Big Names To Visit TA
Wagner, Sheets (Maybe Cal) Bring Teams To Town
HARRISONBURG — As a member of the Bridgewater College baseball team in the early 1990s, Sean Hanifee once stepped into the batter’s box against future major league star Billy Wagner, then at Ferrum.
While Hanifee — now entering his third season as Turner Ashby High School’s baseball coach — remembers the at-bat quite well, it’s understandable why Wagner wouldn’t.
“One of a million guys he struck out on three pitches, so probably not,” Hanifee said with a laugh. “I mentioned it to him, but he didn’t remember.”
Hanifee hopes to get a chance at a little revenge soon when the Knights host The Miller School, which is coached by Wagner, whose 422 saves rank fifth all-time in major league baseball history. The matchup was scheduled to be played tonight at Ray Heatwole Field, but Hanifee said Sunday night’s snowstorm will likely result in a postponement.
That wasn’t Miller’s only scheduled trip to Bridgewater this week, either.
Still on tap is a doubleheader Wednesday afternoon at TA involving the Knights, Miller and Baltimore’s Gilman School, which also has a high-profile coach — former major-league slugger Larry Sheets.
Oh, and among the assistants on Sheets’ staff is Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame infielder Cal Ripken Jr. It’s unknown if Ripken will accompany the team.
Field conditions permitting, Miller and Gilman will play at 2 p.m., and Gilman and TA will play at 5 p.m.
If it’s still too wet, Hanifee said, both Wagner and Sheets have promised to bring their teams to Bridgewater sometime later this season to play TA.
“I’m sure there will be a bunch of pictures taken and opportunities for autographs,” Hanifee said, “but hopefully we’ll make sure [our players know] how to separate that from what we’re here to do.
“… I want our kids to just kind of enjoy the whole experience of playing ’em and just kind of surrounding themselves with [that success].”
So, how did this all come to be?
In addition to his job as a special education teacher, Hanifee — whose sons Evan (senior third baseman) and Brenan (sophomore shortstop) are James Madison recruits — is the owner and developer of Baseballance, LLC.
His company, founded in 2009, sells a baseball product designed to help players keep their balance while hitting. It turns out one of Hanifee’s first customers was Wagner, a retired hard-throwing left-handing pitcher who took over as The Miller School’s manager last season.
The two have since forged a friendly relationship.
Wagner even hosted Hanifee and TA senior left-hander Eric Yankey for a day last fall in Charlottesville, where Wagner gave Yankey — an NCAA Division I hopeful — some pointers on his mechanics.
“Baseball guys tend to gravitate towards baseball guys,” Hanifee said.
As for Sheets, the connections are much more obvious.
Knights athletic director John Woodrum attended classes with him at R.E. Lee High School, and the Eastern Mennonite University graduate also played American Legion baseball for Ray Heatwole, a legendary former TA and JMU coach.
Beyond sentimental reasons, the games made perfect sense to schedule from a baseball standpoint for Hanifee.
“It also gave us an opportunity to go play some other competition that might be a step above some of what we see on a daily basis,” he said, “something that would be a little bit more challenging for us and kind of open our eyes and prepare us for what we might face in the postseason. We experienced that last year, obviously.”
A reminder of what Hanifee is referencing — a 4-1 Region III semifinal loss to Amherst — came last Friday when the Knights scrimmaged the Lancers. Five Amherst pitchers threw at 86 miles per hour or better that day, according to Hanifee.
He’s hopeful his team’s tough early-season slate, which continues next week in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in games against Champaign (Ill.) Central and Westchester (N.C.) Country Day, will better prepare TA for this year’s playoffs.
That plan could come at a price, though.
Hanifee said he was told by the Virginia High School League that his team is eligible to earn seven points per win in these games, but will not receive any points in a loss.
“With the point system, there’s a little bit of risk,” he noted. “But like I said, we’re willing to sacrifice that for the opportunities and experience.”