Baseball craziness runs in our family. It's in our genes, we just can't help it. But until last summer we didn't realize that some of America's best baseball was right in our own back yard.
Bruce's father spent his 1930s boyhood sitting in the Washington Senators' dugout at Griffith Stadium. Next to him was his friend Eddie Johnson, whose father, Walter, was the game's greatest right-handed pitcher. Some 25 years later, Bruce was spending Saturday afternoons at the same ballpark; two Griffith seats, rescued after the stadium's demise, now occupy a central place in our living room. During our 1983 honeymoon in Paris, Bruce kept making transatlantic calls to check on the Orioles' progress in the World Series. He even named the family cat Ripken, in honor of Cal's rookie year. Never mind that the poor thing is female.
For Peggy, summer afternoons as a child meant listening to Cleveland Indians games with her father. After age 10, she also spent a lot of time at Municipal Stadium. Everyone did. In the early 1960s, the huge old stadium was so hard to fill that any Cleveland-area student who received a good report card in the spring was sent a wad of free tickets. Peggy and her twin sister feasted on peanuts and frosty malts and chased foul balls in the empty upper decks.
So it came as no surprise to anyone who knew us when we -- with our daughter, Emily, 9, and our son, Hugh, 6, in tow -- undertook the ultimate baseball tour. During the past two summers, we have driven the equivalent of eight coast-to-coast trips in search of minor and major league baseball parks from Maine to California. The supposed rationale for this odyssey was writing a guidebook. But the truth is that we have an unshakable affection for baseball, made stronger by the happy discovery that small ballparks are ideal places for children.
And the most beguiling small ballparks of all, it turns out, are in the little towns of the Shenandoah Valley League, many of them less than two hours from our Bethesda home. It was an offhand tip from a minor leaguer in Oneonta, N.Y., that led us to the league. A couple of years ago, before a game in Oneonta's WPA-era stadium, we were talking to several of the players in the visiting team's bullpen. When one of the pitchers heard we were from Washington, he asked eagerly if we'd ever been to a Valley League game. We hadn't, but vowed to change that soon.
We'd already visited the minor league parks in Frederick, Bowie, Hagerstown and Prince William County -- all intimate, all small scale. But when we finally followed through on the pitcher's recommendation, we felt like we'd stepped into some sort of baseball time machine. The league, an institution for 35 seasons, gave us an idea of what the sport must have been like when our fathers were young. Here, against the pastoral backdrop of the Shenandoah Valley, top college athletes swing wooden bats in rustic, tattered parks -- scenes straight out of Norman Rockwell.
How could anything in the majors compete with Best Decorated Lawn Chair Night at Waynesboro's Collins Field? Or announcers who introduce out-of-towners in the crowd and ask them to stand for applause? Here, players room with local families, find summer jobs and spend nearly every night from late May to early August playing baseball. Before each game, they help water, rake and line the field. And after the game, players from opposing teams still shake hands like Little Leaguers. There aren't any big shots here.
The Valley League is made up of six teams: the Front Royal Cardinals, the Harrisonburg Turks, the New Market Rebels, the Staunton Braves, the Waynesboro Generals and the Winchester Royals. The league motto is "Gateway to the Major Leagues," and indeed, one or two Valley alumni make it to the bigs each season. But the real winners are the fans: For three bucks, you get to sit right next to the action. Programs are a quarter, hot dogs are a dollar and parking is free.
On one of our Shenandoah trips, we caught a game at New Market's rustic Rebel Park, which is ringed by green wooden fences. The mountains rise beyond the outfield, and some of the home team's veteran fans sit no more than 30 feet from home plate, the better to razz the umpires. "Interference! Call interference!" one particularly loud old-timer screamed after a close play. The umpire spun around and said, "If you can spell it, I'll call it."
The atmosphere at the park was pure county fair. We watched the bat boy, Bucky Ludwig, fill his helmet with Dubble Bubble gum and trot back to the players in the dugout. No tobacco allowed here. We watched fans cut through neighboring yards on the first-base side to get some Pack's Frozen Custard, a rich concoction topped with homemade black raspberry sauce. But Rebel Park's food was fine, too. "The concession stand now has fried onions," the announcer told us shortly after the game began, "and the popcorn is hot!"
Club officers roamed the stands hawking raffle tickets, measuring out the $5 ticket strings as if they were yards of fabric. Winners frequently give their prize money back to the team. During the seventh-inning stretch, a 75-year-old former FBI agent named Solomon Quinn played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" on a celluloid accordion. "I used to play Auld Lang Syne' at the end of the last game of the season," Quinn confided later, "but that brought too many tears."
Emotions seem to run high with everyone here. Jim Weissenborn, vice president of the Rebels, says that the games routinely draw crowds equal to half the town's population. "Everybody does it for the love of the game," he says. "If we break even, pay the bills, and buy some uniforms, we've had a good year."
At one point, we saw Emily and Hugh sitting with one of the players on a ledge underneath the scoreboard in far right field, just past the visitors bullpen. He was kind enough to shoot the breeze with our kids, giving them a huge thrill as they clutched their gloves, eyes peeled for a stray ball.
After the last inning, the players got hot dogs cooked by volunteers to eat on the bus ride home.
We had to head home ourselves that day, but first we walked up the road to take a look at the Cross Roads Inn, a late Victorian clapboard B&B with an impressive view of New Market Gap. The kids were taken with the playground, putting green and outdoor hot tub, and the recently refurbished rooms looked good to the adults. We vowed to return and spend the night.
