Legion baseball teams adapting to athletes and their busy summers
Since 1925, American Legion baseball has been a staple in small communities all across the country.
In Western Pennsylvania alone, 34 teams currently play in two different regions, and over the course of the next few weeks a majority of those teams will compete for spots in regional and state tournaments.
Participating in the long-standing and nationally-recognized league gives athletes an opportunity to represent their communities, play with their high school teammates, and improve at a game that some of them will attempt to play at the next level.
With all of the advantages Legion baseball provides, several teams in Western Pennsylvania are thriving, but others are wading through a time where fielding a team on a consistent basis has become a struggle.
Low participation rates in some areas can be attributed to a few of different things. Some teams are met with the challenge of recruiting from smaller rural areas where the talent pool is smaller compared to bigger areas. Another problem teams are running into is athletes choosing to split between different sports during the summer.
“There are just so many different things out there, different types of AAU type programs, and kids are just basically going all over the place,” Blackhawk manager Bob Amalia said. “Kids are just getting pulled from all different types of directions.”
For the past 32 years Amalia has been at the head of the Blackhawk Legion program. Because of his position as the head baseball coach at Blackhawk High School, Amalia has had the opportunity to encourage his players, both young and old, to play during the summertime, so he’s never had a problem fielding a team consistently.
“I don’t pressure the kids at all, but most of the kids want to play with their teammates,” Amalia said. “And I’ll also try to send them to big showcases because I want the kids to be successful at the next level and have the opportunity to play there.”
But, the longtime coach said he has started to notice a down trend with teams throughout the Beaver County league, which has eight teams split into two divisions. On occasion, teams have had trouble fielding a full roster for games.
“At that point, you try to reschedule the game,” Amalia said. “But like I said you have kids that are just all over the place; I think it’s happening everywhere.”
In the Pittsburgh area, teams like Blackhawk haven’t really experienced the problem of fielding a team on any given night. At the beginning of the season, Bethel Park manager Zeb Jansante said 33 players tried out for his team, but he could only keep 18 because of Legion rules.
With numbers like that, coaches can afford to have two or three players missing on any given night. But, when teams only have 10 or 11 players on a roster, coaches have run into the problem of filling out their lineup card on a consistent basis. Some teams in the Allegheny South League come in and out of the league depending on the year.
“There are 10 teams in our section this year,” Jansante said. “But every year about two or three teams leave because they can’t get the numbers. But two or three teams take their place.”
Other areas have had it even worse. Before the 2017 season, the Indiana County League folded and some teams that could still field a roster were left without a league to play in. Young Township, which consists of players from Apollo-Ridge, Armstrong, Saltsburg, West Shamokin and Marion Center, was one of those teams.
“Unfortunately, the league is digressing, in our area at least,” Young Township manager Jack Yard said. “I mean back when I played, the town of Indiana itself had eight teams, and now they can’t even field a team, which was primarily why our league folded.”
Fortunately, Young Township was able to join the Westmoreland County League in District 31, which is one of the larger leagues in American Legion baseball. Among the seven regions in Pennsylvania, only seven leagues have 10 or more teams, including Westmoreland.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to keep things at a pretty good pace,” Region 7 director and Latrobe manager Jason Bush said. “We still have 10 teams in our league, which is one of the larger leagues for American Legion baseball still going, and of those 10 teams, I believe that we have about five or six of those teams that are completely full and I would say that almost our entire league has a roster that is 80 percent full or better.”
Even with the high participation rate in his league, Bush has still seen teams struggle to field full rosters on a consistent basis. While Latrobe and other teams field a roster of 16 or 17 players for games, some teams can only get enough to fill out a starting lineup. At that point, coaches have to be flexible.
“The kids have a lot of options out there, and some coaches mandate a lot of stuff for their time,” Yard said. “It’s tough to make a kid choose. They want to be a part of everything, and when you make them choose, they choose. I mean I’m no different, baseball season is baseball season, but collectively as coaches, we just have to understand of what we’re asking the kids because in the end were hurting ourself because the kids only have so much time.”
For several years, American Legion baseball has been a league where high school athletes receive an opportunity, outside of school, to represent their community by playing the sport of baseball. But in recent years, athletes have found themselves being pulled in several directions in order to participate in multiple sports.
Some areas have found a way to adapt to this problem and others have not. The result has been leagues folding and teams either skipping years or finding a new league. But, it seems leagues and regions will continue to adapt to the times in order to keep American Legion baseball alive in Western Pennsylvania.
Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .