VBL: A Road To The Show

GREG MADIA | Daily News-Record   DATE: May 31, 2017

HARRISONBURG — Teresa Wease remembers watching the 2002 World Series with her husband, Bob.

Bob Wease is the longtime owner and manager of the Valley Baseball League’s Harrisonburg Turks. In all seven games of the 2002 World Series, ex-Turks middle infielder David Eckstein hit leadoff and played shortstop for the Anaheim Angels, who went on to win in seven games over the San Francisco Giants.
“Bob and I both were sitting here crying,” Teresa said while standing in Bob’s office at Wease Auto on South Main Street.The office, where Bob sits every day to sell used cars, might as well be Harrisonburg’s hyper-local version of Cooperstown.
It’s filled with photos of ballplayers past and present, wearing their Turks gear as college kids and their Major League Baseball uniforms as men. There are wooden bats, about three dozen of them, stacked in the corner. Those bats were just delivered to Bob from former Turks and major league first baseman Clint Robinson.
Robinson is with Washington’s Triple-A affiliate, Syracuse, right now, but the lumber is for Wease’s 2017 team to hit with this summer.
The Weases have seen many of their former players go onto the big leagues. Eckstein reached and won the World Series again in 2006 when he was named Most Valuable Player as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. And whether a former Turk goes onto accomplish what Eckstein did, or simply finds his way onto a Major League Baseball roster, it never gets old for Bob or Teresa to see. Teresa keeps the team’s website and history.
The pride and the joy,” she said. “And just think about it when we have them and get to know them, they’re just kids with a dream.
“When the dream is achieved — and it happens frequently, like earlier this month when former Harrisonburg pitcher Emilio Pagan made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners — Bob and Teresa said they feel overwhelming gratification. This past week, when another former Turks pitcher Ashur Tolliver threw in a game for the Houston Astros that featured four total former Valley League players, they said they felt the same. Tolliver, Chris Devenski (Woodstock) and Will Harris (Staunton) all pitch out of the Astros bullpen, but lost that day to Jason Kipnis (Covington) and the Cleveland Indians.
Bob Wease has stories of interactions with players who would turn out to be major leaguers, and so does Mike Bocock, who managed at Luray and Staunton before taking over as commissioner of the Rockingham County Baseball League. Some of the stories are fun, some are almost unbelievable and others are just the ones of any kid with a dream.
David Eckstein
Eckstein’s MLB nickname was “Just Enough.” And when he was with the Turks, no one in the Valley League was certain that the 5-foot-6, 170-pounder would have enough or was good enough to reach pros.
“He almost got cut by [the University of] Florida,” Bocock said. “But Bob made him a good player and then Eckstein became a good player through hard work.
“Wease said he helped Eckstein change his swing. Under Wease, Eckstein went from a slap hitter to line-drive hitter.”
He was always down on the end of the bat,” Wease said. “I always choked up on the bat, so one day when I was hitting line drives in the cage, he asked ‘How do you do that?'”
I said ‘David, it’s bat control.’ If the pitcher throws 100 mph, you can get the bat through the zone, but you’re down on the end of the bat and you’re always hitting the ball at the back of the box. Everything he hit was going to the right side and he was always hitting flares. So then he chokes up on the bat and all of a sudden he’s hitting line drives and pulling the ball.”
Over 10 seasons with the Angels, Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Padres, Eckstein was a lifetime .280 hitter.
Juan Pierre
Before Juan Pierre won a World Series with the Florida Marlins and was a three-time stolen base champion at the major-league level, he spent the summer of 1997 with the Turks.
“He comes to the car lot one day and he says, ‘Coach, can I get the keys to the stadium?’ I said sure,” Wease said. “Then he asked for the baseballs, and now if you’re one guy on a baseball field, what can you do? You can run wind sprints and you can hit out of the cage.
“Wease said after Pierre asked for the keys and the buckets of balls for a third straight day, he had to follow Pierre out to the stadium to see what he was doing on the field alone.
“I sat with binoculars in the parking lot behind left field and I saw him run,” Wease said. “He ran about eight or 10 wind sprints and then he threw the ball against the stadium wall to get his arm loose.
“Then all of a sudden he picks up two buckets of balls and walks out to center field. I say to myself, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ He gets to his center field position, picks up the ball and long tosses it to home plate. This was by himself. Now think about that and how dedicated you are that you do that.
“Bocock said Pierre was the fastest guy to ever play in the Valley Baseball League.
“He was their leadoff hitter and when he got on first, he stole second and he stole third and we didn’t even worry about how he got home,” Bocock said. “We weren’t going to throw him out.”
Aubrey Huff
When Aubrey Huff arrived to play for the Staunton Braves, he was fresh off a College World Series appearance with the Miami Hurricanes. Any Valley Baseball League player who played in the College World Series shows up a few weeks into the season due to the CWS schedule.
