Where Hall All The Players Gone?

08/05/2011 – Daily News Record

VBL Again Bugged By Attrition Woes Written By Matthew Stoss Daily News Record Harrisonburg – The Covington Lumberjacks and the Rockbridge Rapids opened the Valley Baseball League championship series Thursday. Well, what’s left of the Lumberjacks and Rapids did.

The two teams each have about 15 players left from their original 28-man rosters, prompting league managers to wonder if the VBL’s 44-game schedule and three rounds of playoffs is too much for college athletes who have been playing baseball since February.

“That’s terrible for the league, Luray manager Mike Bocock said. “That’s bad.”

Attrition has always been an issue for summer baseball leagues because players often suffer burnout. They come straight from their college seasons, some of which now stretch deep into June because of the extended NCAA playoffs – meaning they play from February to August with no off-time. Injuries, college-coach imposed restrictions (such as pitch and innings – counts for pitchers) and, to a lesser extent, the major league draft also affect the size of summer-league rosters.

Not surprisingly, happiness factors in, too.

“Guys get tired of being there,” Bocock said. “It depends on how they’re living, and that’s the way it is – how they’re being treated, how they like the coach and how everything goes.”

Last season, Covington co-owner Tommy Garten said, the Lumberjacks finished with 12 players. The Harrisonburg Turks – whom the Rapids eliminated Wednesday to reach the finals 0 also had mass defections in 2010. This season, with the best record in the VBL, the Turks stayed largely intact. But, with vacation time running short and the school year looming, that doesn’t mean they were’t getting itchy feet.

“My boys, for the last week, have been wanting to go home,” said Turks skipper/owner Bob Wease, whose top-seeded team had 22 players Wednesday when it was eliminated in the semifinals by the Rapids. “You can feel it; you can sense it. You can see it when they come to the ballpark. They don’t have the same drive, the same spark they once had.”

Valley League President Dave Biery said attrition is something that’s always been a problem to varying degrees. It was perhaps worst in one season in the late 1990’s. That season, VBL treasurer Jim Phillips said, Front Royal reached the VBL championship but didn’t have enough players to play in the title game. Phillips said the title was decided in the other semifinal between Winchester and Staunton.

Some teams, seemingly, do better than others.

New Market team president Bruce Alger, also the VBL’s executive vice president, said the Rebels traditionally haven’t had major attrition issues and finished this season with about 24 players. He said New Market does this by recruiting four to five deep at each position in case a player gets hurt or leaves.

Bocock also said he’s never had problems with losing players because he outlines parameters at the beginning to the season to ensure he has the full complement in August. He also doesn’t take pitchers on pitch or innings – counts and said the quality of the Wrangler’s hsot families keeps players in the Valley.

The Turks this year avoided West Coast players in an effort to combat homesickness.

Possible solutions to the dwindling rosters have been discussed among league officials but nothing definite has been decided.

The msot popular solutions, they said, involve shortening the regular season to about 40 games (Sunday doubleheaders also were suggested) and reducing the number of playoff teams to four, which would be accomplished by scrapping the current three-division format and going to two divisions. The top two teams from those divisions would make the playoffs.

The idea is to end the season before August.

Biery said changing the playoff format is more likely than paring the schedule because the exra games gives teams more opportunities to make money and cover operations costs. VBL teams, Biery said, typically hover close to either side of the break-even mark.

“There’s less of a chance we change the regular season and greater chance that we would change the number of teams in the playoffs and the length of the playoffs,” Biery said.

Like Biery, Alger said money is the drawback in reducing the number of games.

“We play the 44-game schedule because most teams need the revenue from 22 home games to help offset their costs for the season,” Alger said. “That seems to be the underlying factor when it’s brought up for discussion.”

For comparison’s sake, the Cape Cod League also plays a 44-game regular season, but the Coastal Plan League plays a 60-game schedule.

Wease said two games wouldn’t make a difference for the Turks. He also said that two games shouldn’t make a difference in any team’s finances.

“It would not hurt at all here. That’s the way I feel about it,” Wease said. “If a team is on that tight of a budger where games is going to kill them – if they’re going to lose money – then they shouldn’t be in the Valley League. That’s just the way I feel about it. That’s ridiculous. It really is. I honestly believe you need to cut the season back three or four days and go right into the playoffs, and I believe you need to have two divisions and the top two teams from each division play for the championship.

Alger said, though, that having an eight-team postseason makes the regular-season more interesting. It keeps more teams relevant longer, which could prevent defections.

“If you look at the way the season ended, right up to the last day, there was only one or two teams that were eliminated before the last day of the season,” Alger said. “to us, as a league, that tells me we’ve got fan interest and fan support and excitement…Ten of the 12 franchises are still in business. To me, that’s a good thing.

But when rosters dwindle to 15 players, are the games worth watching? Are the playoffs really valid at that point?