I’ve known my dad for 18 years now, give or take a few hours, so I knew when he talked with me about this Around the Valley idea that it was exactly what it looked like. You learn to take dad for face value on certain things, and this was one of them.
There was no gimmick. There was no “...but the passport costs 25 dollars” or “and I want every team to give me this much money to support the idea” coming. Of course, not everyone has known Jerry (if I may call you that?) as long as I have so it took a bit of warming up to, for some people.
Dad knew as soon as he asked me to help that I would be in it for the duration (and not just ‘cause he was my ride home, my father, my friend and the guy cosigning my loans for school). I could've said "No thanks!" but I thought to myself “I’m probably not going to get a chance to hang out with my dad too much after this summer and he’s really passionate about this. Maybe I’ll figure out why.”
And boy did I. From day one in Woodstock, as I looked up at all the fans that had come to Central High School for a baseball game, I could tell. This league was something more than just baseball. I think it has taken me all 60 days to fully grasp what it means to me. I can’t even begin to imagine what it means to those Valley League faithful who have been here for decades.
So the end of May rolled around and we went to a lot of baseball games. One game a night, to be (Michael) Percise. I crack myself up.
At each park, we were greeted with a smiling face. I got to meet owners and coaches and general managers and I felt like I was in the presence of royalty (no Winchester pun intended, here.) I’m going to let you in on a secret, though. They’re not so much royalty as super heroes. I wish I had as much talent and stamina in my whole body as these people have in their pinky fingers.
I went to a few games last season, nothing to brag about (I think I passed the number of games I went to in the entire 2007 season in the first 11 days of this one). Everything seemed so cohesive. Most things went off without a hitch. Surely there are teams of baseball ninjas that swarm the field before the game to make sure all is well. Surely there are trained professionals handling all of this, I thought to myself.
Well I can tell you right now, at a Luray game, the guy in the press box announcing those names is my dad, one of the guys broadcasting the game went to high school with me, the people running the merchandise stand are the family members of the coach and the general manager (who also runs a cake-making business), the people in the concession stand are volunteers from a local church and two of the coaches out on the field had to come to games after teaching all day for the first few weeks of the season.
And the story is the same all over the league. These are real people (and by "real" I mean not baseball ninjas). These people worked 8 or 10 or 12 hour days and what did they do at the end? Soak in a tub, read a romance novel and eat a TV dinner? No, they came out to Gypsy Hill Park or Kate Collins Middle School to bring you another action-packed night of Valley League Baseball. And here’s the crazy part: tomorrow they’re going to do it again.
What could possibly convince people to lead these lives? Why would Melissa Dodge or Michael Kerr want to come and see 28 faceless guys play baseball every night?
These guys aren’t faceless. They’re anything but. They stay with families from around Haymarket, Fauquier or Covington. When they’re not on the field, they don’t sit in baseball player holding tanks. People give up a room in their house for them. They give time, energy, food, and so much more for the entire summer to make sure these boys can come out and play their heart out at the game they love.
For 60 days, that isn’t Clay Kelly, Dallas Baptist University outfielder. That’s Clay Kelly, the guy that picks on me when I try and Push when the door says Pull. That’s my big brother for the summer. That’s the guy I cheer hardest for when he runs out on the field. That's the guy it tore me up to see leave when I thought, surely, we still had weeks of bonding left to do. (I guess we’ll have to rent that canoe some other time.)
Last summer, Wayne Dowling stayed with my family. I didn’t get a chance to interact with him much, but apparently he was something to write home about because he fell into my whole family’s good graces in the month he was here. Because I didn’t get to bond with him, I didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand why people were so emotionally involved in this league. In these players. I’m sorry I didn’t get to experience it last year, because I did this season and it really warms my heart.
I got so excited every time Clay got on base. “He stays at my house! He stays at my house!” I would yell to whoever was listening (and a few people that weren’t.) Even when he didn’t get to play the whole game, the innings he was in, I was having a heart attack. Every pitch was bittersweet agony. I would hold my breath and think “You can do this, Clay. Keep an eye on the ball. Wait for your pitch.”
So I get it now. I get why people get teary-eyed when they know this will be the last time their summer son, summer brother, summer friend or favorite player will wear that jersey. I get it. And I so respect the people with enough emotional endurance to take that every summer. I’m not sure I could.
And I feel as though it is impertinent not to mention that I was completely baseball... challenged until this summer. Clay had to whip me in line a little bit. “You guys only lost by 1 point,” I would say. And he would say “What did we lose by?” I would, of course, respond, “A point.”
“No,” he would reply, shaking his head. “One run. We lost by one run. We've discussed this.” By the end of the summer (curse words, in the lives of school-aged folk) I knew what a balk was. I knew that when the short stop catches a pop fly and throws it to first before the runner tags back up, that it’s a 6-3 double play and what exactly a “clean-up” hitter is (incidentally, it has nothing to do with him being the one to suggest to the ump to brush off the plate, as I had previously suspected).
But that's not all I learned. I learned that, while this is the Valley Baseball League, that each team is this living, breathing organization. I learned that each team is run by different people in different places. Seems sort of basic, I know. But it's also sort of profound.
We're a league, sure. But we've got team identity. We've got town identity. Each place, each park, each team has something different to offer. Something they do better than everyone else. Something it takes a die-hard fan to see for all it is. Whether it be a majestic view, the shaved ice stand (I'm with Mike, why don't we all have those?), or the minor-league-esque stadium that stands out in our minds, there is something that we just see home in when we see our team play on our field.
It's a nice feeling. It's a nice thing to shout "Yeah, two-nine! Come on, swing that bat! Base hit! Base hit!" or "Good eye, good eye!" or maybe even "B... Size! B... Size!" You feel like you're a part of something. You feel like you're home.
This is coming out a lot less structured than I’d hoped, but I’ve just learned so much from this experience. I’ve learned a lot about life. A lot about baseball. And a little about myself.
I’ll write more, later, when I have time to further reflect on all this summer’s journey Around the Valley in 60 Days has meant to me. Something to look forward to: what I learned about my relationship with my dad. It's sure to be a tear-jerker, for me at least. And hopefully for dad, too (and not in the "yes, she's finally gone!" sort of way, either.)