By Evan Berkowitz | [email protected]
With one out left in the 2008 District 4 Little League championship game, Hughes Page, playing catcher, watched as a breaking ball whizzed by him toward the backstop.
“I thought it was a live ball and I turned around to get it,” Hughes said, warming up in his Alexandria Aces uniform nearly a decade later. The underdog 9/10 Alexandria All-Stars were only up by two, with the potential winning run for regional powerhouse Vienna at the plate.
As Page scrambled for the would-be wild pitch, the umpire called strike three. The Vienna batter had swung and missed and Alexandria was headed for states.
“Everyone’s dogpiling,” Page said. “It was a great feeling.”
They went on to make the semifinals on a complete game pitching effort by Page, the furthest a Port City team for that age group had ever gotten.
While Page thinks, looking back, that the massive attention “seems kind of silly” for “a bunch of little 10-year-olds,” the experience set him on a path that led to recruitment by the University of Virginia, his dream baseball program, and a spot on this year’s nationally-ranked Alexandria Aces summer league team.
A Lifelong Dream
Page had shown an interest in baseball early, around age 5, his father, Peter Page said.
“We went out in the back yard and I looked up some ways of teaching little kids how to pitch,” he said. Until Hughes reached college, Peter Page was his son’s bullpen catcher.
“When he was little, I just caught him with a catcher’s glove,” Peter recalled before settling into a familiar refrain. “Then he stared throwing harder and I put on a catcher’s mask.
“Then he started throwing harder and actually broke my toe throwing a fastball,” he said. “So now I wear full catcher’s gear.”
As he moved up through Little League, including the 2008 district title, any idle time quickly filled with baseball.
Peter Page and his wife, Valerie Page, even took Hughes to a few Alexandria Aces games to see the Cal Ripken League collegiate summer team play.
“I’d seen a couple Aces games, … so I guess I kind of looked up to those guys and told myself I wanted to be in that position some day,” Hughes recalled. “Ever since I was a little kid, I told myself I wanted to play for U-Va.”
Looking back at pictures, Valerie Page said, her son is always decked out in Cavalier orange and navy. The family has a long history with the ’Hoos.
Hughes’s parents told him to go for it, but “the better Virginia got, the more we were trying to downplay it,” Valerie Page said. “We knew that was going to be a really hard goal to reach.”
For Hughes, there was never any other option than Charlottesville, she said. “It’s just always been his dream.”
A Fierce Determination
At bat shortly into his first season as one of the three top pitchers for Episcopal High School, Hughes took an 88 mph fastball to the wrist. It was broken.
“There were a few tears rolling down his cheek,” Peter Page said. “Not so much because of the pain, but because of disappointment.”
At this stage, Valerie Page said, baseball started to count, and Hughes was “devastated” to miss the rest of his freshman season.
As summer club play — the go-top place for prospects looking to catch college recruiters’ eyes — revved up, so did the still-recovering Hughes.
“He came back a little too fast and was throwing too hard,” Valerie Page said. A stress
fracture in his elbow sidelined Hughes for the rest of summer play, another 10 or 11 weeks, Peter Page said.
The experience was a turning point, Hughes’s father said. The injury taught Hughes to understand his body and make recovery a part of his regimen.
He’d faced adversity before, as one of the smallest guys on his teams, but Valerie Page said that always pushed him harder.
“Above his bed since he was little, he had a poster that said, ‘I’m a big game pitcher,’” she said, “and it had like 20 things on it saying all these inspirational things about what pitchers think about.”
Hughes has a “fierce determination,” she said — “to work out harder, do it longer, stay at it until he experiences success.”
“He just willed it to happen,” she said. “He believed that if he worked out hard enough, he could get to play at Virginia.”
A Look of Pure Amazement
Some time around sophomore year, Peter Page recalled, he managed to arrange a tour for Hughes with U-Va. baseball coach Brian O’Connor. In 2015, the Cavaliers won their first College World Series, the culmination of a long, steady march to the upper echelon of NCAA ball.
“We thought it was going to be shake hands and let him wander around for five minutes,” Peter Page said. Instead, O’Connor spent an hour showing Hughes around and giving him advice about baseball and the recruiting process.
“The impact that it had on Hughes was just huge,” he said.
Hughes sent U-Va. coaches regular updates on his diamond accomplishments, and, through senior year, watched other recruiting offers go by like balls just outside the strike zone, waiting on the offer from Charlottesville he’d dreamed of.
That summer, U-Va. pitching coach Karl Kuhn went to Atlanta to see Hughes play in a
travel team tournament, and Kuhn asked Hughes to call him on the long drive home.
“He said, ‘Hughes, we really like what we see, and we’d love for you to come play at Virginia,’” Peter page recalled.
“Literally he dropped the phone,” Valerie Page said. “The look on his face is just pure amazement.”
“And of course,” Peter Page added, “that was, I would venture to say, the best day of his life.”
That fall, Hughes said, it all came together.
“When it finally happened, when I stepped on that field, I really got some goosebumps,” he said. “I put the work in, I made it here.”
Hughes redshirted his freshman year, pitching in intra-squad contests. When he learned he’d be coming home to Alexandria for summer play, Hughes’s parents were ecstatic.
“I was born and raised, played baseball here all my life,” he said. “I just have a blessed opportunity to come back here [and] play for the home fans.”
Aces Coach David DeSilva said local players add to the atmosphere. The Aces are ranked No. 8 among collegiate summer teams nationwide, and while DeSilva said he appreciates the recognition, he’s ignoring the hype and stressing the lessons he always does.
“I want to send all of these guys back to their college programs better than they were when they came to me,” he said.
With Hughes, that means working on secondary pitches and command of the fastball and strike zone.
“We’re working on … getting him some innings so that he feels confident going back … to a fantastic program that they have down there in Charlottesville,” DeSilva said.
Hughes takes DeSilva’s advice — that players use their time in the Ripken League as a chance for improvement — to heart. In 8.2 innings with the Aces as of Tuesday evening, Page had struck out 12 and notched a 5.19 earned run average.
“I’m looking forward to coming in there and knowing exactly what they expect of me [during his sophomore year at U-Va.],” he said. “I’m excited to take what I know going in and take my experience here at the Aces and just roll with it.”