Haymarket Senators bring suburban feel to the Valley League

July 23, 2011

Five-year-old Tyler Rowling hit the jackpot this summer when his parents decided they would host a player from the Haymarket Senators, a college-aged team that plays in the Valley Baseball League. Just like that, University of Toledo infielder Matt Delewski became a big brother of a sort.

Delewski has attended Tyler’s T-ball games, occasionally joins the family for dinner and knows to use the washer and dryer during the week because his host family does laundry on the weekends.

“To him, Derek Jeter’s moved in,” said Tyler’s mother, Sonya Rowling, 40, perched in the top row of the bleachers at Battlefield High School during a recent Senators home game.

Residents in western Prince William and southern Loudoun counties giving 28 players a place to live and providing team meals after home games is the kind of community involvement that the not-for-profit Senators need to make a go of it. Not only is Haymarket a relatively new member in the 88-year-old Valley League, having formed in 2004 as the Loudoun Rangers and moved to Prince William County the following year, it also is unlike any other stop on the Shenandoah Valley circuit.

Despite the countrified name, Haymarket is the only suburban team of the dozen members of the mostly rural wooden-bat league. The Senators probably share more in common with the neighboring Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, with teams in Vienna, Herndon, Alexandria, Rockville, Silver Spring and Bethesda than they do with Valley stops such as Covington, Woodstock and Luray.

Trying to market a team of college players, almost all without any local affiliation and with the roster turning over from summer to summer, in an area geared more toward professional or youth sports presents a challenge for the Senators’ owners, married couples Bernie and Robin Schaffler and Scott and Jayme Newell. Along with their evolving crew of volunteers, the Schafflers and Newells are involved in every aspect of the Senators’ operations, from piecing together a roster to grilling hamburgers to handling the Internet broadcast of games. It’s largely a two-mom and two-pop operation, and all four have full-time jobs.

A homemade sign along U.S. Route 15 beckons residents on game nights. It lured the Woodsons, Roger, 69, and Liz, 76, who are now behind-the-backstop loyalists. But as Robin Schaffler says, “I think a fair amount of folks don’t know us.”

Attendance has increased modestly in each of the past few seasons, but Haymarket has a long way to go to if the Senators, who won the league championship in 2009, are to become a summertime staple like in some other Valley towns. In Staunton, fans show up hours before a game to set up lawn chairs to claim prime space to watch their Braves. Haymarket, which improved to 16-24 with a 9-8 win at Strasburg on Saturday night, also plays in a county that is home to the Potomac Nationals, the Washington Nationals’ high-Class A minor league affiliate.

“I come down here because I love these kids,” said Joe Cashwell, 56, known at Senators games at “Haymarket Joe.” “I don’t even know half their names yet. I just love them for the fact that they’re here. . . . To me, this is pure baseball.”

In the past decade, the town of Haymarket, established in 1799, added its first stoplight and first major grocery store, and shopping centers, schools and daycare businesses have sprung up in the surrounding area.

“There’s a little disconnect between the greater Haymarket area and the town,” said Ellie Ivancic, director of research and interpretation for the Haymarket Museum. “. . . [Town leaders] really like to create the small-town feeling, and [having the Senators] is probably one way to do it.”

Area residents provide food for the Haymarket players after home games by preparing meals, buying a spread or donating to the team’s “Feed the Senators” fund. After one recent game, Aldie residents Karen and Doug Buffkin delivered 100 pancakes, a 48-egg breakfast casserole, five pounds each of bacon and sausage, a 48-ounce hash brown dish, fruit and danish.

“I wasn’t sure I’d have enough food for 30 college boys, but I hope I did okay,” Karen Buffkin, 41, said with a nervous laugh.

Those are the sorts of personal interactions that can build rapport between the team and area residents, the owners say. To drive home the up-close-and-personal feel, at one point during home games uniformed Senators wander the bleachers selling 50/50 raffle tickets, three for $1 or an arm’s length for $5. “Where you from?” fans often ask.

There were about 400 spectators on hand earlier this month for the Valley League all-star game, including at least 17 professional scouts. Five former Senators were chosen in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft last month, including a fifth-rounder and eighth-rounder. Cleveland Indians pitcher Josh Judy this season became the first former Haymarket player to reach the big leagues.

But perhaps most encouraging was that the Senators had more families wanting to host players than it had players in need of hosts. That’s tangible progress for the four owners, who first met at a Loudoun Rangers game when their young sons were playing together at a water spigot. In 2007, they decided to buy the Haymarket team when it was in danger of shutting down during the season.

They want that small-town Valley feel. At the same time, the more unfamiliar faces in the bleachers, the better.

“When I walk around town,” Bernie Schaffler said, “people aren’t saying, ‘What are the Senators?’ They’re saying, ‘Where’s the schedule?’”

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