Baseball in the Shenandoah Valley

The Shenandoah Valley is a great place to live with a great history. You are never too far from a Civil War landmark, an exciting festival or thriving small businesses. Things in the Valley tend to move a little slower and seem a bit more relaxed. The times may change and the people may come and go, but the history remains. One tradition in the Valley is the greatest game ever played: baseball. From amateur to professional, baseball fans in the Shenandoah Valley have always had their choice of baseball games to watch and teams of which to root. The Shenandoah Valley and baseball have become intertwined throughout history. There have been at least twenty semi-professional baseball leagues in the Shenandoah Valley since the game of baseball was invented. This is proof that the people of the Shenandoah Valley love this game. I chose to expand on the two most well-known and local leagues: The Valley Baseball League and the Rockingham County Baseball League. These two leagues represent the Shenandoah Valley and all of its history and perseverance through tough times.

The Valley Baseball League, or the VBL, began in 1921 as written records show the first all-star game being played. However, after speaking with former VBL League Commissioner Don Lemish, I was informed that research by Chaz Weaver uncovered records that show the VBL being organized on May 15, 1897 in Edinburg, Virginia by Mr. Laughlin, who was the original chairman. The original teams were Winchester, Woodstock, Strasburg, Edinburg, and Front Royal. The League was then reorganized in 1914 to be the Class Virginia Mountain League. The VBL dissipates in 1924, reappears in 1928, disappears after one season then reappears in 1933 and disappears again in 1937, but reappears one season later but baseball around the country disappears until 1946, except the MLB which took players from leagues like the VBL to stay afloat, due to World War II. The VBL reappears in 1947 and has been around every season since except 1953. The VBL definitely went through some tough times at the beginning but it persevered and has turned itself into a great league that is proud of the product it puts out on the field. The VBL is much more stable now than it was in the past and is considered “one of the top five or six summer baseball leagues in the country.” This stability has allowed the league continue to grow and prosper. Just last season, the Harrisonburg Turks were ranked number four out of all the summer league teams, which proves the VBL can now attract top college players and prospects to reward the very loyal fan base the league has created over the past few decades.

The VBL, much like the Shenandoah Valley itself, has evolved with the times. There is great diversity in style of play and coaching that the league did not have before. The style of play is very similar to that of Major League Baseball, so fans can get a big league taste but at a small town price. With attendance in the hundreds, close to one thousand fans, per night depending on the team; the VBL was turning a tidy profit. In 2011, however, Major League Baseball ruled leagues like the VBL had to become non-profit to continue to receive grant money. The VBL now runs completely off of volunteers and each team has had to add a Board of Directors to run the franchise. Even with this transition, the VBL plans to add a new team next season from Charlottesville that is expected to be a strong team with talent and a fan base eager to play baseball.

The Valley Baseball League has grown and evolved with the people and the Shenandoah Valley as well. At times, things may get rough but perseverance and dedication gets through tough times and into greener pastures. The people of the Shenandoah Valley have grown up watching the Valley Baseball League and the future stars that have come through. One league that often gets overlooked by most people but has managed to build a strong loyal fan base and talent level despite its shortcomings in geography and is the Rockingham County Baseball League.
The Rockingham County Baseball League, or RCBL, has overcome its own adversity and hardships to turn into the prosperous league it has become. The RCBL, much like the Valley Baseball League, had a tough time getting settled and stable. He league was founded in 1924 under the inspiration of Polly Lineweaver, a sports writer at the Daily News-Record, and Claude C. Michael, the RCBL’s first League President. From 1924 through 1932, the pennant winner played the Augusta County League in a bi-county series. The league dissolved in 1933 due to the start of the Valley Baseball League but was again activated in 1938. The original purpose of the league was to be a farm set up for the Harrisonburg Turks of the Valley Baseball League. Just like the Valley Baseball League, the RCBL was shut down during WWII, and reappeared for the 1946 season and has been running ever since. Much like the Valley Baseball League is now, the RCBL is a non-profit organization and each team is responsible for funding its season. All proceeds come from attendance, concessions, and sponsorships. During the playoffs, the league collects one dollar per ticket sold, which serves as the primary income for the league. The league has enjoyed some success and would like to add a new member two in the near future. When talking to a member of the league’s Board of Directors, he was quoted saying: “I’m only just a single member, but I think there is a sentiment that we would like to add a new team” citing the success of the new Luray team. The primary reason for Luray being so successful is that the Valley Baseball League team left to Charlestown, West Virginia but the fan base still remained.
Attendance among teams is usually in the 300 to 400 fans per night. Although powerhouse Clover Hill can pull in 750 to 1000 fans a night during the playoffs.

