American Legion baseball used to thrive in Maine. Now the program is on life support

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While southernmost Maine has turned away from American Legion baseball in recent years, the tradition-laden summer program has battled to maintain its foothold in eastern and central areas of the state.
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While southernmost Maine has turned away from American Legion baseball in recent years, the tradition-laden summer program has battled to maintain its foothold in eastern and central areas of the state.

From its peak of 48 Senior Legion teams spread from central Aroostook County to the New Hampshire border in 2007, the roster of programs for the oldest level of the national program in the Pine Tree State has gradually dipped to just 16 teams this summer.

In a sense it’s back to the future, because more of the current Senior Legion teams are regional in nature, accommodating players from multiple high schools rather than each Senior Legion team essentially being an extension of a single high school team’s spring season.

A program that was divided into five zones as recently as 2014 will field two eight-team divisions this year.

The North will be composed of Augusta, Coffee News Comrades of Bangor and Quirk Motor City of Bangor, the Capitals of South China, Farmington, Hampden River Dogs, Skowhegan and the Trenton Acadians.

The South will feature teams representing defending state champion Coastal Landscape of Portland, 2018 runnerup Bessey Motors of South Paris, Pastime Club of Lewiston, Rumford, South Berwick, Topsham, Waterboro and Wells.

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Reasons for the steady reduction in Senior Legion programs are myriad.

The Portland area, for instance, once fielded such Legion staples as Andrews Post of Portland, Nova Seafood of Portland and Yankee Ford of South Portland.

But those programs are gone, leaving Coastal Landscape of Portland as the lone Senior Legion team in Cumberland County to go with three York County teams based in Wells, Waterboro and South Berwick.

“We’ve lost a group from the Portland area over the last two or three years, with high school coaches organizing a wooden-bat summer league playing on Tuesdays and Thursdays that frees those kids up for travel baseball on the weekends,” said longtime Zone 1 Legion commissioner Dave Paul.

“I don’t begrudge them that at all.”

Another issue is finances. Nearly all Senior Legion teams are now responsible for their own fundraising, a byproduct of the decline in membership of American Legion posts that once provided substantial financial support for their local teams.

“Gone are the days when all of these places had vibrant, robust Legion halls that supported their program. Those organizations are shrinking,” Paul said.

And teenagers continue to see their summertime commitments grow, often pitting one sport against at least one other for practice and game time.

“Sometimes I think instead of letting 16- and 17-year-old kids be kids and just enjoy playing, we’re forcing them to make decisions they should not have to make,” Paul said. “If I’m a 16- or 17-year-old kid, I’m going to want to please every coach I play for.”

Paul remains optimistic for American Legion baseball in the region, in part because of the relative stability of the Junior Legion program for younger high-school players.

That statewide program has maintained approximately 20 teams in recent years, and this summer’s roster of 21 teams includes 15 based north of Augusta.

Junior Legion teams in the North division are the Acadians, Bangor, Belfast, Hampden, Hermon, Machias, Quirk Motor City, Penquis of Dover-Foxcroft, Sebasticook of Newport and Sluggers-Mattanawcook of Lincoln and Bangor.

The South division includes teams representing Fairfield, Skowhegan, Waterville and two teams from Oakland.

“That’s good because theoretically when those kids age out, hoping that they had a good experience in Junior Legion, they can move right into Senior Legion,” Paul said.

A key element of that transition will involve the local organization of new or restored Senior Legion programs.

“One of the big keys to getting it turned is it will take a group of parents in each community whose kids get to the age when they’re not interested in spending a lot of money to play AAU travel baseball anymore yet still want a good baseball experience to get involved,” Paul said.

This summer’s Senior Legion schedule, which begins June 18, will include 18 regular-season games. Each team will play the other seven teams in its division twice apiece, with four other games to be played against opponents based on geographical considerations.

The top four teams in the North and South will qualify for an eight-team, double-elimination state tournament July 27-31, likely at Husson University in Bangor. The state champion will advance to the Northeast Regional Aug. 7-11 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The Junior Legion state tournament will be played Aug. 1-5 at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor.

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