It Must Be For Love, Because It Certainly Isn’t For Money

7/23/2006 – Staunton News Leader

Written By Hubert F. Grim III/staff George Steinbrenners they are not. You’ll never see "The Boss" sweating in a sweltering concession stand over a pot of boiling hot dogs, or filling up bags of peanuts, or cleaning up the ballpark after a home game like the owners in the Valley Baseball League. But Steinbrenner and the 10 VBL owners do have one thread that bonds them together — a raging love and passion for the game of baseball. That passion is what keeps them coming back summer after summer. "We both love sports, especially baseball," said Staunton Braves co-owner Boyd Snyder, who along with his wife, Kay, purchased the club five years ago. When former owner Garland Eustler put the Braves on the market, the Snyders jumped at the opportunity to buy the team. "The Braves mean so much to this community, we wanted to make sure the right people bought the team," said Kay Snyder, who is Eustler’s mother. "We were afraid someone might buy the team and run it into the ground. Staunton loves its baseball in the summer, and Boyd and I weren’t about to see that tradition jeopardized." The Snyders, although they had been around the organization under the Eustler regime, admitted the first year of ownership was a real struggle. The struggling may be behind them after five years, but running the club hasn’t gotten any easier. "Each year the organization grows, which we want, but that’s so much more for us to keep up with," Boyd said. Kay Snyder said five years ago there weren’t laptops to keep the official scoring at home games, no Web sites and no Internet broadcasting, which the league started this summer. "It’s taking more and more people to help put a home game on," Kay Snyder said. "Currently, I have to pay 20-25 people for a home game." And the league continues to grow. "We haven’t won on a consistent basis like Garland did, but we aren’t playing in a six-team league anymore," Boyd Snyder said. "More teams mean less funding coming out of the pie for each club. There are more expenses and more travel involved. For example, five years ago umpires made $75 per game. That’s up to $120 this summer and will be $125 next year. Gas prices are soaring, and putting our team bus on the road at six miles per gallon is expensive." And, he added, recruiting is more difficult because more and more summer leagues are sprouting up around the country. Down the road at Waynesboro, Jim Critzer has owned the Generals for seven years after buying the franchise from Frankie Coyner. "There was talk of moving the team or not even having one, and I didn’t want that to happen," Critzer said. "I wanted to keep baseball in Waynesboro." Critzer’s love for the Generals goes back to the late 1940s and early 1950s when his brother, Buddy, played. "I remember as a 6-year-old hanging around Gateway Park with those guys. That always stuck with me," he said. With the Generals rising to the top of the South Division and a regular-season title within reach, the fruits of Critzer’s labors are being reaped. "We didn’t do too well my first six seasons, but I’m really glad Staunton decided to get rid of a great manager and we were able to hire him," said Critzer, a reference to Lawrence Nesselrodt, who was fired by the Braves late last season and hired by the Generals. "Lawrence has done a tremendous job for us, just like I knew he would." Critzer admitted there were times the past six years when he questioned the wisdom of buying the team. "There were a couple years when I said to myself, ‘My god, why am I doing this?’ I’d like to keep the team in the family. My kids are part of the organization, and I would like to think they will run it one day. But for now, I’m looking forward to many more years of running the Generals," Critzer said. Covington Lumberjacks owner Jason Helmintoller faces the dilemma of isolation with his team. The Lumberjacks are an outpost in the VBL, with their nearest VBL competitor more than two hours away. Helmintoller said geography is the biggest obstacle the team must overcome. "We have to travel more than any team in the league, and I know the nine other teams dread making the trip to Covington," he said. "It’s hard to form any rivalry with the distances we travel. The cost of travel isn’t going to go down anytime soon." Covington isn’t located in the Shenandoah Valley, but league officials gambled by placing a franchise there. The Lumberjacks won the championship last season during only their fifth year in existence. Helmintoller and his father bought the team from Garland Eustler after its second year in the league. Helmintoller did his college internship in sports management with the Lumberjacks during Eustler’s second year, and Eustler kept joking he was going to sell the team to him. Turns out it wasn’t a joke. "I was very aware of the VBL, having worked with Curt Dudley (the league’s former media relations director) at JMU," Helmintoller said. "My