For those who thought the Town of Herndon’s sports entertainment ended when high school let out in June, you can grab the cooler out of the garage and prepare the tailgate party for the rest of the summer. The Herndon Braves collegiate summer baseball team is in mid-season form and one of the best kept secrets in town.
”I think college baseball as a whole is growing in popularity. It’s not difficult to understand, there are not a whole lot of crazy rules and the weather is nice,” Braves first-year head coach Eric Williams said. “We just encourage people to come out and see the Braves play when they are in Herndon. These guys are playing hard for the town, it’s good quality ball and I think people are missing it. It is kind of a hidden gem.”
The Braves are one of nine teams in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Summer Baseball League but only three teams exist in Virginia and the remainder stem from Maryland. The Braves play all of their home games at Herndon High and admission is free. This is the Braves’ fifth season in the Ripken league and east coast college players make up the majority of the Braves’ squad although it has hosted players from as far west as California in years past.
“Our roster is limited to 30 guys who have to have NCAA eligibility. It’s to get the kids better and hopefully produce professional players,” said Christopher Smith, the team's general manager. “I’d say about two thirds of our guys are non-local guys and we have to have host families. League wide it is literally guys from all over the country.”
Williams added that pitchers usually dominate in the beginning of the two-month season due to the change in weight distribution and the sweet spot on wood. But this past year several universities changed the standards of the bats their respective teams used.
“The bats that [colleges] are using this year are a little different than the year before, making it a little more similar to the wooden bats,” he said. “They basically tuned down the bats [in college] so they reacted a little more like wood but it’s still a totally different product.”
The host families volunteer to take players into their homes for the summer and treat them as if they are their own kids. However, players are expected to keep up with household chores and respect their hosts as they would their own parents. Town locals Greg and Kim Garten lead the host family program and Smith says it continues to thrive without a hitch.
“I would say 75 percent of host families come back to do it again the following year.” Smith said. “We had more houses than we had players this past year.”
The Braves have yet to win a championship but have made the playoffs all five years they have been in the Ripken league. However, this year the streak is in jeopardy as only the top four teams make the postseason and Herndon got off to a slow start to its 44-game season.
“This year we are struggling. The guys are playing hard and are good kids,” Smith said. “The biggest thing that kids develop when they come to these wooden bat leagues is they either get mentally tough or struggle and right now we are struggling. But it’s good to see they didn’t fold [the other night] and responded with five runs in the bottom of the ninth [behind by six].”
Yet the Braves keep improving as just 10 days ago they stood at 4-15 but have won six of their last nine games to climb up the ranks to 10-18 on July 9, with three weeks left in the season. Though this is Williams’ first season as Herndon’s head coach, he has had a great deal of experience in summer league baseball and feels things have picked up quickly this past week.
“I’ve been doing collegiate summer ball for the last six years. I spent the last three years coaching the Alexandria Aces and two years prior to that I was an associate head coach with the Haymarket Senators,” Williams said. “We won a couple early then went on an 11-game losing streak. We had a big win against Silver Spring the other week to get off the snide. We had a rough start and played all the big boys early.”
Expenses add up quickly throughout the summer season once you take into accout uniforms, equipment, staff salaries and field maintenance. The organization must raise its own financing and Smith and his staff has come up with several ways to accomplish that task while benefiting others at the same time. The team hosts a five-week day camp for kids and will host its annual golf tournament on Wednesday July 13 at Virginia Oaks (See below for links.) A local charity also donates to the team each year.
“We have great high school coaches that coach the camp, teach fundamentals, and play games in the afternoon,” Smith said. “In the fourth week we have gone to a high school transition camp. Except for week four, they are all 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Herndon High School.”
Giving back to the Herndon community is important to the Braves, so they also host winter camps for children and sponsor youth teams in the Herndon and Reston area to help the squads eventually feed into Herndon High and South Lakes.
Williams says the league’s mission is to help these college stars improve and transition into an opportunity to play for the big leagues one day. He added although free agency and increased salaries has shifted focus onto individual players in the Major League, baseball is still and always will be a team sport.
“We want to provide them with a good experience and help them get better. We also want to keep them injury-free and the most difficult part is to get them to work as a group when you throw them together. There is a time when they are trying to get to know and work with each other,” Williams said. “Without question, baseball is a team sport. In order to get a lot accomplished on the field, you have to rely on more then one individual. The old saying is ‘get them on, get them over, get them in.’”
For more information on the Cal Ripken College Summer Baseball, visit: http://www.calripkenleague.org/view/calripkenleague
For information on the Herndon Braves, camps and golf tournament visit: http://www.herndonbraves.com/