By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
The COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in empty stands and untouched uniforms last year, but the Alexandria Aces are finally back for their 13th season in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League – with a few adjustments.
The team began its season two weeks ago with a new roster and owner, former Alexandria City Councilor Frank Fannon, all while trying to return to some semblance of normalcy after the global pandemic shut down the entire 2020 season.
Head Coach Chris Berset said it became clear last March that the season would be “a tough one” to achieve, so when the CRCBL announced its cancellation in May following a review of national trends and health official guidance, he wasn’t surprised.
Berset was, though, faced with many questioning players who were both unsure when their next game would be and eager to play again. As soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put protocols in place and lifted restrictions, staff immediately made plans to turn the 2021 season into reality.
“It’s a whole bunch of relief, honestly,” Berset said. “The kids were so uncertain about whether they were going to play again. They already went through so much. The unknowns of not knowing when they were going to get back out there, to not playing at all, to being like ‘Coach, are we gonna play? Are we gonna play?’ … It’s been awesome to get back out there, that’s for sure.”
Post-pandemic, Fannon said that, as the new owner, the team’s economics are something he is paying attention to, but not significantly worried about. While expenses add up quickly – the field, the coaches, the balls, the bats, the equipment – these costs are offset by the team’s revenue stream, which comes from sponsorships, donors and ticket sales.
One might assume that people would remain hesitant to attend in-person sports events this summer, but Fannon said large crowds of people, many without masks, filled Frank Mann Field during all five home games the Aces played this season.
He attributes the high turnout to restlessness, noting that a significant demographic of spectators includes families with young kids, who often run around or play baseball on the sidelines while their parents watch the game.
“People have been sitting in their homes for 15 months; it’s a low cost entertainment where people can get out and see their friends in the community and enjoy a couple hours at the baseball stadium,” Fannon said. “ … It’s great family fun entertainment.”
Fannon replaced team founder Donald Dinan, who said it was “time to step back” after helming the team since 2006.
A board member of the team since its inception, Fannon is also an Alexandria native. He said that growing up he would often visit the same field to watch the Alexandria Dukes, the city’s old minor league baseball team, play in the Carolina League.
Fannon emphasized that while he is “really excited” about taking on his new role, he also sees an opportunity for the team to grow in the community. A meticulous level of detail and coordination goes into putting together every game, from volunteers to concessions to P.A. announcers to people who work the ticket gate, he said.
“The way I look at it is that we’re almost like a startup right now,” Fannon said. “This is Alexandria’s team, this is the community’s team, and if people want to take a role in it, there’s an opportunity for almost every Alexandrian to be part of the Aces. We really want the community to be involved.”
One specific way for community members to get involved is by serving as a host family for the college players, all of whom are from outside Alexandria.
Fannon, whose household has hosted players in the past, said that staff asks host families just two simple things: “to provide a bedroom and access to a washer/ dryer.”
“The kids’ lifestyle is separate from most people because they sleep until 11 a.m., they get up, they eat brunch, they go to the gym, they leave for work at 4 p.m., which is the game, and they come home at midnight,” Fannon said. “So, sometimes you don’t even see them because you’re on an opposite schedule.”
This year, the Alexandria Aces are composed mostly of Division I baseball players, one Division II pitcher, one Division III pitcher and several community college students. Auburn University, Eastern Michigan University, Ball State University, George Mason University, Georgetown and Vanderbilt University are among the represented colleges.
With a 7-5 record so far, the Aces are in second place, trailing perennial powerhouse Bethesda Big Train by 3.5 games. The team’s top players this year include speedy outfielder Josh Hall and infielder Garrett Farquahar, both from Alabama and attending Auburn University. Hall, of Homewood, Alabama, is so far batting .412 with 13 stolen bases. Farquhar, of Hoover, Alabama, is batting .264 with a team-leading 12 runs batted in. Aces hurler Lukas Touma, from Silver Spring, Maryland, is tied for the league lead in wins with two.
While players are from all over the eastern half of the United States, only several are from Northern Virginia. These include infielder Scott Morgan, of Woodbridge; pitcher Ben Koomey, of Arlington; pitcher Quinlan Montgomery, of Arlington; pitcher Paul Glenchur, of Vienna; and pitcher Clint Wheeler, of Vienna.
College baseball teams generally use aluminum bats, but the professional players are required to use wooden bats. The Aces play with wooden bats “as an equalizer,” Berset said. Pro scouts often attend games and potentially draft players for the MLB.
“We’re trying to win. With the group we have here, I think we have a championship-caliber team. If we all stay together and play together like we can, I think that’s the goal,” Berset said.
Another goal, as the Aces are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is to put on camps for youth in Alexandria and donate some of that money back to kids in the camps. Activities include practice drills, offensive and defensive skill building, pitching, batting, base running and exhibition baseball games.
Several weeks into a 36- game season, Berset said the team has transitioned smoothly to playing in person and securing some wins.
“We dropped a double header against [Bethesda] Big Train; they’re a very talented ball club over there and we were able to win a game against them so things are positive,” Berset said.
However, for Berset, the overarching goal is to grow as players and have a good time doing so.
“Yes, it’s just a game, but it’s also a game that gets them away from real life for a little bit,” Berset said. “They can kind of get their mind off stress, go back to being kids and have some fun on the diamond.”