A sign on the door of the Main Street Arena says it’s closed for the summer, but nobody seems to have told the two dozen folks who are spread out at tables in the lobby of the Downtown Mall event space. A few of them are talking on cell phones, while others stare at laptop screens. A couple more are deep in conversation with Greg Allen, president of Charlottesville Community Baseball, Inc.
Welcome to Tom Sox Central. For the first time since 1974, Charlottesville has a team in the Valley Baseball League, a summer league for elite college ball players. The VBL is made up of 12 teams—and the newest one’s home opener is June 9 against the Covington Lumberjacks, hence the frenetic activity on this late May afternoon.
According to Tom Sox team official Jeff Burton, a local businessman who’s also the baseball coach at Covenant High School, “We had a meeting—it’s been about two years now—and most of the people in the room didn’t know what the Valley League was. That was the night we decided we were going to go for this.”
“This,” Burton explains, is an attempt to “build the best summer collegiate experience in the country. Our team is made up of 100 percent Division I players,” from several different conferences, including the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big South, Colonial, Metro Atlantic and Southern.
Among those players is former St. Anne’s-Belfield School standout Brett Johnson, now an infielder at James Madison University.
“I was born and raised in Charlottesville, and I have been playing baseball here since I started at the Northside Cal Ripken League when I was 5 years old,” Johnson says. “I can’t wait for our first home game.”
The Tom Sox will play their 21 home games at Charlottesville High School, on a field sponspored by this newspaper and, for the season, renamed the C-VILLE Weekly Ballpark. The Melbourne Road facility has been renovated, and includes a new press box, VIP pavilion and a multi-sport complex that will be used during baseball season as an indoor facility. Charlottesville Community Baseball, Inc., the nonprofit organization that operates the Tom Sox, paid for the upgrades after reaching an agreement with the city school board earlier this year.
In addition to great baseball in a spruced-up space, “we want 21 unique entertainment experiences,” Burton says. “My 9-year-old watches a baseball game for about 90 seconds, so for people like him, we’ll have inflatables on the hill, a mascot running around the field, music and pony rides. If we want to get fans to the ballpark, we need to have more than a baseball game.”
Joby Giacalone, the Tom Sox entertainment coordinator, agrees.
“We’re talking about the fan experience and doing everything we can to make it family-friendly and affordable, so when people leave the ballpark, they say, ‘We want to come back,’” Giacalone says. “It’s our job to both honor the game and entertain the fans.”
Fans have enjoyed the Valley Baseball League, sanctioned by the NCAA in 1961, for decades. It’s funded in part by Major League Baseball, and has produced more than 1,100 professional players. Last year, 27 Valley League alumni were playing in the major leagues.
One VBL alum is Joe Koshansky, the Tom Sox general manager and former UVA pitcher and first baseman who played for the Staunton Braves when he was in college, and later professionally for the Colorado Rockies. He credits an uptick in Charlottesville’s baseball interest to the success of the University of Virginia program, which has led to “a huge number of fans who want to see more baseball during the summer.” The ultimate goal, he adds, is to “create a community asset that is here for a very long time.”
Brett Johnson, however, has his sights set on this season: “Having a chance to play in front of friends and family on a daily basis is a player’s dream,” he says. But most of Johnson’s teammates aren’t from around these parts, which is why Tim and Chrystel Graves’ family of five has recently increased by two pitchers.
“Our son, Graham, plays baseball with the Northside Cal Ripken League, and at the opening ceremonies Tim heard [Tom Sox Operations Manager] Mike Paduano speak about the team and their host family needs,” Chrystel says. Next thing she knew, she was making up beds for Virginia Commonwealth University’s Matt Jamer and William & Mary’s Robert White. Besides providing food and shelter for the players, Chrystel says her family will see plenty of ball games this summer. “And if Matt and Robert can play catch with our kids—perhaps even provide some tips—that would be fine with us.”
A few days before the first pitch is thrown out at the Tom Sox home opener, Greg Allen feels pretty good. “Beautiful summer nights at a beautiful venue. How can you miss?” he says. “I cannot believe how many people have said, ‘I can’t wait to come to the games.’ It’s going to be great.”
Root for the home team
Head to the local ballpark to see our Tom Sox take on these regional teams. All games are at 7pm. (Find a full schedule, including away games, at tomsox.com).
June 9 vs. Covington Lumberjacks
June 11 vs. New Market Rebels
June 12 vs. Staunton Braves
June 13 vs. Harrisonburg Turks
June 18 vs. New Market Rebels
June 21 vs. Covington Lumberjacks
June 23 vs. Waynesboro Generals
June 25 vs. Charlestown Cannons
June 27 vs. Front Royal Cardinals
June 28 vs. Woodstock River Bandits
July 1 vs. Staunton Braves
July 2 vs. Harrisonburg Turks
July 4 vs. Waynesboro Generals
July 7 vs. Strasburg Express
July 8 vs. Aldie Senators
July 10 vs. Winchester Royals
July 15 vs. New Market Rebels
July 18 vs. Covington Lumberjacks
July 19 vs. Waynesboro Generals
July 22 vs. Staunton Braves
July 23 vs. Harrisonburg Turks
For more summer fun, continue reading here.