on Nov. 17, 2014 :
When I was young, my father would take me, my brother, and sometimes my sister to see the Harrisonburg Turks play at Harrisonburg High School's field. The Turks were part of the Valley League, and they played teams in Winchester, Front Royal, and Staunton, among others in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In total, I think the league had eight teams. I can't say that I followed the Turks with great enthusiasm — I didn't know who any of the players were or where they came from — but it was something fun to do, like the time we won a turkey or the time the Turks couldn't get out of the early innings in a game against Winchester and my dad took us home early. Honestly, after we moved away, I didn't give the Turks much more thought. I assumed they must have been some sort of minor league team.
Years later, I learned they weren't anything of the sort. The Valley League is a collegiate summer league, and its players are college students (unpaid, because of NCAA regulations) who are playing to refine skills, gain experience, and hopefully catch the attention of major league scouts. The Valley League, it turns out, is one of the premier collegiate summer leagues in the country, and the league bills itself as "The Gateway to the Majors." Now the league numbers twelve teams, from Charles Town, West Virginia in the north to Covington in the south and across the Blue Ridge to Charlottesville and Aldie in the east.
When I got home, I ran a few Google searches after dinner about the league, and I quickly came across a link on the New Market Rebels website for "Publications" which talked about a book, Safe at Home: A Season in the Valley, about the Rebels' 2009 season by Austin Gisriel. Despite some misgivings — an unknown author, a niche subject, and Smashwords aren't always a winning combination — the price, just $2.99, was unbeatable, so I decided to give Safe at Home a try. At worst, I would be out three dollars, and I would have to skip the office's vending machine for a week.
Gisriel, a writer from Maryland who discovered by chance the Rebels during a vacation several years earlier, was enchanted by the Platonic ideal of small town baseball — an old time field, a rustic setting, a passionate fanbase, and an emphasis on the game rather than the flashy videoboard and between-innings games — and decided to write a book about the Rebels and the New Market community. I shouldn't have been reticent about Safe at Home. It's an enjoyable and interesting book about small town America life (New Market's population is slightly under 2,000), its passion for baseball, a group of young men who have big dreams, and the community that supports and adopts them. It also helped to contextualize my memories of the Turks; in describing how the teams operate, Safe at Home answered some of my questions about the Valley League and its teams. Plus, the book mentions places that I dimly and distantly remember.
Teams operate as non-profits. Coaches are paid, the players are not. Much of the work behind-the-scenes, from maintaining the field and taking tickets to running the concession stand and the radio broadcast booth, is done by volunteers from the community who donate their time to give the players an environment where they can hone their playing skills. Others in the community open their homes to the players and host them for the two and a half months they're in the valley playing for the team. The players, no matter where they came from, are essentially adopted by the town as more than their hometown heroes. They become family; time and again, the townsfolk refer to the New Market Rebels players as "sons," and they genuinely mean it in an emotional way.
The first third of Safe at Home covers the business side of the New Market Rebels. Beginning with the departure of the players in August 2008, we see the team president and the board of trustees go through the process of hiring a manager for the 2009 season and secure sponsors in the midst of the 2008-9 economic downturn. We meet Mo Weber, a baseball lifer and the octogenarian hitting coach who, in spite of his age, is a lively character and for whom the game is a fountain of youth. We also get insight into how the league operates; time is spent on how the schedule is built as well as the negotiations for an exhibition game in the summer of 2009 against the all-stars of another summer league, the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League in Maryland. Gisriel paints a portrait of the community and its long ties to baseball in these chapters, and we meet some of the fans who will open their homes to the Rebels in 2009.
The final two-thirds covers the 2009 season, from the players' arrival at the end of May through their departure in mid-August. The cast of characters expands greatly at this point, and we discover their stories. We follow them through the trials and tribulations of a 44-game schedule that seems to be beset by everything — fog, rain, hail, poison ivy, a river expedition gone horribly wrong — but plagues of locusts. Some players hope to impress the scouts. Some hope to be drafted. Others discover that their skills are suspect and need work or that their bodies aren't cut out for the daily grind of 44 games over six weeks. Some suffer major injuries. A few realize they've reached their ceiling in baseball and leave the team. We also see a manager, Lucas Jones, who, in his first managerial job, comes in with an attitude and maturity beyond his years and does an impressive job in handling the challenges of his players, the team, and the Valley League. Through it all, we see a group of young men, who were strangers when they started, learn how to come together and become a team.
Gisriel avoids the usual cliches of a scrappy, underdog team who finds a way to overcome the odds. This is a chronicle of a real team, not fiction, and the Rebels — like all but one team in every league every year — fall short of their goal of winning the championship. Yet, that doesn't make the journey any less worthwhile; a group of young men learned something about themselves in the pursuit of their dreams, and a farming town in the Shenandoah Valley found a new group of local heroes for the summer and let them into their hearts.
Safe at Home may not have been perfect, but it was good enough to win me over and recommend it. Gisriel paints a wonderful portrait of baseball in small town America and the communities that support it. If you've any interest in young baseball players and their quest to achieve their dreams, Safe at Home is a good story, one that's well told and worth your time.
(reviewed 21 days after purchase)