By Randy Arrington
LURAY — If a baseball fan in the Shenandoah Valley wanted to play “Seven Degrees of Separation” — the name association game that originated by connecting actors to Kevin Bacon — then there is one name that would clearly work to link together stories of the greatest to ever hit the diamond in this portion of Virginia.
Over nearly a half century the Valley’s own “Mr. Baseball” has played among, coached and managed hundreds of ballplayers, many with stories that carried to the professional ranks. He managed six different Valley League Baseball franchises, amassing nearly 700 wins and claiming championships with four different teams in four decades. He also served as a manager and president of the Rockingham County Baseball League for several years and was a member of the Turner Ashby baseball dynasty of the mid-1970s.
“One would be hard-pressed to list the 10 biggest sports personalities with ties to the rich history of the Shenandoah Valley without naming Mike Bocock,” said former Luray Wranglers’ part-owner Jerry Carter in a new book released in May.
Written by former Page News and Courier sports editor Bill Meade, “Close to the Dirt!: Mike Bocock’s Journey Through the Dugouts and Diamonds of the Shenandoah Valley” contains 110 pages of stories, photos, memories and lists regarding some of the best baseball players to come through the Valley over the past several decades.
“My phone rings one day and it is Coach J.D. Arteaga from the University of Miami. He had heard that Mike was now manager of the [Luray] Wranglers and asked me what we might need for the 2004 season. Doing my best to cover my surprise (maybe even shock), Arteaga told me he hadn’t placed any Hurricanes yet for the summer, but he wanted the Wranglers to get first shot at his players. From that year on until I left the club in 2008, Coach Arteaga called me and would place his first four players with us,” former Wranglers’ general manager Greg Moyer says in the book. “Other big name college baseball schools such as LSU, Florida, Florida State, Florida International and others were also calling. That was all due to the respect Mike had for developing players.”
Former-Wranglers’ owner Bill Turner got to know Bocock after playing against him in competitive softball, but the two had always talked about being on the same side at some point in the future.
“He and I played against each other in our younger days,” Turner said during a May 21 book signing at the Hawksbill Brewery in Luray. “We were both extremely competitive and wanted to win. So, I said to him one time…instead of playing against one another, let’s find a way to be on the same team.”
So in the winter of 2003, the two met again in Atlantic City where Bocock was attending a coaching clinic. At a craps table in Trump’s Taj Mahal casino, the two “agreed that one day we’d work together.”
Bocock brought the Wranglers from the bottom of the Valley League to eventually capturing several League titles. He would do the same in several other towns across the Valley.
“Mike has an ability of no other coach I have seen,” Turner said. “He can get more out of an average player, a good player and a great player, better than anyone I have ever seen. He has a way of getting what he needs out of them.”
Close to the Dirt! shares secrets of Bocock’s coaching strategies, from how to respect the game, to trick plays that worked, and from the joys of coaching his own son, to the Big Leaguer that almost got away.
Future MLB All-Star Daniel Murphy had a rough start when he arrived in Luray in the summer of 2004, from not having a car to get there, to starting off hitless in his first two games while also committing a couple of errors — one that lost the game. Bocock was ready to pull the plug and send the young slugger home. However, Murphy would pick up a game-winning hit in an extra inning affair, followed up by a 5-for-5 performance with two home runs and seven RBI.
“Murphy is a keeper,” Bocock said, proclaiming his new faith in the future pro. “He can flat out hit.”
Murphy went on to win the Valley League’s MVP award the next season, was drafted by the Mets, and was second in voting for the 2016 MVP balloting while playing with the Washington Nationals.
“In two days, he went from being the goat, to being the GOAT,” Turner said of Murphy’s 2004 summer season in Luray.
Meade spent three years putting together the collection of stories from Bocock and those who worked with him around the game of baseball throughout the Shenandoah Valley. While the interviews were filled with stories about regional sports legends, the longtime sports writer said that — much like many who meet Mike — he was most taken in by Bocock’s zest for everything around him.
“His enthusiasm for life, not just baseball,” Meade said. “He was over the top for baseball, but his enthusiasm for life was refreshing.”
And the best part of the discussions?
“The humorous stories he would tell,” Meade said. “Some of which are in the book, and some of which are not.”
The book’s journey begins with Bocock’s early days as a Little League All-Star, where he first learned that what he loved may indeed be his life’s calling.
“In the state tournament, at 11, I thought this is what I want to do,” Bocock said.
The same guys he played with in his youth would later become the baseball dynasty of Turner Ashby in the 1970s, where Bocock went to three state title games. The 1974 state championship Knights included five players that would later get offers to play professional baseball — Mike Ester, Alan Nicely, Harold Nicely, Ted Croy and Donnie Bowman.
Bocock’s list of former players in both the Valley League and RCBL reads like a Who’s Who of basball in the Shenandoah Valley, full of names that went on to the professional ranks. His decades in the game have produced a plethora of stories, memories and moments that Bocock wants to pass on for posterity.
“I wanted my grandchildren and others to remember it and be a part of my life,” Bocock said. “It was really for the grandkids…something they could hold on to…and Bill Meade needed work.”
From his love of sport, love of family, love of life, love to tell stories, and love for the interesting characters he met along the way, the winningest manager in the Valley League’s long history said he chose America’s favorite pastime as a career simply because it helped him through the journey.
“The answer, I think, to get through life,” Bocock said. “The road of baseball is what guided me in life, family and the many friendships that were in my life, and it still is…when you are coaching you are teaching…that was my outlet to advance my life. Baseball was the avenue I took to do something in life.”
Now entering his fourth season with the Woodstock River Bandits in the Valley League, Bocock’s team is currently 14-5 (heading into Monday night) having won eight of the last nine.
Close to the Dirt!, published by Lot’s Wife Publishing based in Augusta County, will be for sale at various Valley League games throughout the summer. A portion of the book’s proceeds will go toward helping the Woodstock-Edinburg Community Baseball organization to benefit local youth leagues, and other charities.
For more information about Close to the Dirt, contact author Bill Meade at [email protected] or call (540) 244-5883. Books may be ordered by mail at: Woodstock-Edinburg Community Baseball, Inc. Attn: Close to the Dirt! , P.O. Box 227, Woodstock, VA 22664. Each book costs $25, include $5 for the first book and $2 for each additional book to cover shipping and handling.