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Is the Valley League baseball season too long?

Photo Credit: Sean Gladwell

My former colleague Patrick Hite, the sports editor at The News Leader, has an excellent column up today about Valley League baseball that is definitely worth a read.

The column examines the length of the VBL season, through the lens of how the Staunton Braves had to play their second-round playoff series over the weekend with a roster of just 10 players, with pitchers being used in the field.

The question posed in the article: is the VBL season too long?

Like Patrick, I’ve been around Valley League baseball for a long time, in my case, first as a sportswriter, then as part of a group that ran the Waynesboro Generals franchise for several years.

The length of the season has always been a question that dogs folks around the league, mainly because every summer, players start leaking out in the last week or two of July, and then more so after Aug. 1, and we see situations like those faced this past weekend by the Braves almost every year.

One point of frustration for team execs is that the VBL season is no longer than any of the other top summer leagues. The Cape Cod League, for instance, is currently in the midst of its playoffs, with a scheduled end coming on Saturday night.

The Northwoods League, based in the Midwest, won’t even start its playoffs until Aug. 12, with a  scheduled end coming on Aug. 16.

So, the issue, to me, isn’t, is the season too long, but rather, what is it about the VBL that so many of the players who come here don’t finish out their stays?

I ask it that way because, we’re getting kids in the Valley from the same schools that send players to the Cape, to the Northwoods, to the Coastal Plains League, which has teams in the Tidewater and Carolinas, and is also still in the midst of its playoffs.

I don’t know the answer to the question. I suspect that coaches in the Valley could take a bit of a tougher stance with players, and their schools, with respect to players leaving early, but the only thing they can really do is not take players from a college program whose players make it a practice to skip out of town early.

One thing you notice, though, when you’re around summer baseball for any length of time, is that summer coaches tend to get their players from college coaches that they’ve known for a long time, trust will send them good guys, and there’s a tendency to not risk harming those long-term relationships.

Shortening the season, in my view, does nothing to address the problem. I’ve noticed a tendency for teams out of the playoff race with a week to 10 days to go in a season to start losing players, and we’re talking as early as July 20 that this can be the case.

All shortening the season would do, as one team exec detailed to Hite, is make it harder for teams to balance their budgets.

Hite suggested, in response, that the VBL might need to look at a better business model, but, having been part of the leadership of a team for several years, I know that there is no such better business model, unfortunately.

Summer baseball is not something that makes money; I think I can speak for everybody involved when I say, if it was about making money, there wouldn’t be summer baseball.

In my six years with the Waynesboro Generals, the last two of those being VBL championship years, in 2013 and 2014, the goal going in was to just lose as little as possible when it was all said and done.

Attendance, when you look around the league, at crowds when you’re there in person, and in box scores, is pretty stagnant. You’re lucky if you get 300 paid to a game most nights, and I don’t think I’m giving away a trade secret when I say that if you see more people than that, it’s because the team is running a promotion with a sponsor to let fans in free, or the team has just made up that a sponsor has paid for fans to be let in free, the thinking being, we’d rather people be here than not, and maybe they’ll buy a hot dog while they’re here.

Among the more frustrating things in my professional career is that I was not able to figure out how to get more people to go to Generals’ games in my time with the team. I run a marketing company, get paid well by clients to get people to do business with them, and have been reasonably successful over the years at doing just that.

But for all that success elsewhere, I’d run into people at the post office, at the grocery store, at the gym, and when I’d mention that the Generals were playing that night, most likely I’d get a response along the lines of: The Generals, what is that, a softball team or something?

I could go on with a comeback about how MLB all-stars, World Series MVPs and the rest have played in games at Kate Collins Field, but I’d figure that the battle was already lost.

The VBL is a labor of love for those involved in it. The people running teams work hard year-round, and even harder in the summer, knowing that they’re almost certainly going to lose money, and maybe a lot of it, and that they’re doing it all so that 28 kids get to play baseball, and a couple hundred crazy fans can come out every night and cheer them on.

Cutting a week off that is only going to make it harder for the teams to cut their losses.

And, it makes no sense, when other leagues go on longer than ours does, without any fear of repercussion.

But then, kids aren’t going to leave the Cape, particularly, or the Northwoods, which, and I didn’t mention this before, plays a 72-game regular-season schedule.

If anything, what the VBL needs to do is figure out a way to raise its cachet so that kids don’t want to leave our teams before their summer is done, same as the kids in the Cape and Northwoods hold those leagues in that high regard.

The answer as to how to do that is apparently above my pay grade, but I at least know that’s where we need to start.

Column by Chris Graham

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