By STEVE KRAH
In a state teaming with travel teams, Indiana is keeping American Legion Baseball alive.
“It’s getting better,” says Indiana American Legion Baseball chairman and longtime Rockport Post 254 manager Owen Wells of the 19-U program. “We were in a slump for awhile.”
A decade ago, Legion ball fielded around 65 teams. When the money started moving away from American Legion Baseball and toward travel ball, the number of teams was cut in two.
“It used to be that it seemed the parents thought the more they spent, the better their kids were going to be,” says Wells. “Now, it seems they’re seeing that maybe that’s not true.
“They see a lot better competition than they do in high school or travel ball … You have to go by the rules or you don’t play American Legion ball. It’s as simple as that. We protect our kids, coaches, the program.”
With almost a half century in American Legion Baseball, Wells is quick to sing it’s praises.
“We have a structured program,” says Wells. “We have an eight-team state tournament. The best of that goes to the national regional tournament. The winner of that goes on the Shelby, N.C. for the World Series.
“Once you win your state tournament, national picks up all your fees — your travel, meals, hotel rooms. You get on a travel team and you can go to 10 World Series and each one of them costs parents X amount of dollars.”
Wells is proud of the organization of American Legion Baseball in Indiana. At the end of each season, officials meet to discuss things that went right and things that need to be changed.
“We don’t let things linger on,” says Wells.
American Legion Baseball has a code of sportsmanship: “I will keep the rules; Keep faith with my teammates; keep my temper; Keep myself fit; Keep a stout heart in defeat; Keep my pride under in victory; Keep a sound soul; A clean mind; and and healthy body.”
The 2016 ALB World Series drew well over 100,000 for five days and the last two games were broadcast live by ESPN. This year’s event is scheduled for Aug. 10-15. As is tradition, the ALB World Series winner will be the guest of Major League Baseball for the second game of its World Series.
Wells notes that ALB also provides full-coverage insurance and requires background checks for its coaches. There is also now a pitch count rule — similar to the one now used by the IHSAA.
Players are also eligible to apply for a statewide scholarship.
There are on boundaries or restrictions when recruiting travel ball players. By rule, all ALB teams have to draw their players from high schools that do not exceed a total of 5,000 enrollment. Rockport tends to get its players from South Spencer and a number of other small schools in southern Indiana and the Owensboro, Ky., area.
The first Indiana ALB state champion (Indianapolis) was crowned in 1926. Branford Post 140 reigned as the second kings of Indiana Legion ball in 1928.
Ever since, a state champion has emerged. The 2016 state winner (Rockport Post 254) advanced to the 90th ALB World Series.
There was some coming and going in between seasons. Notably, there is no Muncie Post 19 Chiefs or Plymouth Post 27 Diamond Spyders squads this summer. Both are past state champions.
South Bend Post 50 was Indiana’s only American Legion World Series champion in 1977 and 40-year anniversary festivities are planned in July. But there will be no Post 50 unit on the field this season.
But there are new teams, including Region Legion Expos squads in northwest Indiana. Legion baseball is filling the gap left by the elimination of Little League’s Big League division (18-and-under) in Indiana.
The 2017 slated opened with 44 approved registrants (30 senior, 14 junior).
According to state commander Joe Kusiak, senior teams i(19-and-under) include Attica Post 52, Boonville Post 200, Brazil Clay County Post 2, Bristol Post 143, Cicero Post 341, Clinton Post 140, Crawfordsville Post 72, Evansville Funkhouser Post 8, Evansville Eugene Pate Post 265, Greene County Eagles, Highland Post 180, Jasper Post 147, Kokomo Post 6, Lafayette Post 11, Lake Village Post 375 Spartans, Liberty Post 122 Patriots, Madison Post 9, Mike Miller Post 94/37, Newburgh Kapperman Post 44, Princeton Post 25, Region Legion Expos 1, Region Legion Exposure Expos, Region Legion Expos 3, Rockport Post 254, Rockville Post 48, Seymour Post 89, South Bend Post 357, Sullivan Post 139, Terre Haute Wayne Newton Post 346 and Valparaiso Post 94.
Junior clubs (age 17-and-under) are Boonville Post 200 Juniors, Crawfordsville Post 72, Evansville Funkhouser Post 8, Greene County Eagles, Jasonville Post 172, Kokomo Post 6, Newburgh Kapperman Post 44, Michigan City Post 37 Wolves, Region Legion Expos 4, Richmond Post 65, Rockport Post 254, Rockport Post 254 Cubs, Terre Haute Wayne Newton Post 346 and Valparaiso Post 94 Junior Vikings.
There will be no sectionals, but eight regionals leading to the eight-team state tournament in Terre Haute July 21-25 (Terre Haute North Vigo and Terre Haute South Vigo will serve as host sites). The state tournament rotates north and south above and below I-70. The 2016 event was staged in Kokomo.
Tim Hayes is in his second season of leading Terre Haute Post 346 after taking over for his brother John. In 31 seasons, John Hayes amassed a record of 930-390 with 28 sectionals, 12 regionals, seven state championships, one Great Lakes Regional title and three regional runner-up finishes. The 2006 team placed second at the ALB World Series.
The local aspect of Legion ball is attractive to Tim Hayes.
“You can still have competitive teams that are community-based in my opinion,” says Hayes, who draws his 2017 roster from Terre Haute North, Terre Haute South, West Vigo and Marshall, Ill. (one player) and plans to play 35-40 games with trips to Missouri and Tennessee. “There are still kids and parents out there that are believers. We’ve been fortunate here that we’ve been able to keep the largest percent of our A and B level players (Post 346 alums include big leaguers like Josh Phegley and A.J. Reed). Our program is rich in tradition. (Players) want to represent our community and our veterans. How long it will last is hard to say.”
A 501 (c) 3 organization raises money for the Post 346 program.
Dave Shinn is in his second year as manager of Mike Miller Post 34-97, a Michigan City-based team. His father, Al Shinn, was involved with ALB, Michiana Amateur Baseball League and Connie Mack Baseball League teams for decades and had played and managed in the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers organizations. Al Shinn died in 2016.
The younger Shinn expects his team to play about 25 regular-season games (with no overnight trips) plus the postseason. He likes the quality of baseball and the pace.
“Once I got into it, I really enjoyed the competition,” says Dave Shinn. “Five or six games in a weekend is too much baseball. You can’t learn that much when you’re playing that much.”
Post 34/97 draws its players from Michigan City, Marquette Catholic, LaPorte, Chesterton, Westville and South Central (Union Mills), plays home games at Marquette with about a dozen players active for each contest.
“We try to keep all the kids active,” says Shinn.
To raise money for Valparaiso Post 94, general manager Kusiak has sold commemorative Chicago Cubs World Series bats made by Valpo-based Hoosier Bat Co.
Bristol Post 143 manager Jim Treadway has brought his team back to Elkhart Central for home games after moving around Elkhart County for home fields. Like many Indiana ALB teams, Bristol has produced many players who went on to play college or pro baseball. Ryan Strausborger made his MLB debut in 2015.
Owen Wells is a longtime manager of Rockpost American Legion Post 254’s baseball team and is the Indiana baseball chairman. (Steve Krah Photo)