Summer’s forgotten pastime

In the small town of Salisbury, N.C., American Legion baseball is still king. Teams have been known to bring their own radio announcers to broadcast games; thousands of people are in attendance; and the area’s top players are in the starting lineups for their respective posts.

The games are as much about the community as they are about baseball in the town of about 25,000 residents, sandwiched between Charlotte and Greensboro. Old-timers pay to sit in box seats at a packed college stadium while reading game programs filled with ads from local sponsors.

“It’s really big down there,” said Detroit Tigers scout and Manassas resident Bill Buck, who was scouting a game there last week that featured three radio stations, more than 1,000 fans and Cal Hayes, the St. Louis Cardinals’ third-round pick this season. “It is small-town America at it’s best. They take it very seriously down there.”

Now drive up the East Coast to Prince William County and American Legion baseball looks a lot different. As the District 16 tournament kicks off today at Woodbridge High School, there will be no radio stations, the best players will be off playing with their showcase teams and the crowd will be mainly parents and girlfriends.

“This area has just been very metropolitan and it seems that there is more to do,” Buck said. “In places like Salisbury, there isn’t a whole lot going on besides baseball, so the communities get into it.”

This might seem strange considering the strength of baseball in Prince William County and American Legion’s history in amateur baseball throughout the country. Legion is the nation’s oldest and largest amateur baseball league. Legion started play in 1925 and more than eight million teenagers have played since its inception, including 55 percent of major leaguers. More than 95,000 players competed in Legion last season.

The American Legion World Series will be held in Virginia for the first time in the league’s 77-year history next month when Danville plays host to the tournament from Aug. 23-27.

But as big as American Legion is in other parts of the country, it’s not as big a draw in Prince William County. Area baseball observers mention three primary reasons for that: overexpansion, the use of Legion teams as developmental programs for the spring prep season and losing the area’s top players to showcase teams and competing leagues.


In the late 1960s and into the late 1970s, Woodbridge and Quantico were the only teams in the county. The teams would play 60 to 70 games in a summer and get 40 to 50 players trying out, according to Mac Covington, who has been involved in amateur baseball in the county since the 1960s.

“We had some real powerhouses back then,” Covington said. “Everyone really wanted to play and we had some really good teams. The league had absolutely nothing to do with high school. We just took the best players in our area and put them on a team to try to win the state title.”

Covington said that league began to expand in the late 1970s when Manassas got a team. At that point, Covington said Legion became more of a select league for high school players.

The expansion slowly continued into the early 1990s with more teams in Woodbridge, Dale City, Dumfries and Manassas.

“I think that was probably when it was at its best,” said Mark Harris, a 1976 Stonewall Jackson High School graduate and former first-round pick of the New York Yankees who currently runs Harris Baseball in Manassas. “It seems (in the early ’90s) that the best players still played, but it wasn’t to the point it is now with everyone having a team.”

With the number of schools increasing in Prince William County, the demand came for more Legion teams. The county now has eight teams and the district has 16.

The American Legion Coaches Rule Book does not set rules on the expansion of teams, but it puts restrictions on the maximum number of students that a team can have in its base school. The book states that the total enrollment of a Legion team’s school base cannot exceed 4,000 students in grades 10, 11 and 12. The number will jump to 5,000 for next summer.

Despite the extra growth, many local baseball observers said the current system is good for the area,

“It gives kids more of an opportunity to play and the top kids can still go in search of tougher competition,” Osbourn Post 114-2 coach Larry Crowder said. “It works well for everyone, but it’s just hurt Legion in the process.”


With high schools fielding their own Legion teams, area coaches saw this as an opportunity to use the summer season to develop younger talent. Players are eligible to compete until they are 19-year-old on August 1 of each year, but coaches encourage graduated players not to return even if they are still eligible.

“I had 12 seniors on my team last year that could come back and play Legion if they wanted,” Hylton coach John Colantuoni said, “but how does that help me? The players can no longer help so I might as well use the summer to build up my younger players. If they want to play we are not going to tell them no, but we also are not exactly trying to bring them in.”

Many coaches now have a mixture of varsity and junior varsity players on their teams. At times this summer, Woodbridge Post 364 has fielded lineups made up almost entirely of junior varsity players. The same can be said of Hylton and Osbourn Post 114-2.

“We would rather have underclassmen playing for us because it gives them a chance to get to know each other and prepare for the varsity season,” Osbourn High School coach Keith Howell said. “I guess that it hurts Legion as a whole that we do this and that other teams do this, but the important thing is giving them a place to play.”