“He came to the dugout and he said, ‘Hey skip, got a uniform? I’m Aubrey Huff.’ So I said sure,” Bocock said of his first meeting with the future 13-year MLB veteran. “But then I said, ‘You know Aubrey, I’m an old-school guy, so if you just take those earrings out I’d feel a lot better.’ He said, ‘Yes sir’ and took ’em off.”
Huff got his uniform and waited until Bocock called on him to pinch-hit later in the game.”His first at-bat in the Valley League, and we’re in Staunton, he hits one about halfway up onto the Gypsy Hill Park golf course,” Bocock said. “It’s a bomb.”
And then I’m looking at him as he’s coming around the bases to shake my hand at third base and he gets to me and says, ‘Hey coach, can I put those earrings back in?’ I went ‘Yes sir, you can.'”
Huff hit 242 home runs in the major leagues and had a career-high 34 with the Devil Rays in 2003.
Yonder Alonso
Another former Hurricane that Bocock remembers well is current Oakland Athletics first baseman Yonder Alonso, who has 13 home runs through 40 games this season.
Alonso played for Bocock at Luray.
“He was a freshman or sophomore at Miami and you knew he was going to be good,” Bocock said. “He had the swing, but Yonder was always complaining, saying that his back was sore or his legs were sore. So, he comes to me one day close to the end of the season and said, ‘Coach, I really appreciate it and I had a nice summer here, but I have to go home.'”
As the tale goes, Alonso explained to Bocock that Jim Morris, the coach at Miami, wanted him to come back to campus so that he didn’t return injured.
Little did Alonso know Bocock had just gotten off the phone with then-Miami assistant coach Turtle Thomas.
“I said, ‘[Yonder], well the crazy thing about it is that I just talked to [Thomas] and he didn’t say anything about you going home, so let’s call him,'” Bocock said. “I called him and said, ‘Yonder has to go home’ and he said for what? Yonder is sitting across from me there, and Turtle said to put him on … and I could hear it.
“Yonder hangs up and he goes ‘Coach, I think I’m going to be all right if I can get into the whirlpool or stretch it out.'”
Bocock said he benched Alonso for the next few games, but that when he inserted Alonso back into the lineup, he thrived.”
He went on a rampage. He was hitting like crazy,” Bocock said.
Daniel Murphy
The most prominent current big leaguer who had a stop in the Valley League is Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy.
A two-time all-star who hit .347 for Washington in 2016 and is hitting better than .300 again this year, Murphy played for Bocock in Luray.
Bocock said the two still keep in touch and that he’ll go up to Nationals Park to watch and visit with the ex-Met.
“Murph has always been surrounded by good people,” Bocock said. “He’s a smart guy, and because of his work ethic and the guy that he is, he’s one of baseball’s best.”
And now I would very seldom talk baseball with him and that’s the thing, knowing players like this as people, not just baseball players, that’s what’s great.
Frank Menechino
There are two Frank Menechino stories that Wease gets a kick out of.
Menechino played for Oakland and Toronto in seven MLB seasons. He’s now the hitting coach for the Miami Marlins.
“It was 1992 when he played for me,” Wease said. “But it was early in the season and I come to the ballpark, and I hear this sound … I go ‘What the hell.
‘”I looked down at the batting cage and the team has two turkeys down there and I say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Frank said that’s going to be our mascot, and that turkey [defecated] all over the bullpen. But Frank kept it the whole summer. We had a big laugh that day.
“Years later, when Menechino was driving from his home in Staten Island, N.Y., to spring training in Florida, he stopped in Harrisonburg to see Wease.
“It’s 12:30 at night and there’s a knock on my front door, and if someone knocks on your door at 12:30, it’s usually not good,” Wease said. “I get out of bed, open the door and Frank Menechino is standing there. He was driving down I-81 and asked if he could spend the night here.
“These players don’t forget you.”
Erik Kratz
Wease can recall the moment Erik Kratz, the now-journeyman catcher, went from Division III baseball player to pro prospect.
Kratz played his college ball at Eastern Mennonite University, but couldn’t stick with a Valley League team, initially.
“When he went to play for Waynesboro in the Valley League, they released him. They cut him,” Wease said. “I picked him up and I remember when I first picked him up, the first night, I had a scout walk up and ask who my catcher was.”
The scout asked where does Kratz go to school and I said EMU. The scout said, ‘Man, he looks good’ and the rest of it is history.”
Kratz has had stints with the Pirates, Phillies, Blue Jays, Royals and Astros. Currently, he’s with Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, Columbus.
These are a just a few stories Bocock and Wease like to tell.
There are more players — Mo Vaughn, Craig Kimbrel, Cliff Pennington and Ryan Shealy, to name a few — who have come through Harrisonburg.
And while none were guaranteed to make it to the majors when they were spending their college summers trekking up and down I-81 to play, those around them knew they had a chance.
“Just watching Daniel Murphy hit batting practice, Ryan Schimpf hit batting practice and Yonder Alonso hit batting practice,” Tyler Bocock, Mike’s son, said.
Tyler, who played his college ball at Stetson and is now an assistant baseball coach at Harrisonburg High School, was a kid and grew up around some of the current big leaguers.
“They shouldn’t have been playing on some of the fields we had around here,” Tyler said. “They just made the fields look really tiny, and they made the game look really easy.”