Leader Blues

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

SPORTS>>Decline of Legion baseball undeniable, difficult to witness

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Baseball season, for us at The Leader anyway, officially came to an end with Cabot’s loss to Fayetteville on Saturday afternoon at Burns Park.

No more stifling early evenings chronicling the junior American Legion teams. No more endless, error-plagued, mosquito-infested senior nightcaps. No more walk-filled, action-free 12-1 routs in which the winning team scores all its runs on three hits. No more giving up reruns of ‘House’ or missing ‘The Office’ or ‘30 Rock’ to cover the fourth game of the week.

Yes, of course I’ll miss it. After all, not all the games were bad. And as much as I hate summer, there’s something about a soft summer night at the ballpark. Plus, I love the game itself. Played well, played fluently, there’s nothing better to watch. Played poorly, unfortunately, there are few things worse.

My concern, having covered American Legion baseball over the past eight years, is its trend toward mediocrity. The most obvious reasons for this are the influx of traveling teams, 7 on 7 football, and the increasing disinclination of kids to endure the rigors of a long summer at the ballpark.

On that latter point, it’s not hard to understand. It is, after all, summer, and you can see why kids might not want to trade in all that limitless freedom for a 30-game schedule played over two sizzling months.

Of our three area teams — Sylvan Hills Optimist Club, Jacksonville Gwatney Chevrolet and Cabot Centennial Bank — only the Bruins lost players to a traveling squad. They struggled as a result. It was hard to watch Sylvan Hills fail to live up to its proud baseball tradition this season as the seniors quietly bowed out in two games at the zone tournament.

Of all six of our area teams — juniors and seniors combined — only two made it to state. Given that only two teams from each zone qualify, maybe that doesn’t sound so bad. But both teams went out in two games at the state tournament. The Sylvan Hills junior team — the only junior team to reach state — was routed by a combined score of 25-1 by Sheridan and Bryant.

Cabot, which at times looked dominant throughout a 16-12 season, wasn’t humiliated but failed to put up much of a battle against Jonesboro and Fayetteville in losing 9-3 and 7-1. Cabot was out-hit by a combined 31-14 in those games.

Cabot reached its first-ever senior state tournament, one season after its juniors achieved that same honor. The fact is, Cabot baseball is on the upswing. And there are reports that Matt Evans, a dynamic sophomore pitcher and shortstop in 2008, may be returning to Cabot. That won’t hurt matters at all.

The other problem with American Legion is its inherent inequality. Cabot drew all its players from Cabot. Jonesboro drew from three separate high schools, including from 4A state champion Valley View as well as from Jonesboro and Nettleton, each of which reached state last year.

Fayetteville’s senior Legion club had players from Fayetteville High, Springdale, Gravette, Elkins, Prairie Grove and even Oklahoma on its roster. It’s hard to compete against that large of a drawing area.

One last observation regarding the decline of American Legion baseball: At times, it seemed as though players weren’t taking it all that seriously. I heard reports of players not showing up for practices. I witnessed on two separate occasions opposing pitchers (neither from our area, thankfully) laughing while getting shelled. On another occasion a pitcher seemed to find it amusing that he couldn’t find the strike zone.

Now, I recognize it’s a long season and I recognize that it’s just a game. But if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it. That’s why I admired the endless enthusiasm of Gwatney junior coach John Walker, who despite the score and despite the heat index, was always shouting encouragement from his third-base box.

Likewise, Cabot junior coach Andy Runyan was clearly committed to his team. Yes, he sometimes lost his cool and maybe that’s for another discussion. But his commitment was obvious and admirable. Senior coach Jay Darr is to be commended for providing a Web site with up-to-date stats and other critical information that helped make our job easier and our stories more thorough.

And old-timers Bob Hicking-botham at Jacksonville and Mike Bromley at Sylvan Hills have worked tireless hours and have done all they can to keep the league going.

The bottom line is, I fear for the future of American Legion baseball. With ever-decreasing media coverage as well as player participation, it could be on its way out. Let’s hope not. Because, over these past eight years, it’s been worth all the heat, all the walks and errors, all the hit batters and wild pitches and all the midnight drives home.