The RCBL was also the first baseball league in the United States to have an “all colored team” in 1970, thanks to the efforts of Roscoe Burgess who was the RCBL’s first African American player. The RCBL also has an age minimum at 16 years old. However, that is untrue, as records show a Bobby Weiss playing at age fourteen and Keith Spitzer playing at the age of fifteen. “Talent is all that is necessary” to play in the league.

In 1974 when the RCBL was celebrating its 50 year anniversary, RCBL President Karl Olschofka, received a letter from the Bowie Kuhn, The Commissioner of Major League Baseball. The letter read:

“Dear Mr. Olschofka:
Congratulations to the Rockingham County Baseball League on its 50th anniversary of baseball competition.
Baseball, founded in rural America and nurtured in communities such as the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, has its origins in the grass roots of the United States.
I wish you every success in this anniversary year and in the years ahead and salute you for many and memorable years of play.”

The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, at that time, realized how important leagues like this are to the people who watch and the players on the field. The RCBL has been a place for great people and baseball players to get together and play the game of baseball. When the RCBL was celebrating its 80th anniversary, letters from Adam H. “Bud” Selig, the current Commissioner of Major League Baseball and Dale Petrosky, the President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, saluting the RCBL for the hard work and positive influence the league has had on youth baseball players. Bud Selig went on to say these players “will develop character and work habits that will carry over into their lives.” Dale Petroskey believed the league “provides a wonderful opportunity” and allows individuals to “grow through effort, failure, success and teamwork.” These two men understand the value of hard work and the importance of leagues like the RCBL that mold the young men this nation needs.

The history of baseball in the Shenandoah Valley is often overlooked but its importance cannot be. Even the Commissioner of Major League Baseball understood how important baseball is and was to the Shenandoah Valley. He understood this is where baseball took off around the country and allowed larger leagues, such as Major League Baseball, to flourish they way they have. Without the Shenandoah Valley, among other places, baseball may not have taken off and be considered America’s pass-time. The Valley League and the Rockingham County Baseball League have been instrumental in the growing of the Shenandoah Valley into what it is today. The more things seem to change, the constants and throwbacks of the Valley Baseball League and the Rockingham County BL continue to thrive and prosper. Their rich history is often overlooked but deserves the proper time and attention.

Bibliography

Bruce Thomas. Baseball Leagues in the Valley. Bridgewater. 2012.

Candace Sipos. “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” Shenandoah Journal (Harrisonburg, VA). April 30, 2014.
Don Lemish (League Commissioner), Interview, April 18, 2014.
Karl Olschofka. Rockingham County Baseball League Golden Anniversary Bridgewater. 1974.
Keith Spitzer (RCBL Hall of Famer), Interview, April 30, 2014.
Letter, Bowie Kuhn to Karl Olschofka, March 14, 1974.
Letter, Bud Selig to Karl Olschofka, March 23, 2004.
R.C.B.L. 80th Anniversary. Harrisonburg. 2004.

