Lou Boudreau in 1953. Courtesy of Bowman Gum.

The greatest baseball song of all time is not “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It’s one you’ve probably never heard of (but are about to): It’s “All Future and No Past” by a group called The Baseball Project, which you’ve probably never heard of, either.

The Baseball Project is a side project of some indie rock stars – the two best-known members are guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Mike Mills, formerly of R.E.M. They, along with guitarists Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn and drummer Linda Pitmon, are all baseball fans and got together in 2007 for the sole purpose of writing and recording a new generation of baseball songs.

These are not your granddaddy’s baseball songs. These are songs about free agency (“Gratitude for Curt Flood”) and steroids (“Broken Man”) and obscure tales from the game’s long history (“Harvey Haddix,” about the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who threw 12 perfect innings in 1959 only to lose the game in the 13th, back in an era when relief pitchers were mostly scrubs, not highly paid specialists).

I like “All Future and No Past” not simply because it’s a catchy song with a good beat, but because of the sentiments it conveys – which apply to more than just baseball. The title comes from a phrase attributed to future Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau, who toiled most of his 15 years in the ’40s and ’50s at shortstop for Cleveland before going on to play for Boston. “On Opening Day,” Boudreau said, “it’s all future and no past.”

By that he meant that on Opening Day, every team starts with a blank slate. Last season’s disappointments don’t matter. On Opening Day, everybody is undefeated. Or, as The Baseball Project sings, “spring is here and the time is right for unrealistic goals.”

Is there anything more uplifting and inspiring than that?

Today is Opening Day for Major League Baseball – a little delayed by the owners’ lockout and labor negotiations – but here it is nonetheless. For baseball fans, a time for unrealistic goals.

This column isn’t about baseball, though, as pleasant as that would be. It’s about how Boudreau’s sunny optimism translates to the economic playing field of Southwest and Southside Virginia.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t, at least not the part about “no past.” Unlike baseball teams who all start 0-0 today, we carry with us the weight of decisions made – or not made – long ago. Where would we be today if someone decades ago could have foreseen the collapse of coal, textiles and tobacco and taken action then to build an alternative economy? What if Interstate 64 had been routed through Farmville and Lynchburg instead of Charlottesville? What if localities had acted on a proposal in the early ’70s to build a regional airport for both Roanoke and Lynchburg somewhere in between the two? On the other hand, we also inherit the more beneficial implications of other decisions, such as the one to locate the future Virginia Tech in Montgomery County.

So we can’t quite say “all future and no past” because, to borrow William Faulkner’s phrase, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” We live with the decisions of our forebears every day.

On the other hand, there’s still a future even if we do have to negotiate the burdens of the past, and that’s what I’ll concern myself with here today. Baseball doesn’t have cheerleaders, and I don’t mean to be one here today. However, this is an admittedly optimistic reading of the future.

It’s possible to look around Southwest and Southside – at least parts of Southwest and Southside – and react with despair. None of this is new, but it does bear repeating because it’s true and it drives so much of what we have to deal with: Every locality west of Montgomery County lost population during the past decade. So did every locality in Southside along the North Carolina line until you get to the outskirts of Hampton Roads. So did lots of other rural localities.

They’re not just losing population, they’re also getting older – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing except it means there aren’t enough young adults there, which is a bad thing when you’re talking about trying to staff a workforce and drive the economy. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, laid out a pretty grim set of facts when he spoke last fall at Longwood University: Rural Virginia is losing people at a faster rate than our rural counterparts in other states. Old Dominion University, in its annual State of the Commonwealth report, warned that Virginia “is pulling apart” economically.

None of that sounds very optimistic or cheerleaderish, you might say, and you’re right. It’s not. These are hard, basic facts we need to deal with.

On the other hand, when I look around Southwest and Southside, I do see communities and community leaders who are dealing with those facts. Not everyone, and not everywhere, and the things they’re doing may be insufficient and incomplete – we won’t know that for years to come. But I do see a lot of reason for optimism.

For one thing, the worst may already be behind us. Textiles won’t collapse further because they’re already gone. Given the rate at which coal-fired power plants are being shuttered, coal probably will collapse further but it’s so far gone now that a few years ago, at a Virginia Chamber of Commerce function in Roanoke, one of the speakers referred to far Southwest as “the former coalfields.” Nobody in any position of leadership there is trying to bring back coal, because they know that’s not happening – they’re busy trying to build a new economy.

The five states of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I see lots of communities that are already at the acceptance stage. Maybe not everybody, but enough to make a difference.

I look at Danville, a city that has suffered some of the hardest blows any community can take. Is Danville wallowing in self-pity? No. Danville is moving on. Danville is building a new Danville. It’s embraced a casino – I remain skeptical of casinos as economic development, but there’s undoubtedly economic momentum in Danville related to the coming Caesar’s casino. Beyond the glitz and glamour of the casino, Danville is legitimately establishing itself as an advanced manufacturing hub. A few years ago, the governor of Arkansas came to Danville to study the place and see what lessons he should take back home to his state. Old Dominion University recently announced it would start offering a manufacturing engineering technology degree in Danville. ODU wouldn’t be doing that if it didn’t see something happening there. The census found that Danville was still losing population – but that the population decline was slowing down. Here’s a bet you can place at that new casino: I’d be willing to bet Danville starts gaining population during the decade to come. (I explained why in an earlier column.)

