Leader Blues

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

SPORTS>> American Legion deserves better from state media

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

And so another long, long Arkansas American Legion season comes to a close.

It ended officially last night with the senior championship game between Fayetteville and Jonesboro. Only the regionals and nationals remain.

For fans in the immediate area, it ended one night earlier with Sylvan Hills’ loss to Fayetteville on the penultimate day of the season.

Legion baseball almost is treated as an afterthought by the media around the state. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette inexcusably doesn’t cover it at all. Even the senior state tournament this past weekend received only cursory coverage: An obligatory, space-filling, seemingly random photo and scores from the previous day. Whether or not the statewide paper chose to send a writer out to the title game yesterday is anyone’s guess. I’d be surprised if they did.

What the Democrat-Gazette covered instead was bass fishing and mixed martial arts. They provided start-to-finish coverage of the national junior soccer tournament the previous week, which is as it should be, I suppose. Yet not one team in that tourney hailed from the state of Arkansas.

All nine American Legion teams in the state tournament this weekend at Burns Park were Arkansas teams. Three were from the Little Rock/North Little Rock metro area and another three were from towns within 60 miles of the Capitol city.

And yet, if I saw another media member these past four days, I wasn’t aware of it.

The television stations tend to ignore it just about as thoroughly, which is also a shame. Because, say what you want about the rigors of two-a-days during August football, the Legion boys sacrifice just about as much themselves, both physically and, given the strain of playing as many as 50 games in 60 days and as many as seven over five days in the tournament, mentally as well.

What I witnessed this past weekend at Vince DeSalvo Field at Burns Park was nothing short of amazing. With temperatures soaring toward 100 and heat indices well beyond that, these young men endured some real hardships. On Saturday, when the mercury climbed to 99, Little Rock Blue played two 9-inning games – one lasted nearly four hours.

Blue not only endured, they persevered, rallying from five runs down late in their second game of the day to take a lead in the eighth inning, only to lose it in the ninth and get eliminated. I would have thought human nature might have taken over late in that elimination game and Blue might have quickly and quietly played out the final two innings and rushed home to couches and air conditioners.
They did not.

And such fortitude was on display throughout the first four days of the tournament. What can you say about a pair of teams that take the field at 11:30 p.m. — as Bryant and Fayetteville did on Saturday night? They didn’t finish until two in the morning.

On Monday afternoon at 5 p.m., with temperatures pushing 105 and a heat index adding 10 more degrees to that, the Sylvan Hills Bruins took the field looking into the face of a tall, steep, shadeless mountain. To win state, they had to win two that day, and two more on Tuesday. And against the best competition in the state.

The Bruins dispatched Fort Smith with relative ease in the first game, but a fresh Fayetteville club – comprised not only of players from the 3-time defending state high school champions, but Springdale and Har-Ber as well, and whose lineup most likely includes some future Razorbacks – proved too much, especially when Bruin ace D.J. Baxendale had to come out with a sore elbow after four innings. Baxendale had fanned 11 at that point, but still trailed 2-1.

What was heartening to watch was the continued effort the Bruins put forth late in a game that appeared all but over when the Dodgers took a 9-1 lead into the eighth. There was Clint Thornton smacking a 2-out double and stealing third base, and there were Mark Turpin and Justin Treece running full speed to their positions after the inning ended.

All of this, plus the fact that baseball is still America’s top sport, would seem to demand better media coverage, especially when we reach state tournament time.

American Legion baseball is a godsend for community newspapers like ours during the slack summer season when sports stories are hard to find. That’s just one of the reasons I appreciate it, no matter how late into the night some of those early-July games run.

Coaches — many of whom work full-time jobs during the day — devote most of their summer to American Legion and the players, who otherwise might be lounging around a pool, fishing at a nearby lake or home watching music videos, are spending two-thirds of their vacation time at the ball park.

They deserve a whole lot better than what they’re getting.