old-time nostalgia of the packed wooden grandstand at Clover Hill.
“The best thing about this, besides the baseball and the talent and skill of the players, is the connection with the community,” says rising junior Brendon Salladay. “It’s not just parents and friends coming to games. I talk to people around town and they all have their story about how they connect to County League. It’s a real part of this community.”
The RCBL is a wooden-bat amateur league comprised mostly of current and former collegiate players, with a sprinkling of former minor leaguers and high school players added to the mix. Supported by a cadre of dedicated volunteers, the all-amateur league has been in existence since 1924. Nine teams play a 26-game schedule with playoffs currently in progress.
The Montezuma Braves have seven EMU players, including Zach Roberts, Brendon Salladay, Kyle Mathews, Cody Gibson, Ryan Hedrick, Kyle Salladay (now playing in the all-collegiate, NCAA-sanctioned Valley League), and 2016 graduate Kyle Armstrong.
Seven others are divided among four teams: Tyler Wilcher and Tristan Childress with the Stuarts Draft Diamondbacks; Clay Atkins and John Dudley with the Luray Cavemen; Adam Marston and Julian Bussells with the New Market Shockers; and Jimmy Miller with the Grottoes Cardinals.
EMU coaches are former players
EMU head coach Ben Spotts helps connect players with managers. Spotts played several seasons in the RCBL before coaching responsibilities ended his playing days, as did assistant coaches (and former ODAC All-State honorees) Ryan McAlister and Adam Posey.
“It’s a great way to get reps, learn from older guys and stay in shape for the fall, when you’re expected to come back and prove yourself, even if you had a starting spot last season,” says Armstrong, who has played at Montezuma for four seasons.
For players, though, the atmosphere is loose, the crowds are impressive, and the roster… well, let’s just say that’s a little loose, too. Guys play out of their normal positions. Pitchers hit for themselves. It’s an amateur approach by necessity some nights depending on who shows up — a bit of anarchy among the more traditional (and markedly more successful) utilization of personnel during the college season.
Summer ‘reps’ valuable
On a regular basis this summer, starting catcher Brendon Salladay has been reminding Montezuma manager Ronnie Brunk that he wants to pitch. This reminder is accomplished by using the universal sign of a player begging to go to the mound, a quick subtle gesture mimicking a throw, which is also usually accompanied by some words designed to encourage the manager that one is well and truly an undiscovered Stephen Strasburg.
So when he got his chance in a July 22 blowout, entering the final inning with one out, Salladay proved his worth, inducing a ground-out and striking out one. This means, of course, that his ERA is a fabulous 0.00 and that he’ll return to EMU this fall and try to convince his coach that the best use of his talents will be as the Royals No. 1 closer.
“I’m going to hear about it from Ben, I’m sure,” says Brunk.
Joking aside, Salladay says his time with Montezuma has proven to be a valuable experience. He’s appreciated the time behind the plate, spelled occasionally by teammate Ryan Hedrick, a local in his sixth season with Montezuma.
Playing time redefined
Playing time has been a bonus, too, for Cody Gibson, a pitcher at EMU. In college, the designated hitter rule usually means pitchers don’t hit for themselves. With Montezuma, however, Gibson is Montezuma’s starting third baseman. The former high school shortstop is hitting .254 and hoping to press his case for an infield position next season.
“He’s done well for us there,” says Brunk. “I don’t blame him at all for wanting to see if he can do the job there at EMU. That’s another one I’ll hear about from Ben.”
One player who is right where he’s supposed to be is shortstop Zach Roberts, a sophomore in his second season with the Braves. “It’s really fortunate I found this team because I’ve played a lot and benefited from being around Kyle Armstrong and learning from him. It helped me prepare for my first season at EMU, and then being asked to move from second base to shortstop at EMU, playing here has given me reps and a different mindset with the expectation that I’ll play every game in that position.”
The Braves are in the running for a semi-final spot. Brunk says the team has a good chance of advancement, giving a nod to his EMU contingent for their consistent attendance and skilled contributions.
“Having this group of guys here this season has made a big difference,” he said. “They’re a lot of fun and a good bunch of ballplayers.”