07/21/2008 – Daily News Record
Written By Tim Chapman Daily News Record HARRISONBURG – These may be the only numbers you need to know to figure out who gets the nation’s best college baseball players each summer: In 2007, the Cape Cod League had 212 alumni in the major leagues; the next-closest collegiate circuit has 28 this year. "The Cape still gets the best talent," Northwoods League President Dick Radatz Jr. said. The real question is which of the nation’s other major summer leagues is No. 2, a question that resonates in the traditionally baseball friendly Shenandoah Valley. Five have realistic arguments for being second best, baseball people say: the Valley League, the Alaskan, the Coastal Plains League, the New England League and the Northwoods. The Coastal Plains has 28 players currently in the majors, followed by the Valley and New England with 22 each. The argument doesn’t simply stop at alumni numbers, though. Alan Simpson of PGCrossChecker.com compiles a weekly "Summer 16" poll that tries to rate teams in 23 summer leagues. Simpson agrees that the Cape is the top league. In the second tier, he said, are the Alaskan, Northwoods, New England and Coastal Plains. The Valley? Simpson puts it at the top of the third tier. Not surprisingly, Bob Wease of the Valley’s Harrisonburg Turks and Mike Bocock of the Luray Wranglers aren’t buying it. "You tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about," Wease, the Turks’ owner/coach, said. "That’s ridiculous. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about." Both coaches were particularly irked at being pegged behind the New England League. "I can tell you this much: the New England is not [better]," Bocock said. "The New England isn’t even close to being better than the Valley League. They don’t have the talent we have. Any college coach will tell you that." Well, maybe not any. Jay Sullenger, the associate head coach at James Madison University, mostly agrees with Simpson’s rankings, though he’s found the Valley and New England to be closer in quality. "From what I’ve heard, the Valley and New England are pretty equal in talent," Sullenger said. "The Coastal League has been a step up. …But the Northwoods and the Alaska leagues are premier, based on what players have told me." Javi Sanchez, an assistant coach at Louisiana State University, is in charge of assigning LSU players to summer circuits. He said the Tigers usually send the program’s six to eight best players to the Cape. The rest are dispersed based on different factors, such as whether a younger player wants to be closer to home or whether LSU has ties to a certain team. "A lot of them, we send to the Valley League," Sanchez said. "Our former coordinator used to coach in the Valley League." This summer, LSU has players in Luray, Fauquier, Staunton and Waynesboro. Sanchez didn’t say which leagues he thought were better than others, but he praised both the Valley and Northwoods. Stanford assistant coach Dave Nakama also had good things to say about the Valley, but – except for the Cape – he declined to rate them. "We have had a couple kids play for Woodstock," Nakama said. "Their owner came to Palo Alto [Calif.] and watched us play a couple games. "I think what’s good about having relationships is they take the kid, they don’t question you. It’s all based on relationships and a good fit." There is certainly no shortage of geographic fits. The cozy, 10-team Cape is situated in one of America’s exclusive addresses, Cape Cod, Mass. The 11-team New England League stretches from Maine to Connecticut. The Alaskan League fields six teams in the nation’s largest state. The Northwoods has 14 teams in the north central states of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin, and even one team in Ontario, Canada. The Coastal Plains has 14 teams in southern Virginia and the Carolinas. After the Cape, Coastal, New England and Valley leagues, the Northwoods has the most players in the majors today, 17, although Alaskan totals have not been updated. So what does it all mean? Beyond the Cape, the consensus is that there is no real consensus. Five major league scouts each said the Cape Cod League is No. 1. After that, they differed. One scout from the North Central region described it as a "crapshoot" after the Cape. The Alaskan and Northwoods were mentioned most often as the next-best leagues. The Valley wasn’t mentioned by any of the scouts in their initial listings of the top four or five leagues. Two of the scouts mentioned New England as a top-five league. When asked specifically how the Valley stacks up, however, Jason Baker, a Cincinnati Reds scout in the South Atlantic and Florida regions, said it belongs in the conversation. "The Valley League could easily be in there," Baker said. "They get a lot of the guys in the Middle Atlantic region. They could be ahead of the [New England]." One reason players from throughout the country sign up with the Valley and other summer leagues is to impress scouts. But not all major league teams scout amateur leagues extensively. Sam Hughes, the cross-checker scout for the Chicago Cubs, said the organization only closely follows the Cape. "From what I know, [the Valley is] a fairly competitive league that gets draft out of," Hughes said. "We’re gonna show up where we feel the top prospects are." Arguments about who’s best often become regionally based. Not surprisingly, league commissioners and owners tend to side with their teams. VBL Commissioner David Biery, for example, didn’t hesitate when discussing what he considers his league’s superiority. "In my mind, there’s no question that we’re equal to, in quality of players, any league in the country," Biery said of the Valley. "Absolutely," he added when asked if his answer included the Cape. Biery went on to trumpet the quality pitching, the inviting atmosphere of the Shenandoah Valley – similar promotional lingo used by many of the league heads. When asked about league alumni numbers in the pros, he was quick to point out the overlap of different lists – meaning players who might have spent their pre-sophomore year in the Valley and their pre-junior year in the Cape. "The interesting thing is the players that play for us one year," Biery said of those who move on to different summer leagues. "I think if people look at those lists they’d see a lot of duplication." Juan Pierre of the Los Angeles Dodgers is one of the Harrisonburg Turks’ most accomplished alumni, but you can also find him in a video piece on the Northwoods’ Web site, talking about his 1996 season with the Manitowoc Skunks in Wisconsin. What makes one league more attractive than another? One factor, of course, is self-perpetuating tradition. Everyone knows the best players go to the Cape, so the Cape keeps getting better players. Proximity of teams within a league also plays a major role in attracting scouts. In the Cape, scouts can see multiple games in one night. The farthest a team travels is 50 miles. The center of the Valley also is compact. Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, Woodstock, Luray and New Market all are within easy driving distance. On any given night, a scout could see the first few innings of a game at Memorial Stadium in Harrisonburg and still catch the latter innings of a game either 20 miles north in New Market or the same distance south in Staunton. The Northwoods and Alaskan leagues are more spread out, making it a harder for scouts to see as much baseball in a shorter period of time. Alaskan League President Dennis Mattingly, though, tries to turn travel into a positive. "It makes [players] a little tougher mentally," said Mattingly, who is also the general manager of the Anchorage Bucs. Every circuit has its selling points. For the Northwoods, it’s the long schedule: 68 games – 24 more than the Valley and most leagues. Most summer circuits play a 44-game schedule. The Northwoods claims to give players an experience more like the lower minor leagues, where teams play almost every night of the summer. In addition, Northwood players certainly can say they’ve seen the "heartland." Their travels take them from Iowa to Michigan to Canada. So who’s No. 2? There is no consensus. But the Valley asserted its superiority over at least one neighboring circuit, the D.C.-area’s Clark Griffith League, last week when both Waynesboro and Luray beat the Vienna Senators, the No. 1 team in the Summer 16 rankings. The Alaskan League also is eager to prove itself head-to-head. "I’ve invited the Cape league several times to come play us, and I’ve offered to go there," Mattingly said. "I think it’d be a hell of a game, the best team out of the Cape and the best team out of Alaska." Unless teams from around the country participate in more of these exhibitions, the best measure of the leagues probably remains the number they send to the majors – meaning Cape Cod is No. 1, and the Valley is somewhere in the top four.