In Southwest Virginia, we also see some things afoot that could change the whole trajectory of that region. There’s a study underway to determine whether Southwest Virginia can position itself to grab a piece of the wind industry. Just the fact that the region is asking the question seems significant; here’s coal country – former coal country – looking at how it can make the renewable industry work in its favor. Virginia Tech and a bunch of other partners recently announced a plan to study whether waste coal – of which Southwest Virginia has plenty, unfortunately – can be mined for rare earths, the key ingredients in much of our technology. Now, these are studies and studies aren’t action, but we should still recognize these for what they are: Here’s some forward thinking going on.

Last fall, The Nature Conservancy and Dominion Energy announced a plan to build a giant solar farm on 1,200 acres of abandoned mine land in Dickenson and Wise counties – the first step, perhaps, in turning coalfields into brightfields, as some call them. (Disclosure: Dominion is one of our donors but donors have no say in news decisions; you can donate, too, and also have no no say in what we publish – more than 1,000 others have.) The infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year contains lots of money for cleaning up abandoned mine sites and turning them into developable land. The General Assembly this year passed a bill to start documenting just how many piles of waste coal there are in Southwest Virginia; a study by the Appalachian School of Law laid out how cleaning up those sites could be a major jobs generator in the region. Mountain Empire Community College and Southwest Virginia Community College are developing programs to train a solar energy workforce. Yes, the region would be better off if it had done those things 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, but it didn’t. We can’t change that. But they’re doing them now, and that’s what counts.

I know I spend a lot of time complaining that state officials have shorted the University of Virginia’s College at Wise on funding, or other slights, but despite all that, there’s still reason to be optimistic about the region. There will be plenty of hard stories yet to come – towns such as St. Charles that have simply given up the ghost – but for the first time we can see what the post-coal future of coal country might look like and it’s not all doom and gloom. There will be increased tourism; there already is, driven partly by the Spearhead Trails and other outdoor attractions. Southwest Virginia may indeed get a piece of the renewable energy industry. The region has started to develop other industries – the push for farmers to start growing barley for the craft beer industry affects a small number of people but is indicative of a new approach. Bristol’s not coal country and, as I said about Danville, I’m still skeptical about casinos as economic development, but the casino will certainly drive changes there and if those casinos lead to more revenue for localities, that’s a plus. When I look across the whole of Appalachia, Southwest Virginia sure seems to be more honest in its appraisal of the future than some other regions, and actually is trying to do something about that. I don’t see southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky doing some of the things Southwest Virginia is doing. I also see the state legislators in Southwest Virginia far more involved in economic development than state legislators elsewhere typically are.

That means in the two places that have seen the most dramatic economic upheavals – Southside and Southwest – we’re seeing concrete action to address those changes. That seems reason for optimism. In the Roanoke and New River valleys, we see even more: I’ve written before that the Fralin Biomedical Institute is Roanoke’s Amazon. The life sciences lab project announced in December – which spans both valleys – seems more confirmation of that. The ODU report laid out some disappointing – and, frankly, surprising – economic numbers for Lynchburg, but someday that big tract of land that the former Central Virginia Training Center sits on is going to get sold, and that will be a major opportunity. I also broach this gingerly, but the departure of Jerry Falwell Jr. from Liberty University will allow that school – which is clearly a significant economic force – to evolve in a more normal way without Falwell’s political baggage.

And now, the latest Census Bureau report brings some more hope: During the first year of the pandemic, many rural localities actually saw more people move in than move out. Many still lose population because deaths outnumbered births but the net in-migration is a new development. Maybe it’s a one-year only thing brought on by the pandemic, but if this is the start of a new trend, that would be a milestone indeed.

So, yeah, as the song says, “spring is here and time is right for unrealistic goals” – except I don’t think these are unrealistic goals. Even the best baseball teams may lose 60 or so games a year. We’re certainly not without our problems. We still have too many local government officials who have trouble seeing the big picture. We have too many Confederate flags flying; even if they’re on private land, they send exactly the wrong signal to visitors – they are anti-economic development flags. We have too many schools with leaky roofs and the state’s not doing enough about that. We don’t have enough renewable energy, which is important for many companies, let alone the environmental considerations. We don’t have enough broadband internet. Our educational attainment rates are too low. Our labor pool often isn’t skilled enough. Our poverty rates are too high. But unlike a lot of other parts of the country, I see efforts underway to fix many of those things.

In baseball terms, many of our localities are in rebuilding mode, but rebuilding they are, and that’s sure better than the alternative. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.