Afully developed love of baseball exists on several levels of intimacy. There is Couch Love, which entails an infatuation with the voice of ESPN's Jon Miller and the kabuki language of video cross-cutting between ultra-close-ups of the batter's wrists and the pitcher's fingers. There is Big-Time Stadium Love, which requires an abiding patience for traffic and an ability to conjure detailed views of action taking place hundreds of feet away.
And then there is a baseball love that exists only in the smallest of places, a level of closeness so pure it almost hurts. If you can stand such simplicity, get in the car, cross over the Blue Ridge and deposit yourself in the little ballparks of the Valley Baseball League, a Major League Baseball-sanctioned collection of some of the nation's top collegiate ballplayers who each June and July migrate to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to play six games a week on high school fields in Luray and Woodstock, in public parks in Winchester and now Middleburg too, and in wonderful old ballparks such as Bing Crosby Stadium in Front Royal and one of the planet's most breathtaking sports facilities, Rebel Field in New Market.
I had read about the Valley League for years before last week, when my 13-year-old daughter, Julia, and I decided to see what all the fuss was about. After driving through the same gap in Massanutten Mountain that figured so prominently in Civil War strategies, we found our bed-and-breakfast, a charming spot called the Cross Roads Inn, which, to our pleasant surprise, turned out to be one block from the ballpark. When we met owners Larry and Sharon Smith, our pleasure doubled as they let drop that the manager and coaches of the New Market Rebels live in the basement of the inn. An hour later, we were sitting with manager Mac McClarrinon -- this league is teeming with classic baseball names -- in the Smiths' parlor, hearing about how he'd spent the afternoon in the basement, checking the computer to see if kids he'd been tracking had been picked up in the major league draft. (Ex-Valley League players are sprinkled throughout the minor leagues, and a few have had their moment in the bigs.) It's safe to say that you could go to a thousand major league games and never have an experience close to this.
Pretty much the whole town ends up at the ballpark on one night or another. In a town of 1,600, the Rebels routinely draw 300 fans, and sometimes twice that many. The townsfolk actually own the team; it's a cooperative of sorts that includes the city, the schools, local businesses and all manner of ordinary citizens. Just wandering around, we met the Christmas tree farmer who built the warning track and businessmen who worked on the fancy new seats behind home plate and several people who put up players in their basements. The players, freshmen through juniors, are not paid, and many take part-time jobs in the valley, helping out on farms and car dealerships.
On the field, the players themselves chalk the batter's box, spray-paint home plate, and rake and water the infield. Six Rebel players stand around third base, rubbing mud into fresh new balls. Just before game time, the PA announcer -- who also happens to be the team's general manager -- asks fans not to chase after foul balls onto the property of the homeowners whose houses directly abut the ballpark. And Jay Zuspan, that Christmas tree farmer, tells us how the first time he came to Rebel Park back in 1989, before the town had rallied to save its team, there were only 20 people in the stands, and the general manager had to ask those in attendance to contribute a few dollars so the team could pay the umpires.
There are no such problems in New Market anymore. Admission to the games is still only $5, and everyone sings "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" together in the seventh inning, and the relievers are driven in from the bullpen in a spanking new red Chevy SSR truck from Grubbs Chevrolet, which also sponsors the Dash for the Cash, in which a lucky contestant gets to keep all the dollar bills he can carry on a shovel from one bucket to another before the wind blows them away.
The view out toward the outfield is ballplayer, wall, mountain, heaven. Along about the sixth inning, darkness falls over the mountain, and the next time you look up, it's gone. It's what Joan Anderson, a former Washington Star reporter who lives here and is a permanent worshiper at the Church of the Valley League, calls "the end of the world effect," and it makes you feel as if you are in a free-floating ballpark.
The home team lost a heartbreaker, 2-0, to the expansion River Bandits from up the road in Woodstock, but in the Valley League, there's always another game the next night.
In the meantime, we had a day to fill, and New Market's Civil War battlefield beckoned. From the moment we hit town, Julia was fascinated by the trappings of the Confederacy that linger even now.
"It's 150 years ago," she said, marveling at Confederate Street and so many places and institutions named for Stonewall Jackson that we lost count. Her impression at first was that "they cling to the Confederacy, not as history but as their beliefs or wishes."
But then we visited the battlefield. Run by the Virginia Military Institute and the state, the museum features an unusually effective introductory film and exhibit that tells a quick and easy version of the war's history; there's little of the balance you'd find in a National Park Service facility. This is history through the eyes of the losing side, yet it is told without bitterness or rancor, and after we'd tromped through the Field of Lost Shoes -- the name the rebel soldiers gave to the muddy battle site -- and heard the stories of young boys who were descendants of Washington and Jefferson, boys who fought against the Union though they were barely older than Julia, we couldn't help but admire their courage and sacrifice. And we saw how the fields and the hills reminded people of what their forefathers fought for.
You could say that we fell for the spin, but we'd like to think that we fell more for the geography of a place where -- but for the roar of the interstate just on the other side of the battlefield -- you can almost see the opposition coming over the hill and you feel the dread and pride of those who knew that their families and land were on the line.
The VMI cadets who fought at New Market marched 18 miles each day, and only then faced battle. We strolled less than two miles and needed air conditioning and food. Luckily, down the road a piece in Staunton, on our way to Woodrow Wilson's birthplace, we found Wright's Dairy-Rite, a canopied drive-in that has been neither modernized nor homogenized by the devils of the marketing world. This is the very same Wright's Dairy-Rite that it has been since the 1950s.
"It's just like 'American Graffiti,' " Julia marveled, and she got it precisely, right down to the steel Servus-Fone speakers through which you shout your order. Menu items include Wright's Wheelie, "a fresh glazed donut grilled until hot and crispy, topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and your choice of topping."
"So cool -- why can't they have a place like this in Washington?" my child asked, whereupon I delivered a boring lecture about real estate values, the evils of chain businesses and the fading value of individual worth, whereupon we decided that both a milkshake and a root beer float were in order, forgot about the lack of air conditioning and rejoiced in an America we had never known.
That night, at Bulldog Field in Luray, we walked the perimeter of the park and saw boys and girls playing their own improvised baseball not 20 feet from the game between the Rebels and the Wranglers. Out at the right-field bullpen, we listened as six way-too-young girls chatted up the home team's relief pitchers through the chain-link fence, and in left field, we heard a reliever for the visiting squad put the moves on an older teen, and sure, the Rebels lost again, but we cheered them all the same, because now they were our team.