Doing More Than Rooting for The Home Team
By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page B01
The players don't always listen too well to advice, even from a coach who's been teaching hitting for 58 years. And Mo Weber knows that many of these boys won't go far beyond this summer in the Shenandoah Valley.
But Weber loves them nonetheless, and each day, as he puts on his New Market Rebels baseball uniform and makes the drive over Massanutten Mountain to the little ballpark in the league that time forgot, he thanks his lucky stars that he's still swinging a bat.
"Who's going to hire an 81-year-old guy to coach or even to bag groceries?" he asks.
Weber is the old man of Virginia's Valley League, a collection of 10 teams of college players who harbor dreams of the big leagues. Weber's job is to help them adjust from the aluminum bats they've used since Little League to the wood bats of the real game.
"These boys have all been All-Everything," he says. "Then they come up here and they get wooden bats, and all of a sudden, they don't hit the ball nearly as far. The lights here aren't so good, and they aren't doing nearly as well as they're used to. I give them some ideas, but gently, because it jeopardizes their comfort and security about what they've done in the past."
A former teacher and stockbroker, Weber's been coaching since 1946, mostly at colleges and for many years at William and Mary. He's spent the past nine summers in the league, coaching kids who could be his great-grandsons.
Baseball has been part of the landscape here since the end of the Civil War, when teams were formed in New Market, Luray, Front Royal and Staunton.
The Rebels are a town project. New Market has no newspaper, radio or TV station; it's up to townspeople to keep the team going. Volunteers built the grandstand, installed the infield, created the warning track.
They also house and feed the players -- without compensation.
"We moved here in '86 from Frostburg, Maryland, and started coming to the ballgames for something to do," says Ila Steinly, who, with her husband, Ray, houses a couple of players each summer. "This is what keeps this town together. It draws people out; you don't see half these people but for these two months."
Steinly follows her players to every game, home and away. She feeds them, washes their uniforms, even lends them a car.
"This is baseball the way it used to be," Weber says. "Baseball has been invaded by business people. If you don't cut it, you're out of there. People like that Angelos character in Baltimore. If you don't make enough money, you sell your players. Everything's bottom line."
It wasn't that way when Weber coached in Iowa after World War II. "War was over. A lot of communities didn't have television. People had one week off, they stayed home and painted the house. So their towns meant something to them; there were natural rivalries. You could draw three or four thousand to a game between Storm Lake, Iowa, and Spencer, Iowa."
But once TV came along and gave small town Americans access to major league games, independent leagues began to wither away. Even here in the Shenandoah, the survival of small ball was in question.
What saved the Valley League was the wave of retirees arriving from Washington and other big cities. These people craved a sense of community, and they had time on their hands.
Town residents not only house the players, they often give them part-time jobs such as dusting off cars at the dealership, pruning Christmas trees at Jay Zuspan's farm or making repairs at hosts' houses.
In return, Rebels coach Mac McClarrinon takes his players to read to local children, give tips at baseball camps and ride in town parades.
"It's pretty nice," says Rebels pitcher Trent Hill, a sophomore from Mississippi State. "You wake up and there's coffee made. We get charter buses with TVs in them."
The players barely seem aware of how much they mean to Mo Weber and the Steinlys and the regulars at Rebel Park. Zuspan, the tree farmer who puts up players most years, keeps a time-softened index card in his pocket listing every player he's ever housed and what level of ball they've gone on to play.
"We raised daughters," Ila Steinly says, "and now we get to have boys."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company