"If it ain't shootin' at me, I ain't stressed," Alan Eldridge tells me
with a sly smile when I ask how the recession has been weighing on
him. For a man who introduced himself with a business card advertising
ownership of the local "Dry Run Outfitters & Chicken Lips Rendering
Facility," the positive attitude does not surprise me.
Eldridge and his wife moved to Luray, VA full-time nearly a decade ago following his retirement from the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington, DC. On the day I meet him, he is making rounds in town, visiting friends in his 1952 Army Jeep, a relic of the Korean War. He swears the 1919 A4 Browning machine gun mounted in the back is fully functional, but I don't ask him to prove it.
The running jokes and perpetual grin belie the real difficulties Eldridge has faced since the economy began its downward slide. For the past eight years, the retiree has been part owner of the Luray Wranglers, a member of the Valley Baseball League--a summer destination for talented college players looking to hone skills and boost chances for a shot at the Majors.
Over the past year, Eldridge has watched his investment evolve into a financial drain. Facing an estimated twenty percent drop in sponsorship contributions and a simultaneous spike in expenses, he and his partners have started dipping into their own own funds to keep the team going.
When asked if he had considered putting the Wranglers on hiatus until things improved, he responded with a shocked and emphatic, "No. Of course, no." If the Luray Wranglers took a year off, they would lose their place in the league, making it difficult to return. To Eldridge, that would be unacceptable.
He doesn't mind making a sacrifice for the team, considering it an opportunity to give something to his adopted community and the players who flock there each summer. Though ironically not a big fan of baseball itself, Eldridge enjoys hosting his friends and neighbors at the games, and feels fulfilled by helping his players reach the full potential of their talent. "This is these kids chance to be seen and to improve," he explains. Eldridge says that's important enough to keep him bound to the Wranglers "until my wife tells me to stop."
Though an impressive man, Eldridge couldn't keep the team running single-handedly. Community pride in the Wranglers has steeled the will of key supporters, who, despite the circumstances, continue to do what they can to provide for the team. The churches and community groups who feed the players after home games may not be able to afford cooking up steak dinners for 25 young men this year, but hamburgers will fill their stomachs just as effectively. Some families who volunteer to house players for the summer had to bow out for the 2009 season, but others have stepped up--some taking three or four into their homes.
Entertainment budgets tend to be an early casualty of tight finances, but men like Alan Eldridge live by an unique set of priorities. I absorb the lesson of his philosophy for life as he advises me: "If you can't have fun, nothing else is worth having."
Luray will be having fun tonight as the Wranglers host the Front Royal Cardinals at Bulldog Field. The game starts at 7:30.