Improving Command

Almost every pitcher at some point in the season will struggle with his/her command. It seems inevitable. A multitude of factors come into play and not all of them are the pitcher’s fault. I’m here to provide tips to prevent this from happening to you. I believe command comes from two basic factors: repetition, and confidence.
As a pitcher, you need to feel comfortable on the mound. If the grip(s) you’re using aren’t working for you, feel free to experiment and find one that better suits you. If you don’t feel confident throwing or gripping a pitch, how can you expect to be successful with that pitch? Confidence, in general, is something no pitcher should lack. You need to have a belief in yourself that you can throw the next pitch exactly where it needs to be located.
As far as repetition is concerned, it takes practice and repetition to gain the aforementioned confidence. You can’t expect to have thrown a curveball ten times and walk into a game being successful with it. Improving command of a pitch comes from throwing the pitch to the desired spot over and over again. For example, if you have a problem throwing your change up to your arm side, then throw that pitch over and over again. This will teach your brain a new pattern to which your body will adjust. Practice, practice practice. If you wanted to learn how to dribble a basketball, you would practice dribbling, right? Pitching is no different. There’s a reason the more you practice a task, the better you get at that task. All of your bullpens should be blocked bullpens. For example, your bullpen should look something like this: 3×10 FB arm side, 3×10 FB glove side. Same for all off speed pitches. It takes this repetition for your brain to realize the pattern and make adjustments.
Also, repetition is needed from your mechanics. If your delivery is inconsistent, you can expect your location to be inconsistent as well. This is where the importance of videotaping your bullpens becomes important. I’ve had countless pitchers ask me why their curveball is flat or why they can’t locate their curveball consistently. I’ll watch their video and, as usual, their elbow drops or they open up too soon. It’s this inconsistency in your mechanics that leads to your inconsistency in location. Even if your mechanics are terrible, you can consistently locate with REPETITION. Be sure you’re videotaping your bullpens to identify any inconsistencies in your delivery, then work to correct the flaw. All the while working on your command in your bullpen sessions.
In closing, having confidence in yourself and repeating your delivery are the keys to command. Hopefully this post taught you something new or gave you guys some ideas. Let me know what you think! Good luck this season!