father and I thought it would be a neat thing to do in owning a team, and we haven’t been disappointed. The relationships we have developed with our players go beyond just baseball. We have gone to several weddings over the four years of ownership." Casey Field, which used to be home to a low-level Houston Astros farm team, is scheduled for a face-lift during the off-season, adding a new scoreboard and new covered seating behind home plate. "Fans in Covington enjoy high-quality baseball, and I believe we deliver that," Helmintoller said. "I think we are in the best shape we have been in five years. The Valley League took a chance putting a team in Covington, and I don’t think we have disappointed." No Gold Mine The Snyders, Critzer, Helmintoller and Harrisonburg’s Bob Wease are quick to point out that owning a VBL team is no cash cow. "Anyone who thinks this is a get-rich-quick scheme is in a world of trouble," Critzer said. "I’ve spent far more money than I’ve made in the last seven years. It takes $50,000 to run the Generals a summer." Boyd Snyder said fans are under the illusion that just because Staunton has big crowds for every home game, that the team is rolling in the money. What the fans don’t realize is that a lot of free tickets are available from sponsors for every Braves home game. Actual cold, hard cash from gate receipts is minimal. For example, at a Braves home game that has attendance between 800 and 900, the cash taken in at the two gates may only total just more than $100. "We are the leader in the VBL in providing free tickets through our sponsors, who purchase them at a discount," Snyder said. "If it wasn’t for our sponsors, we wouldn’t be here. That’s why we preach supporting these companies. They are the reason baseball is in Staunton every summer." A Staunton fan can come watch all 21 regular-season home games, and because of the free tickets through sponsors, never have to pay a penny in admission. That’s why the Snyders hope there are a lot of growling stomachs in the stands that will be satisfied at the concession stand. "Boyd has always said we are in the hot dog business," said Kay Snyder, probably only half-jokingly. There are no free tickets for postseason, and there’s a noticeable decline in attendance at Staunton playoff games. Helmintoller said the Lumberjacks do well to break-even. "You’ve got to love what you are doing because it certainly isn’t about the money," he said. Wease isn’t a big believer in the league’s host-family system, so he houses his players in apartments that cost him $7,500, and when utilities are added, that total jumps to $10,000. "I’ve heard too many nightmares about players living with host families," Wease said. "I think my guys enjoy being able to go and come as they please." Wease also gives his players a meal ticket to Golden Corral good for one meal a day. "People don’t realize how much my expenses run. It’s hard to make ends meet. None of us (VBL owners) are in it thinking we are going to get rich," said Wease, adding he’s been at it so long he can come within $1,500 of predicting his costs for the summer. The Owner-Manager Wease is truly the man-with-the-plan for the Harrisonburg Turks. Not only has he been the owner since 1990, he has been the Turks manager for the past five seasons. "I probably should have been the manager from Day 1," Wease said. "Nothing against the managers I had, but they were trying to make a name for themselves and not treating the players right. Now the buck stops here. I had to be at the field anyway, so why not be the manager as well." Wease’s ties to the Turks go back to 1960 when he played for them as a sophomore in high school. "I always liked the Turks and the Valley League, and have a great love for baseball," Wease said. "Baseball gives you something to do every evening." Wease played for the Turks until the league went to only college players. He also played and managed in the Rockingham County Baseball League from 1971-90. Wease has seen a bevy of talent who went on to have solid Major League careers, such as Juan Pierre, David Eckstein, Jon Rauch, Mo Vaughn, Steve Finley, Billy Sample and Gene Richardson, wear Harrisonburg uniforms. As the Turks manager, he has the best record over his five years at 138-78, but as he said, "We get to the show, but can’t win the show." Wease said his biggest challenge, which is getting tougher every summer, is procuring enough players to begin the season. "College baseball keeps extending its season, and that’s hard on summer leagues. We got buried early this summer with an 0-6 start. Take that away, and we are in first place." Since Wease is the owner-manager, he says he really has no off-season. The season usually ends by Aug. 10, and by Sept. 1, he’s busy recruiting for the next summer. "We have a very good summer league in the Shenandoah Valley for baseball fans to watch," Wease said. His and the rest of the VBL owners’ love of the game enables those fans to watch tomorrow’s stars today.