Baseballs were flying out of Bing Crosby Stadium at such a rate in the American Legion District 16 baseball championship games Tuesday in Front Royal that it would have been understandable if some of the old-timers on hand had been humming one of Bing's hits from 1944 -- "Don't Fence Me In."
One thing is for certain, the businesses with billboards lining the stadium fence got their money's worth, because it seemed like every other inning a ball was soaring over one of the signs and another player was being mobbed by his teammates at home plate.
By the end of the afternoon, it was Dumfries Post 28 that had won the home run derby -- and the District 16 title -- socking seven home runs in two games against the Stafford Post 290 Nationals, who hit three of their own.
Stafford won the first game, 10-8, to hand Dumfries its first loss in the double-elimination tournament, and the Nationals took a 7-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning of the playback. But Post 28 peppered a ragged Stafford pitching staff for 10 runs in the final three innings, six of them courtesy of home runs by Jon Sadrak, Josh Rolfe and John Malene.
Malene's solo shot -- his second homer of the day -- with two outs in the bottom of the ninth lifted his team to an 11-10 win and the first American Legion state tournament berth by a Prince William County team since a squad based out of Gar-Field qualified in 1997.
The state tournament takes place next week in Winchester. Tournament host Winchester Post 21, dethroned as three-time District 16 champions, will be among the state participants.
The conditions favored Post 28 hitters. The center field fence is just 333 feet from home plate at Crosby Stadium, the wind was blowing out Tuesday and Dumfries was facing a Stafford squad in the midst of playing four games in two days. Nationals closer Chris Henderson suffered a broken finger on his pitching hand in the first inning of the second game, further taxing Post 290 arms.
The team was so strapped that it started the same pitcher -- Josh Hankins -- in each game. He totaled 111/3 innings.
"[The stadium is] small, but you can't just go up there thinking home run or you won't get anything done," Malene said. "But it makes things a little easier than normal."
"I'm sure teams come in here and love to play in this ballpark," said Post 290 Coach Dave Henderson, noting that his team's home field is more than 60 feet deeper in center and longer down each foul line. "This is a hitter's park. A lot of those home runs [for both teams] would have been routine fly balls in most parks."
Stafford (23-10), which dropped its tournament opener but clawed out of the losers' bracket with five straight wins, led 7-1 in the second game after Mike Mooney delivered a grand slam to left center in the fifth. But despite being down by six runs, Post 28 was encouraged by the fact that the Nationals were running out of fresh arms.
Stafford used three relievers in the six-run seventh inning, the last of whom was Eddie Rubbo, who eventually gave up the final three homers in the game, including a three-run, game-tying blast by Sadrak in the seventh, his first in three seasons on the Post 28 team. Perhaps most damaging were the two runs that preceded the homers. Both scored on a strikeout pitch in the dirt that made it 7-3. An out would have been the third of the inning and preserved the 7-1 cushion.
"That killed our chances," Henderson said. "That's when they came back."
Stafford was equally pesky, scoring twice in the top of the eighth on a Rubbo hit that chased starter Marcus Nalls, and after falling behind again, the Nationals tied the game in the top of the ninth on a home run by Mike Lang. That set up the dramatics by Malene, the tournament's most valuable player. He had hit only one home run this summer before his two Tuesday.
"How many games have we been behind and come back in the last inning?" said Post 28 assistant coach Art Nalls. "John's one of those kids who puts a lot of pressure on himself. So it was nice to see him do that because it made him feel so good."
J.T. Gregory and Marcus Nalls had three hits each for Dumfries (23-7) in the second game, and Malene and Rolfe had two each. In the first game, Kevin Nally had three hits, including two homers. Nalls had two hits in the first game.
The Post 28 team is made up almost exclusively of players from Gar-Field and Forest Park high schools, both of which ended their high school seasons on a down note. Gar-Field won the Cardinal District regular season and tournament titles but was upset by Stonewall Jackson in the first round of the Northwestern Region tournament. A rebuilding Forest Park team went 7-12 after reaching the Virginia AAA state semifinals in 2003.
"It just means everything to us," Rolfe said. "Usually during the main season we're going against each other, but this year we actually came together, and that made us even stronger."