Spring Training and Injuries to Pitchers

Every year it seems valuable arms, both young and old, are lost for an extended amount of time and sometimes, entire seasons. This year is no different with Jarrod Parker, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Patrick Corbin out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Josh Johnson is out four to six weeks with a forearm strain, Anibal Sanchez has missed time this spring and Yu Darvish will now start the year on the DL with stiffness in his neck. All of these injuries certainly affect the short term and long term futures of their respective organizations. These injuries make you wonder why they occur and whether more could be done to prevent injuries?
The pitching motion is the fastest and most violent of all movements in sports. Preventing injuries to pitchers is impossible, but this amount of injuries at this point in the season is downright strange. Is it possible these pitchers were just doomed to be hurt? This isn’t the first TJ surgery for Medlen, Beachy, or Parker, and it seems Josh Johnson misses substantial time every season. Something is definitely not right and I have a few ideas as to what may be underlying causes of these injuries.
I’ll start with the evolution of long toss programs. I, personally, am not a fan. A recent study by Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews of the ASMI confirmed that the “greatest amount of shoulder external rotation, elbow flexion, shoulder internal rotation torque, and elbow varus torque were measured during the maximum-distance throws. Elbow extension velocity was also greatest for the maximum-distance throws. Forward trunk tilt at the instant of ball release decreased as throwing distance increased.” [Here is the link to the article: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21212502%5D
In plain English, maximum distance throws put a higher strain on the elbow and shoulder joints and can alter a pitcher’s mechanics. This alteration usually leaves the shoulder and elbow to pick up the slack because the body isn’t aligned the way it should be. Since the shoulder and/or elbow have to take on even more stress during this already stressful activity, disaster can strike easily. The San Diego Padres, for example, are a long toss organization. It has been a part of their pitchers’ training for a few years now. They have also had a rash of pitchers needing major shoulder or Tommy John surgery including: Tim Stauffer (shoulder), Dustin Moseley (shoulder), Clayton Richard (shoulder), Cory Luebke (TJ, twice), Casey Kelly (TJ), and Jason Marquis (TJ). The Texas Rangers (another long toss organization) under Nolan Ryan, have had several of their pitchers go down with major injuries including: Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. Are the two related? There is no way to be sure but the timing is rather coincidental.
Another possible hypothesis is just how much these pitchers throw. For the most part, these guys are throwing every single day from January through September and possibly late into October. That is hundreds of thousands of throws. The arm can only take so much and everyone has a breaking point. The shoulder and elbow joints can only handle so much stress before something gives out or tears. Some pitchers may not be throwing full intensity until they arrive at spring training in early March but the sudden workload can prove to be a bit excessive. Perhaps if teams proceed with a bit more caution and allow pitchers to increase their workload at their own pace, the sudden workload wouldn’t be so dramatic. Also, instituting a longer rest/recovery period after the season may help save some of young arms like Medlen or Parker. With so many young pitchers already on innings limits, it is surprising that teams haven’t taken it a step further and forced the young pitchers or even all pitchers to stop throwing until later dates.
One final idea floating around about why guys like Parker and Medlen are once again going under the knife is a lack of focus on actually pitching. Pitchers nowadays seem to be built in a gym, or baseball warehouse, lifting massive weights and throwing around medicine balls. While these can be great tools to condition the body, it’s not the same thing as actually pitching. The Principle of Specificity states simply that what you do is what you get. If you are doing something you wouldn’t do in a game, the carryover will be minimal, if at all. (Here’s a link discussing the Principle of Specificity if you want more information: How the Specificity Principle Applies to Sports Training) This generation’s pitchers are much bigger and stronger than previous generations. Adding more muscle puts a higher strain on the ligaments and tendons in the body and can restrict range of motion. With more muscle pulling on the tendons and ligaments, the stress increases. It is possible pitchers like Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, and others went all out in the weight room this winter and their new bodies couldn’t handle the demands that pitching sequence has on the body. Their hips and shoulders become tighter and less limber, which hinders performance and puts a strain on the muscles to perform. This is also a likely cause for the numerous minor muscle tweaks, pulls, and inflammations that pitchers tend to experience in the spring. Pitchers show up in March in great physical shape but not in shape to pitch, and their bodies have to adjust accordingly.
Obviously, injuries are a part of the game and always will be. There are a multitude of factors in play every time a pitcher picks up a ball. Perhaps it was dumb luck that several of baseball’s best young arms will miss the season, or perhaps there’s a reason for it. Teams invest millions of dollars into pitchers and it becomes a lottery of whether they will stay healthy. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are solutions to these problems and with a little more research and open-mindedness from players, coaches, and front-office personnel, it could happen. Injuries are going to happen, but the health and safety of these young arms should be more protected than they are now.

Here are the links, in case they don’t work in-text:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=2.%20Fleisig%20GS%2C%20Bolt%20B%2C%20Fortenbaugh%20D%2C%20Wilk%20KE%2C%20Andrews%20JR.%20Biomechanical%20Comparison%20of%20Baseball%20Pitching%20and%20Long-Toss%3A%20Implications%20for%20Training%20and%20Rehabilitation.%20J%20Orthop%20Sports%20Phys%20Ther%2041(5)%3A%20296-303%2C%202011.

http://www.sports-training-adviser.com/specificityprinciple.html

Pickoff Moves

Controlling the running game is a vital aspect to pitching. I’m sure most of you have several pickoff moves, ranging from the checking throw over to your best move. The issue most pitchers have is when to use each pickoff move. There is no definitive answer as it depends on the flow of the game. Obviously you wouldn’t use your best move in the 1st inning or with a base runner you know isn’t going anywhere. I suggest using your best move when it’s needed most. You really only get one shot, better use it wisely. Another strategy to consider is to repeatedly throw over. Throwing over several times in a row not only will make the runner think twice about stealing, but also gets him leaning back to the base expecting the throw. That little lean can create a double play and/or preventing the runner from taking an extra base. As a pitcher, if you can mix up the amount of time you hold the ball while being set, keep a pickoff move in the runner’s head, and be quick to the plate, you will give your catcher a chance to throw out a potential base stealer and control the running game. I hope this post helps with any of you struggling in this department. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me here or on twitter at @PitchMechanics

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