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By Matthew Atkins
The Rockingham County Baseball League has always been a family affair for Lisa Hart. Since her grandfather brought an RCBL team to New Market in 1964, her family has been involved in the league in some form.
Now, after serving as the president of the New Market Shockers since 2004, Hart is ready to take the top post in the league. At a recent RCBL board meeting, Hart was voted in as the next commissioner, becoming the first female commissioner in the league’s nearly 100-year history.
“I guess there is no way to avoid being labeled as the first female commissioner, but it is truly my hope that I am remembered for what I do for this league first and foremost,” Hart said. “I feel the Board of Directors voted me into office based on my abilities and dedication to the league and I hope that is what I am known for as Commissioner.”
Starting a new venture is familiar territory for Hart. Her grandfather, RCBL Hall of Famer Bobby Strickler, founded the Twin County Reds in 1964. Hart was born a few years later, and has been around the league ever since.
“From the time I could stand I was with my grandfather at the ball park. I would ride with him as he drug the field and our responsibilities grew as we did,” Hart recalled. “We chased foul balls, kept score in right field with the old wooden and metal score board, sold gate tickets, worked the concession stand and so on. “
The team folded in 1989, and New Market was without RCBL baseball until the summer of 2004, when Hart took on the challenge of bringing another franchise to town.
“When a group of local players wanted to bring a team back to New Market Karl [Olschofka] told them they had to get permission to use the franchise rights from my grandfather and he graciously approved,” said Hart. “Our family came along with it and we are all Charter Board Members for the organization. I have been the only person to hold the office of President for the Shockers since it re-entered the league back in 2004.”
The Shockers have relied on Hart’s leadership throughout their 17-year tenure. Although she’s taking on a new league-wide role, they won’t have to worry about finding someone to take over her duties.
“Shuffling duties between the Shockers President and RCBL Commissioner could be challenging but luckily I have a great team beside me in New Market and a great family supporting me,” Hart said. “My husband and daughter were probably more excited than I was when the RCBL Board elected me Commissioner. I don’t plan to step down as President for the Shockers but that will really be up to the Board of Directors when they elect the 2021 officers in January.”
The past two commissioners before Hart had no prior position with an RCBL team. Mike Bocock had recently retired from a Hall of Fame managing career in the Valley Baseball League, while Randy Atkins had been a lifelong fan of the league with no connection to any current team. For fans who are curious how Hart will separate her duties between the league and the Shockers, she says there’s no need to worry.
“I have always had the attitude that without the league there are no franchise teams, so we always have to look at the big picture when making decisions as a board,” Hart said. “You can’t put blinders on and vote solely on the best interest of your team, you have to consider the league and what is best for the future generations.”
“Sometimes that is a hard pill to swallow especially for the smaller franchises like the Shockers, but if we all work together as a league we will all grow as teams.”
As for her goals during her tenure as commissioner, Hart is dedicated to honoring the league’s storied history.
“My goal as Commissioner will be to continue the advancement of the league and its member teams,” Hart said. “My focus will be on the rich heritage of this league and providing our community with a family atmosphere at our ball parks. I would also like to see the league and member teams do more activities with the younger ball players in our community.”
Hart believes that the local talent pool for baseball players has taken a hit ever since soccer was introduced into schools in the valley. She hopes that the RCBL and its teams can work with other leagues in the Valley to promote youth baseball and try to grow the game in the area.
While the Valley Baseball League is a summer home to current college players, Hart hopes that the RCBL can become a breeding ground for future collegiate athletes. With a local Division I program in JMU, Hart thinks the RCBL can provide college hopefuls with the exposure and experience they need.
While she is excited for her first year at the helm of the league, Hart knows that there will be some challenges ahead.
“Next year will be another year of changes especially with MLB announcing the new format of the Appalachian League. It is not clear yet how that will affect our recruiting especially inside our recruitment boundary, which may need to be extended to accommodate the pending competition,” Hart said. “Also with the VHSL running their spring sports deep into June, this is sure to present some obstacles our scheduling committee will need to overcome.”
“Our season normally starts Memorial Day weekend but that may change in 2021. We have several teams that share fields with High Schools and/or Valley League teams and these factors could push our opening day back later in the summer for another condensed season.”
But after the way the league was able to have a successful 2020 season, Hart is confident they can get through whatever 2021 brings.
“I think last year was an eye opener for the RCBL member teams both on the field and behind the scenes. Teams had to get creative with fund raising to keep things going and managers got to see what opportunities they could with the expanded rosters,” said Hart. “There was a shift in the RCBL across the board.”
“It will be interesting to see if we can capitalize on the momentum of such a successful 2020 season and keep those fans coming back to our parks in 2021. I really think we can as long as we are producing competitive baseball on the field and a family fun environment off the field.”
With Hart taking over the role of RCBL Commissioner, Randy Atkins will be moving into a newly-created Board position overseeing the league’s media relations and interns for the summer of 2021.
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