While this system is good for the high schools, it frustrates Legion coaches who want to win.

“It’s good for the young guys,” Euclid coach Dickie Dombrowski said, “but the play is constantly weaker when you have a lineup made of younger kids. I guess it helps the high school programs in the long run, but it kills Legion. It is hard to put a good team on the field when you have to do it with junior varsity players. It can be frustrating sometimes.”


Most American Legion coaches say the proliferation of showcase teams and other leagues is the main reason Legion is struggling, because those clubs take the best ballplayers out of the area.

Osbourn’s Jess Stewart is playing with the Manassas-based Harris Rangers this summer. The Rangers travel throughout the East Coast in an effort to be seen by college coaches as well as play against top-level competition. The Rangers played a tournament earlier this summer in Charlottesville and one in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Stewart’s Eagle teammates Chris Kearney and Ricky Pasquerello are playing with a showcase team in Arlington. Legion also loses just-graduated players to other leagues.

North Stafford’s Jason Godin, a 47th-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in the June draft, is playing with the Maryland Orioles in the All-American Amateur Baseball Association (AAABA). The league is for college players 21-and-under.

“The competition is just a lot better here,” said Godin, who played with the Orioles last summer and Legion the summer before. “I am playing with guys from Clemson, Notre Dame, Southern California, I mean the competition is great. American Legion is more for younger kids who are trying to get better. I knew that if I wanted to improve my game that I need to be playing against better players then they have in Legion.”

For those who have stayed, the results are not always good. Devan Ewell, a 2002 Osbourn graduate who was a 46th-round selection by the Kansas City Royals in June, played American Legion this summer to stay active before going Hagerstown (Md.) Junior College.

“It was a waste,” Ewell said. “I just played again because every year we go to the Beast of the East and I really wanted to go so some more scouts could see me. I did not think it would be right just to go to that tournament and not be part of the team the entire summer, but it was not the right move. The competition was not very good and I sometimes wondered why I was out there.

“There were kids out there throwing like 65-70 [miles per hour] tops and that’s not a lot of fun. When I go up to the plate I want to feel like the guy can strike me out every time instead of going up there and playing home run derby or seeing who can hit the ball the farthest.”

Osbourn Post 114-1 coach John Armentrout doesn’t like seeing players leave for other leagues, but understands why that happens.

“They would rather go play showcase and get college coaches to look at them, which makes sense,” Armentrout said. “I’m not knocking the showcase teams, because they do a great thing. I tell the kids to go for it if they can. I mean you only live once, you might as well go for it.”

Showcase teams have sprung up in the last five years in Prince William County. In previous years, players’ only options were to play American Legion or, for the select few, the college-summer Clark Griffith League.

“I would have loved to play in all these leagues they have now,” said Woodbridge graduate Mike Matthews, who now pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals. “I mean, all I ever played in was American Legion and Clark Griffith and that was it. Kids now just have a lot more opportunities to play.”


For Legion to improve, Harris thinks Legion needs to contract a few teams to make it more competitive.

“It makes sense,” Harris said. “If you only have one team you are only going to have the best players playing. They have way too many teams right now. I know people are going to see me as the Legion devil, but I’m not. I think it could be really good again, but they need to cut back.”

Armentrout has proposed to the other coaches that they run their own showcase tournament three or four times each summer. This would bring in college and professional scouts in an attempt to keep the area’s best players from joining showcase teams.

“It would feature local players and hopefully make it so the top players wouldn’t need to go play showcase,” Armentrout said. “They could stay in Legion and still get seen by the top programs and eliminate the need to go play in Alabama or places like that.”

Winchester Post 21 coach Scott Copenhaver would like to see District 16 split into two divisions, based on each team’s commitment to winning. One division would be for teams trying to win, while the other would be for teams developing younger players.

District 16 is having problems with competitive balance. Teams like Winchester, made up of the best players in one area, are dominating play. Copenhaver would like to group all these teams together to compete against one another.

Others, though, think Legion is fine the way it is.

Buck doesn’t see a lot changing with American Legion in Prince William County. He said the league will always have a place in summer baseball.

“It’s always going to be here,” Buck said. “I do not see it changing much in the future. I think it has hit a point where it cannot continue to grow much more.

“I don’t care if there is a team every five feet and everyone in the world is playing,” he continued. “Kids should have an opportunity to play baseball and if the league suffers because of that, then fine. Today less and less kids are playing baseball in general and we should not criticize a league that is giving them a chance to play.”

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