And we have returned to the Shenandoah -- many times. In each town, we've ventured beyond the ballfield, lured by roadside attractions that range from kitschy diners to lavish city parks equipped with fountains, duck ponds and swimming pools. One of the region's most extraordinary hotels, the Shrine Mont Retreat and Conference Center, lies some 20 miles northwest of New Market. This 19th-century mineral springs resort in Orkney Springs, with its three-story wooden structure surrounded by guest cottages, looks as though it could have been a subject for the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. Relaxing in the Adirondack porch chairs, we could imagine how Americans took vacations in 1870.
One trip, in need of a diversion, we stopped at the larger-than-life Dinosaur Land, between Winchester and Front Royal. It's cheap, cheesy -- and impossible to avoid if you're traveling with kids. You can't actually climb on the concrete dinosaurs, but photo opportunities abound.
We also visited the 280-acre New Market Battlefield State Historical Park. The park was the scene of an 1864 battle in which 257 Virginia Military Institute students fought. Ten of the new soldiers died, and 47 were wounded. It's a sight as beautiful as it is heartbreaking.
At lunchtime, we headed for the town of New Market, where we had unbelievably good peanut soup at Southern Kitchen, known for its oyster and chicken dinners. Afterward, we meandered about half a mile north on U.S. Route 11 and found what must be one of the world's oddest museums. Bedrooms of America sounds more like the title of a glossy coffee-table book than what it is: 10 rooms of classic bedroom furniture, everything from art deco to Hepplewhite. At the shop on the first floor, Minnetonka moccasins are for sale, along with an eclectic assortment of Hall china pitchers and bowls, vintage restaurant china and new Fiesta ware -- all at giveaway prices.
That evening's game was in Front Royal. There was a slight rain delay, so we took a drive to fill the time. Through the drizzle, we spied a pink neon ice cream cone. It turned out to belong to the Royal Dairy, where plate lunches, dinners and ice cream treats have been dispensed since 1946. We sat in a green vinyl booth and drank crushed fruit sodas. Right next to us on a mirrored wall was an autographed print by, yes, Norman Rockwell.
Front Royal's stadium is named after Bing Crosby, of all people. The crooner was grand marshal of the 1948 Apple Blossom Festival, and he contributed nearly $5,000 toward building the ballpark. The outfield wall is white cinder block, hand-painted with advertisements. If you come early, there's a chance that your kids will get to help the umpires unbox the balls and scuff them to get them game-ready. When we arrived, we found some of the home team sitting at picnic tables, downing candy bars and soda while others tossed a football. Autographs? No problem.
Our children tend to gravitate toward catchers. A few years ago, after Emily saw Geena Davis in "A League of Their Own," she signed up to be a catcher in her softball league, while Hugh had long been begging his grandmother for a catcher's mask and chest protector. After he got the longed-for equipment, we'd often find him in bed, sound asleep, in full regalia. Now, in Front Royal, they sought out the catchers in the bullpen, who taught them the fine art of spitting sunflower seed shells.
Our friends thought we would eventually burn out on baseball. But it hasn't happened yet, even after 25,000 miles and more than 85 stadiums in 45 states and two Canadian provinces. And when we think about the coming season, it's the slow-lane mountain baseball of the Valley League that tugs at our hearts. Bruce Adams and Peggy Engel are the coauthors of Ballpark Vacations: Great Family Trips to Minor League and Classic Major League Ballparks, to be published by Fodor's in April. IF YOU GO . . . Stay at the Cross Roads Inn B&B (9222 John Sevier Rd., New Market; 540-740-4157), where rooms are $55-90; the Shrine Mont Retreat and Conference Center (221 Shrine Mont Circle, Orkney Springs; 540-856-2141), where $52 per person buys not only lodging but three meals, and kids cost half that much; or the Thornrose House B&B (531 Thornrose Ave., Staunton; 540-885-7026 or 800-861-4338), whose rates are $60-80. Eat at Southern Kitchen (9576 S. Congress St., New Market; 540-740-3514); Pack's Frozen Custard (183 E. Lee Hwy., New Market; 540-740-8086); or Royal Dairy (241 Chester St., Front Royal; 540-635-5202). Pay a visit to Dinosaur Land (intersection of Routes 522, 340 and 277, between Winchester and Front Royal; 540-869-2222); Bedrooms of America Museum and Shop (9386 N. Congress St., New Market; 540-740-3512); New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (8895 George R. Collins Dr., New Market; 540-740-3101). Go out to the ballgame. For more information , call the Front Royal Cardinals, 540-635-2708; the Winchester Royals, 540-662-4466; the New Market Rebels, 540-740-8569; the Harrisonburg Turks, 540-433-2685; the Staunton Braves, 540-886-0987; the Waynesboro Generals, 540-942-8790. Phone numbers are good only during the summer. Year-round, call the Shenandoah Valley League's president, Dave Biery, 540-886-1748. CAPTION: A boy watches from behind home plate at New Market's Rebel Park. CAPTION: Ballpark scenes: Harrisonburg at Front Royal, above, and the league all-star game, opposite, in Staunton. Below: Dinosaur Land, near Front Royal, offers a break from baseball, and Southern Kitchen, in New Market, provides a break for lunch.