The 79th Maine American Legion baseball tournament was one of the most competitive and exciting in recent years, with last-inning heroics or extra-inning drama dominating the latter stages of the five-day event leading to Gayton Post of Lewiston’s come-from-behind victory over Augusta in Sunday’s championship game.
But below the surface of the championship chase, not all is well.
“We’re in a little bit of trouble,” state director Chuck Berube told the Kennebec Journal of Augusta. “AAU is starting to hurt us. The kids today are a little different than when some of us were playing.”
A recent explosion of Legion programs, particularly in the southern part of the state, that resulted in the addition of a fifth zone statewide has subsided, and some teams are in jeopardy in other parts of the state.
In Zone 1, which covers the northern half of the state, the number of teams has dropped from 11 to eight in recent years with the loss of programs based in Aroostook County, Waldo County and Orono-Old Town.
And Lincoln’s Zone 1 entry this summer, while sufficiently stocked with players from Stearns High School in Millinocket and Lee Academy, did not have a player from Lincoln.
Meanwhile in Zone 3, which covers the western part of the state, forfeits bordered on the routine as several teams had difficulty fielding nine players from game to game.
Even in the Portland area, some players opted for other pursuits this summer, leaving the state’s largest city without a representative at the state tournament for the first time in memory.
The American Legion hierarchy has taken steps to counteract the troubling trend, particularly by starting a Junior Legion feeder program for younger players. That program has taken hold largely in the more populated southern part of the state, with 19 teams this summer and several more slated to join those ranks in 2012.
Whether that’s the answer in the more northern, more sparsely populated reaches remains to be seen.
American Legion baseball faces myriad challenges to survive and thrive into the future.
The pool of players is shrinking on several fronts. Fewer kids are playing the sport nationwide because there are just so many options vying for attention these days.
And the declining numbers are exacerbated by a youth baseball hierarchy that makes de facto cuts by staging all-star tournaments for kids as young as 9 and 10.
Tell a 9- or 10-year-old that he’s not an all-star, and in many cases it isn’t long before he finds another game to play or something else to do and baseball becomes a distant memory.
Baseball at the American Legion level also is facing more and more competition from other baseball franchises such as the AAU program mentioned by Berube or the wooden-bat college leagues that can siphon off some of the most veteran of Legion players.
Even the Legion schedule itself has been squeezed, primarily from the national tournament that has been moved up on the calendar over the years in response to competition from preseason football practices nationwide.
That’s left the Maine American Legion regular season as basically a month long. The Bangor Comrades, for instance, played their 21 regular-season games within a 27-day span this summer — basically creating a full-time job for the players and coaches.
And in today’s challenging economy, more high school-age kids need real, full-time summer employment to help pay for college or other, more immediate needs, and that includes baseball players.
I hope American Legion baseball continues to survive for the long term, because for the older high school kids who love to play baseball, this summer’s state tournament showed that it’s still the best game in town.
But there’s reason not to be optimistic.