A Saturday night with the West Virginia Miners

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BECKLEY, WV — On Saturday I drove down to this southern West Virginia town for some hiking and sightseeing with Fox’s Rob Neyer. Rob had never been to West Virginia, and since he, like me, was on his way to Cincinnati for the All-Star Game, it was a good opportunity for him to pick up his 46th state before the festivities began. For me it was a chance to visit the town where I grew up. I don’t have family here anymore, but Beckley was and always will be my home.

While heading back toward town after a day of hiking and exploring the New River Gorge, we spotted a sign for the West Virginia Miners baseball team. I had totally forgotten about the Miners. Or, rather, I had never experienced them. Beckley didn’t have a baseball team when I lived there. The Miners, members of the Prospect League, which is a collegiate summer wood bat league, began play in 2010. We decided to call an audible on our evening plans and head to Linda K. Epling stadium for the Miners’ game against the Butler Blue Sox.

Epling. That name was familiar to me. I went to high school with a kid named Matt Epling. I wondered if there was any relation. After perusing the team’s program I learned that relations have everything to do with the West Virginia Miners:

  • Team owners: Douglas and Linda Epling. Doug owns three coal mines, and his success in business is what allowed him to buy this team and build this park, co-owned and named after his wife.
  • Manager: Tim Epling. Doug and Linda’s son; and
  • Bench Coach and Director of Security: Gary Epling, another son.

Not officially on the team staff page, but listed in the program was Matt Epling, my friend from high school, who among his many other pursuits, is Director of Entertainment and Media for the Miners. The program credits him with “inventing the concept” of Miner Mike. This is Miner Mike:

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I feel like Mr. Met should get co-credit for the invention of this concept, but we’ll leave that lie for now.

The Miners also have an unofficial mascot, though I suppose he’s more of a Super Fan:

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He led chants, held up signs and heckled the umps from right behind home plate.

He wasn’t the only entertainment, however. In the bottom of the fourth, Miners players Jesus Vilalobos and Ray Lopez led off with back-to-back singles. One of the most notable differences between Prospect League Baseball and major league or even affiliated minor league baseball was just how bad the baserunning decisions were. There were many, many pickoffs in this game, and Vilalobos was one of them. As he was being picked off in between second and third, Lopez broke for second and was thrown out trying to steal. From where I was sitting he looked to be clearly out. Fans around me, even though they were Miners partisans, agreed. But manager Tim Epling didn’t. He went out and argued.

The beauty of a Prospect League game, attended by, say, 500 people, is that you can hear every word of an argument going on at second base. Particularly the F-bombs and then the “you’re outta here!” of the umpire’s ejection. Not that that stopped Epling. He more than got his money’s worth. Then he walked back toward the dugout. Then he came back and got more of his money’s worth. Then he left the field and stood right behind the dugout on the concourse with his arms folded. Then the ump came over and told him to leave and they began arguing again.

As this third act of the argument unfolded, owner Doug Epling — a vigorous man for his age, clad in a Miners polo shirt, tucked into his Levis and sporting gleaming white New Balance sneakers on his feet, came marching over to join in the argument. As this is a family blog I will not repeat the verbiage, but know my readers, that the Eplings were not pleased and there was some talk about the umpire’s deportment. The umpire, it should be noted, appeared to be approximately 23-years-old. As manager Tim carried on the argument, Doug texted on his iPhone with purpose, presumably to the league office to let them know EXACTLY what he thought about the state of the umpiring in the Prospect League.

The game resumed with manager Tim Epling now gone. Until he returned to the dugout to confer with acting manager Gary Epling. While wearing a different jersey, seemingly trying to pull a Bobby Valentine-in-a-mustache trick on the umpires and re-insert himself into the game. This was quickly discovered by the umpire and Tim Epling soon left again. A few minutes later he reappeared on the concourse, freshly showered and in street clothes as fans and friends came up to him to tell him just how good a job he was doing and just how screwed he was to be ejected like that. Doug Epling had many similar conversations, punctuated with a lot phrases like “never in my time . . .” and “. . . theres just no excuse. . .”

You’d think it’s something they’re used to by now. According to the Beckley Register-Herald, there have been seven ejections of Miners players and coaches in their first 37 games, with Epling being run three times. This is rather a lot for the Prospect League, the Register-Herald reports. The Miners win a lot — they are already two-time league champions and currently sit atop the Eastern Division by a comfortable three games — but there seems to be a touch of the redass on this roster.

As the sun went down and the cool mountain air I miss so much moved in, my mind began to wander away from the game. I began to imagine that the Miners — and, specifically, Doug and Tim Epling — were some hilarious cross between Boss Hogg and Roscoe P. Coltrane on the one hand and Buford T. Justice and Junior on the other. This is totally and patently a false characterization, by the way, as my memory of the Epling family from high school and their deportment here in no way made them out to be bumpkins or even comical in any way.

Indeed, they’re a successful family. Tim runs a baseball academy for kids. The bible verse quotations carved into the outside wall of the stadium and a recent interview of Doug Epling I found reveal them to be well-meaning, good hearted people who want nothing more than to bring baseball and fun to the people of Beckley and to make sure Linda K. Epling Stadium is a family friendly ballpark. And they seem to have wildly succeeded in this respect.


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Still, when I fictionalize these folks in my, I dunno, fifth novel one day, there will be a scene like this:

Umpire: You’re outta here!

Tim Epling: DADDY! Did you hear that, Daddy?! The umpire ejected me, Daddy!

Doug Epling: Oh no he didnt, OH NO HE DIDN’T! Because NO MAN is gonna eject MY BOY in Linda J. Epling Stadium or MY NAME isn’t DOUGLAS M. EPLING!

Tim Epling, Matt Epling, Gary Epling and Linda K. Epling, [in unison]: YOU TELL ‘EM DADDY!

I so want that to be true, even if it bears no relation at all to reality.

In reality, I had a fantastic time at the Miners game. The ballpark, while unadorned by anything other than those bible verses, was pleasant enough. My seats, first row, just to the first base side of home plate, cost $8.50. They don’t sell beer (see the above-linked interview in which Doug Epling emphasizes the family atmosphere) and they also have signs all over the place telling fans that peanuts and sunflower seeds are prohibited, probably because they’re a couple of Eplings short of a cleanup crew to handle all that mess. Also, in a first for me, the seventh inning stretch was led off by the crowd doing the Pledge of Allegiance. That segued into “Take me out to the Ballgame,” which still had the “peanuts and Cracker Jack” line in it even if you can’t eat peanuts at Linda K. Epling stadium.

So, yes, there was some weirdness to it all. And I still have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that my little home town, which is NOT a baseball hotbed by any stretch of the imagination, has a baseball team. But that stuff aside it was a grand time. and a great excuse to go back to Beckley again and enjoy the experience that would not be possible without the Epling family.

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Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.