Shenandoah Junction: The Valley Baseball League is heading to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia
“I’m confident it’s going to turn out well for the community,” said R. Brett Fuller, president of the ballclub.
“I think it’s going to be really good for the Panhandle to have the first team outside of Virginia, which is really in an affluent area. … I think it’s going to be good for the Panhandle and the Valley League.”
The franchise formerly known as the Wranglers goes from being the southernmost team in the Northern Division of the VBL to being the northernmost team in the league, period. It will play at Jefferson High School’s Sager Field next summer.
“With coach (John) Lowery, him being there 43 years and building a baseball program like he has, it makes sense to take it from Luray to a place with such a baseball tradition,” Fuller said.
With 10 state championships, there is no other place in West Virginia with the type of baseball tradition produced by Lowery, a National Federation Hall of Famer.
While semi-alliterative, Fuller chose the name Cannon because of a historic tie to nearby Harpers Ferry and its Civil War connection.
The Cannons will wear maroon and Vegas gold, the Jefferson colors that will match the stadium scheme.
The league has a pervasiveness along the corridor of Interstate 81. Until now, though, all of the teams were in Virginia.
“It makes a lot of sense,” Fuller said. “I think the league took that approach, too. When I first pitched the idea, there was positive feedback.”
Fuller, a businessman, purchased the team earlier in the season from longtime owner Bill Turner.
“I asked him six or seven years ago if he wanted to sell to let me know,” Fuller said. “We were able to strike a deal in late May.
“When I took over the team, I wanted to run the team for a year and see how viable the team would be in Luray. Even though Bill won three championships in the last six years, it was tough to break even, so he was putting a lot of personal money into the team.
“When he approached me, I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be interested with the understanding I could do some different options: move the team, keep it there, or get out.”
Fuller brushed aside other locations and opted for moving the team and chose Jefferson County, because, really, in Fuller’s eyes, there was no place like home. Berryville is just across the state line.
“This is my area, my hometown,” Fuller said. “I got lots of ties to Charles Town.
“I considered Charlottesville (Va.) and Martinsburg, but my personal favorite was always Charles Town. As a kid growing up, baseball was my passion, and I went to a seminar held by John Lowery. Billy Hunter from the Orioles was there. So was Doug DeCinces and Al Bumbry.
I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it’s supposed to be like; you got a high school coach who has connections to the pros.’
“Coach Lowery is an icon. Plus, he’s a great guy. Coach Lowery supported the idea. Once he was on board, there was no way it wouldn’t work.”
Lowery, who served previously in several capacities with the Winchester Royals of the Valley League and will serve on the team’s board of directors, sees many positives in the relocation of the team.
“I think it’s going to be beneficial to that segment of the county that enjoys baseball,” Lowery said. “This is going to be quality baseball. If you trace baseball all the way back to old Charles Town Legion team in the ’40s and ’50s and with high school baseball, even before Jefferson, Shepherdstown was winning a state championship and Charles Town was playing for one.
“Some kids who play for this team will play professionally. Look at the rest of league; some will eventually play in big leagues. Some of these kids are in this since they chose college baseball over the professional ball.”
The arrival of the new team will also be a bit of a boon for Sager Field, because several improvements to the facility will take place before the start of the 44-game VBL season on May 31.
Teams play half of the games at home and half on the road, which will also allow the American Legion Jefferson Bulls to continue to call Sager home.
Both Fuller and Lowery said the seating situation will be upgraded, though Fuller’s not adverse to continue to allow an area for lawn-chair seating so familiar at Sager down the left-field line. Lowery said the bullpen down that same line will be upgraded and the field’s sprinkler system will get better.
“That field will be kept in prime shape throughout the summer,” Lowery said.
Steve Sabins, a graduate assistant coach at Oklahoma State, has been selected as the team’s general manager. Bobby Rauh will manage the ballclub.
Both Sabins and Rauh served with the Winchester club this past summer. The Royals won their division in runaway fashion by 12.5 games, but fell in the final series to Harrisonburg.
Luray was fifth of six teams in its division last season.
Some 20 of the available 28 roster positions are already taken.
The teams in the league are nonprofit associations.
The team will look for host families at some point to house the ballplayers for the summer.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Fuller said. “We want to do all we can to be thankful to the school system for allowing the field usage and to the community for its support.”
Story by Luray-Page Free Press editor Chris Marston and Martinsburg, W.Va., Journal sports editor Rich Kozlowski.