Tag Archives: Joe Kusiak

American Legion Baseball in Indiana experiences more boom than doom

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

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.

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Owen Wells is a longtime manager of Rockpost American Legion Post 254’s baseball team and is the Indiana baseball chairman. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

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Despite challenges, baseball is making its way in Gary

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

It’s not easy being a teenage baseball player in Gary, Indiana.

Area schools have closed, making for less opportunities in the spring.

Little League nationwide has dropped its Big League (ages 17-18) divisions for baseball and softball, leaving several players looking for a place to play this summer, including more than 250 in Indiana District 1 (Gary area).

American Legion (19-and-under) to the rescue.

Kevin Bradley and Ray Dix III know the situation well. The two men coached a Big League team together last year. This spring, Bradley is back for his second season as head coach at Bowman Academy and Dix has joined a coaching staff that also includes Lorenzo Scott.

Bradley, 44, is a veteran of the Gary Fire Department who first played T-ball at East Glenn. When that field was damaged, he and others moved to Midtown Little League (now Gary Metro Area Little League, where he is now president), also at 21st and Harrison. He went on to now-closed Gary Lew Wallace High School, graduating in 1991. He earned a scholarship to Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., as a third baseman, shortstop and pitcher (he still plays in an area adult league).

After one season, he returned home as a volunteer coach in various leagues. coached at Gary Roosevelt for seven years before coming to Bowman.

Bradley wants to be involved for the good of the youngsters and the game.

“To me it’s important to have a high school coach — in this city especially — that knows the game and loves the game instead of just having somebody because they couldn’t find anybody else to coach,” says Bradley, who uses baseball to teach his players life lessons like accountability. “Once you leave high school everything is about life. If they want to play on the next level, they have to know what’s expected of them from their college coach as far as work ethic and everything like that.

“At the next level, you’re in the world now. There’s no more mommy and daddy picking you up to go to school.”

Thirteen players — seniors Zavion Brown, Martrell Dixon, Darreall Payne, Antonio Price, Devin Russell and Charles Thompson III, juniors Joseph Moore, Langston Stalling and Aaron Whittaker, sophomore Jordan Adams and Keondre Pippins and freshmen Deysean Jenkins and Ezekiel Sankey — come from all over the city come to Roosevelt Park at 21st Avenue and Harrison St. for home games and practices. It requires some boys to take two buses to get there.

Bowman Academy is a charter school.

“Charter schools offer an alternative education to public schools,” says Dix. “Parents who are a little more concerned about what’s in a child’s text book will send them to Bowman. It’s just a matter of choice.”

One of three Gary high schools fielding baseball teams this spring (West Side and 21st Century are the other two) Bowman has already played doubleheaders at South Bend Clay and Delphi.

“We try to expose the kids to different areas,” says Bradley. “We go out and play someone different as opposed to playing all the schools around here.”

The original idea was to beef up the schedule to get ready for sectional play. Because of IHSAA sanctions against all Bowman athletic teams, there will be no postseason this year and next.

These games will get some players ready for the summer, where American Legion baseball is going to fill some of the void left by the departure of Big League baseball.

At least three American Legion teams are being formed under the name Region Legion Expos with ties to East Gary Memorial Post 100 in Lake Station. Donations are being sought to foot the bills for uniforms, travel, umpires and more. Dix is also looking for more coaches.

While Bradley began playing baseball at age 4, many Gary kids are staying away from Little League at Gary Area Metro (west of I-65) or Miller (east of 1-65) because leadership has changed so much over the years.

“We’ve also found the older the kids get, the less interested they become,” says Bradley. “They old enough to drive, get a job or a girlfriend, whatever. In the this area basketball is the king. So we battle everyday trying to get these kids interested in baseball

“We try to make it feasible for parents to afford to have their kids play. Even if they never played before, we just want to introduce them to the game.”

Bradley, Dix and Scott look at baseball as “serious business” and that’s why they’ve embraced the Legion baseball for those who want to continue playing the game in high school and beyond.

Dix, 33, grew up playing baseball in East Chicago Civic Little League. His family moved to right before his freshman year and he played at Merrillville High School.

“I learned so much baseball from (Pirates coach Fenton Macke),” says Dix. “He allowed me as a freshman to ask too many questions. He was amazing.”

Dix went on to attend Indiana University and began helping as a coach with his little brother’s team at Merrillville Little League.

“By the end of the summer I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I was 19 years old,” says Dix.

Rahdric Dix went on to letter in basketball and baseball at Merrillville played baseball at Butler University and the University of Southern Indiana.

“My brother was an amazing athlete and a really good ballplayer,” says Dix, who went from coaching Little League in Merrillville to Lake Station. He was also an assistant for five years at Lake Station Edison High School. After a year off, he spent two years on the staff at Gary West Side — the same school that gave the baseball world 21-year big league pitcher LaTroy Hawkins.

Dix, who is working on his college degree, is concerned about all the potential idle youth caused by taking away baseball for older teens, but he is excited about the exposure that the ones who do get to play will receive. He plans to take his team to Illinois and Michigan and play 20 to 25 regular-season games this summer.

“The biggest hurdle we’re having is getting people to understand the giant change that’s come about,” says Dix. “I want to give as many opportunities to as many young men as I can (through American Legion baseball).

“The goal is to get kids seen (by colleges). Kids are going to get seen for $100. Everybody else is going to charge up to $1,000.”

Legion ball became an option when Dix came in contact with Indiana second district baseball chairman Joe Kusiak, who is looking to add teams around northwest Indiana.

There would have been multiple options if they cut off the program at 17U or 16U, but that would exclude players going into or coming out of their senior year or, for some, their freshmen year of college.

“It was the first league I saw that would allow our older kids to still play,” says Dix. “You don’t want to tell our kids they don’t have anything to do in the summer. That’s not the world’s greatest idea. They’ll find something to do that none of us would enjoy.”

Having organized baseball gives these young men a positive outlet.

“One of the things that scares me the most is when they go away to college and they have to come back here,” says Dix. “They’ve spent eight or nine months away from the situation, bettering their lives, and they have to come back here and they don’t have the structure they had when they were at school.”

Scott, a St. Louis native married to a local gal, played at Ball State University and then eight seasons in the minors, making it to Triple-A in the Marlins organization. He began coaching with Bradley last season at Bowman.

“We found a gem when they put us together,” says Bradley of Scott. “We have coaches here with the knowledge to teach. We’ve got a great group of kids. They are receptive to all of us.”

The coaches try to keep the communication at a high level. Bradley, Dix and Scott might all be saying the same thing but in different ways. If players are not grasping what they are being taught, they are encouraged to ask for an explanation from a coach they can best understand.

“You learn that every kid is different,” says Bradley. “I may have to find a new way to show this kid how to field this ground ball.”

BOWMAN1

Bowman Academy’s baseball team pauses during practice Tuesday, April 25, 2017 at Roosevelt Park in Gary. The Eagles are (from left): head coach Kevin Bradley, Aaron Whittaker, Kiondre Pippins, Joseph Moore, Langston Stalling, Devin Russell, Jordan Adams, Antonio Price, Martrell Dixon and assistant coach Ray Dix III. Not pictured: assistant coach Lorenzo Scott, Zavion Brown, Ezekiel Sankey, Deysean Jenkins, Darreall Payne and Charles Thompson III. (Steve Krah Photo)