8/3/04 – Daily News Record
By DUSTIN DOPIRAK Daily News-Record After a potentially glorious season ended two series too early, the somber-faced Harrisonburg Turks gathered near the pitcher’s mound at Covington’s Casey Field on Sunday night to hear their coach, Bob Wease, express his gratitude and say goodbye. Once the huddle broke up, they exchanged embraces, then got on the bus and sat in silence as they reflected on their summer and a tight-knit group of teammates, some of whom they will never see again. "The guys were very upset," Wease, also the squad’s owner, said Monday. "Being on that bus was like being in a morgue." For some of the players, the first-place Turks’ shocking 4-1 loss to bottom-seeded Covington in the quarterfinals will be their last memory of the Valley Baseball League. The 15 players who will still be eligible next year, however, all decided they didn’t want their VBL careers to end that way, Wease said, telling him they would return in 2005. All of those commitments are verbal. Players are not allowed to sign contracts for next season until Sept. 1. According to Wease, though, that immediate desire to return shows the "unique" type of players he had this season. By all accounts, this was a team that was close on and off the field. An unselfish squad, willing to do the little things to win. A team with players who would give up a chance to impress scouts to bunt if necessary. Wease said it was a group unlike many he has seen in his 15 years as the Turks’ owner, focused from the beginning to the end on winning the NCAA-sanctioned Valley League. Usually, Wease said, by the time the playoffs roll around, players – all collegians — are already talking about going home, not about coming back next year. Wease still had 24 on his roster when the squad was eliminated Monday, only one fewer than he carries in the regular season – and that player, infielder Corby Heckman of Indiana, left because of a leg injury. Even in 2000, when the Turks won the league championship, they had only 13 players on the team by the end of the year. It’s a rarity, he said, that more than six players tell him immediately after the end of a season that they plan to return the next summer. "These guys were a different breed of ballplayer," he said. "Most of the guys this age want to develop their game and get looked at by scouts when they get out here. They’re not so concerned about winning games. "For these guys, winning is everything. They weren’t about playing for themselves. They wanted to go out and win on the field." Wease believes that it has something to do with the way he recruited for this team. The Turks’ roster was mostly devoid of players from baseball powerhouses, filled instead with standouts from Midwestern schools such as Indiana, Southwest Missouri State and Southern Illinois. Even when Wease did go south for players, it was for guys from smaller schools like Florida Atlantic and Oklahoma City. "We didn’t have anybody from big-name schools," said catcher Matt Sluder, who will be a sophomore at James Madison this season. "We had a bunch of guys that played for mid-level colleges that all knew how to scrap for runs and play together as a team." Wease said he will continue to recruit that way, staying away from the elite programs to pick up players from the Rust Belt. "These Midwestern guy are blue-collar workers," he said. "They come here to win." And win the Turks did, for most of the season. But not without having to fight through some adversity. After they began the season by winning six of their first seven games, they dropped seven of their next nine to fall to .500 for the season. After Wease held a team meeting, however, the squad got closer and started rolling again. The Turks won 22 of their next 26 games to finish with the best record in the Valley League (30-14). However, back-to-back losses in the first round to Covington forced this tight group to separate faster than it wanted to. "It was sad," first baseman Joe Kemp of Indiana said. "You meet a bunch of guys, you grow close to them and they get to be like your family for two months. Then, all of the sudden, its over, and some of these guys you’ll see again, but a lot of them you won’t." Kemp will be a senior at Indiana this year and won’t be able to return next summer. Those that do return hope that when they have to say goodbye, it will be in a more jubilant setting.