VBL Finally Gets Lexington

07/11/2008 – Daily News Record

Written By Dustin Dopirak Daily News Record HARRISONBURG – The lights are finally going up at Washington & Lee’s Cap’n Dick Smith Field, and because of that, the Valley Baseball League at last has its 12th team. After more than two years of attempts to put a VBL team in Lexington, the league will announce the addition of the Rockbridge Rapids during a news conference this morning at W&L’s ballpark, where the Rapids will play their home games when they enter the league next summer. "We’re very enthusiastic," Rapids owner Jim Crothers, a retired insurance agent, said Thursday. Said Rapids general manager Ken Newman: "Baseball belongs in places like Lexington." The VBL had long believed the same, especially since 2006 when the wooden bat summer collegiate circuit added the Fauquier Gators to expand from 10 to 11 teams, operating under the advice of Major League Baseball. MLB, which helps fund the Valley, likes bigger leagues for a practical reason: more teams mean more players in a concentrated area, and that makes scouting easier. Valley League officials, eager to balance their North and South divisions, had hoped to add Lexington in 2006. Problems obtaining a facility, however, scuttled that plan the last two summers. A previous ownership group that hoped to put a team in Lexington was in talks with Virginia Military Institute, which refurbished its stadium in time for the 2007 college season, but VMI passed because construction elsewhere on campus would have created a traffic problem. Washington & Lee then became an option after a donor pledged money to install lights, and the Rapids’ ownership group — which "gradually" formed last year, according to Crothers — came to an agreement with W&L in 2007 to play at its field. That hit a snag, however, when W&L balked at the cost of adding lights to the ballpark. "It was just the rising costs of installation compared to the amount the gift was," W&L athletic director Jan Hathorn said. "Those numbers were not necessarily coming together for the function of building lights." By the VBL’s expansion deadline late last summer, the school couldn’t promise the league – which plays almost all of its games at 7:30 p.m. – that it would have lights in place for the 2008 season, so that left the Rapids to incubate for another year. When W&L put the project back on a fast-track this year, the VBL had finally found a home in a small college town with an abundance of history and charm. "We found a bid to fit the costs that we were able to afford," Hathorn said. "Once that bid was secured, we went forward from there." Those lights are up now, and though Hathorn said they aren’t quite fully operational yet, they will be in time for the Generals’ 2009 season, as well as the Rapids’. Lexington’s addition drew positive reaction from around the Valley League, which had approved the Rapids for the 2008 season before the light situation made that impossible. "I’d say we’re thrilled about it," VBL Commissioner Dave Biery said. "… It puts a team down there with Waynesboro, Staunton and Covington. It balances the league so you can have everybody playing every night, which means you can naturally work the schedule into fewer playing days. You’ve got 12 teams in two divisions, so that helps with the scheduling. They’re all positive benefits. They have very nice facility and an excellent ownership group. They’re well prepared, and they did a lot of work in 2007 preparing for 2008." The current franchise with the greatest stake in Lexington’s addition was clearly the Covington Lumberjacks, the VBL’s southern outpost by a long shot. Covington’s closest rival, Staunton, is 77 miles away, and its farthest, Haymarket, is 193 miles away. Because it will have six teams in each division, owners said, the VBL will likely play an unbalanced schedule, meaning teams will play interdivisional squads less than divisional teams. That means fewer two-plus hour trips to the north for Covington, and it also means the Lumberjacks will finally have road trips shorter than an hour. According to mapquest.com, Lexington is 43 miles and 47 minutes from Covington. "We’ve had Covington on an island by themselves for a long time," New Market’s Bruce Alger said. "You’ve got to give it to those guys for sticking it out. It’s tough when you’re on the end and it takes well over an hour to get to your closest game. This should help them financially, and any time you can do that, the league benefits as a whole." Said Covington part-owner Jason Helmintoller, who also said his team racked up $4,200 worth of transportation costs in the first month of the season: "It’s a pleasure to hear. We’ve kind of had to form rivalries off of performance; now we’ve actually got a geographical rivalry… And from a financial standpoint, it’s great." The Rapids will be the first team in five years to begin as a true expansion franchise. The Fauquier Gators moved over from the Northern Virginia-based Clark Griffith League, so they already had an existing infrastructure. The Rapids will be truly starting from scratch. "We’re actively recruiting our coaching staff," Newman said. "We’re looking for folks to fill positions such as marketing director and develop some folks in those positions. We’re talking to host families and various media to see what we need to do for broadcasting games live. We’re recruiting players, so we’ve got a lot on our plate."