Rogers Post 153 shortstop Tyler Blanchard puts the tag on Dylan Desroches of Locke Mills as Desroches tries to get back to second base during the first inning of an American Legion baseball in Auburn on Thursday. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
American Legion baseball is fading into the background of the summer sports landscape.
Only six Senior American Legion teams exist between Topsham and Berwick, compared to 13 in that same geographic stretch just two years ago.
Senior Legion, which includes players up to age 19, has lost 15 teams in Maine since 2016 and is down to 18 teams from a peak of 48 in 2007.
“Legion baseball nationwide has struggled over the last several years, but in Maine, because we don’t have that many teams, if we lose a team or two it has a tremendous impact on one zone,” said David Gray, the first-year commissioner of American Legion baseball in Maine.
At one time, Maine had five zones — similar to conferences. Today there are three. Zone 4 for York County dissolved this year with the departure of teams in York, Noble, Sanford and Wells. Longtime teams have disbanded across the state, including Andrews Post in Portland. Brewer folded its team after 33 years.
So what happened? Club — or travel — teams have become a greater priority for many young players seeking stronger competition and a chance to be seen by college or pro coaches.
“It is travel baseball that is affecting (Legion ball),” said Ryan Copp, a 2004 Greely High School graduate and a coach with the Maine Lightning club.
“I coached at Southern New Hampshire (University) from 2008 to 2011. At that time, Legion wasn’t in as rough a shape as it is now, but even then we wouldn’t have gone to many Legion games (to scout) when I could go to one site with five fields and they would roll out a game every two hours.”
The American Legion schedule has traditionally included Saturday doubleheaders, making it tough for players to commit to both Legion and travel ball.
That’s one reason local alternative summer leagues organized by high school coaches have cropped up the past two summers.
The second-year Regency Mortgage Summer League is a 10-team wooden-bat league for returning high school players with mostly Cumberland County teams.
The league is run by high school coaches and games are on Tuesday and Thursday.
That schedule is purposeful. Organizers Mike Rutherford (Portland High) and Mike D’Andrea (Scarborough) know the top young talent is playing (and paying) to travel out of state on the weekends.
Further, they saw Legion ball trending toward rosters made up of graduated seniors and returning college freshmen from several different schools. That meant their younger players were getting squeezed out and/or separated.
“You had a summer structure largely dependent on high school coaches to run but we were not really focusing on the kids who we’re trying to develop as our future high school kids,” said Gorham coach Chuck Nadeau.
The first-year, five-team York County Summer Baseball League also has been built around the idea of having larger, more flexible rosters.
D’Andrea has seen Maine summer baseball from multiple perspectives over the years as a former Legion coach (he led Nova Seafood to the 2004 national title), the director of the Maine Lightning and as a high school coach.
“The Regency Mortgage wooden-bat league allows us to keep our teams together, and allows us to be flexible so the players can chase the exposure, which they’re not going to get in Legion,” D’Andrea said.
The past two summers, Connor Caverly, 16, was happy to pull on his Staples Crossing Post 188 uniform and play with many of his Marshwood High School teammates. Caverly also trained with the USA Mavericks, a well-established club based in Newington, New Hampshire, but his summer commitment was to his Legion team.
This summer Caverly is playing on a travel team organized by Advanced Performance Academy, based in Palmer, Massachusetts.
“There’s probably 15 pro guys that work out there and the team I’m on has six or seven (NCAA) Division I commits, so it’s a good opportunity,” Caverly said.
Caverly, a still-growing 6-foot-2, 195-pound catcher, has verbally committed to play for the University of Maine.
“It was definitely about the exposure at first but now it’s just about developing skills and trying to become a better player,” Caverly said.
Legion baseball still has ardent supporters, even among departed teams and players.
“American Legion definitely still plays a role,” Nadeau said. “I don’t want to have a graduating senior look at me and say, ‘Where am I going to play?’ I think Legion is real important for that kid.”
In York County, Staples Crossing (Marshwood/Traip) and Cole Post (Massabesic) decided to return to American Legion for this season. Staples coach Rich Luciano, an assistant at Marshwood, had 26 players try out — including some from the former Noble team — and had to make cuts for the first time in three years.
Shane MacNeill, a 2018 graduate of Traip Academy who intends to play at Thomas College, was glad he could return to the Staples team.
“The last two summers I’ve played American Legion and I’ve had great experiences playing with all the new kids, and it was just overall good baseball,” MacNeill said. “So it was a pretty easy decision for me to come back to it this summer. It’s just a group of guys who all love baseball and good competition and friendly play.”
Gray, the state’s American Legion commissioner, hopes that growth at that younger level will provide a boost in a few years. There are 22 Junior Legion teams across the state, for players 17-and-under — but only four of the junior teams (Yarmouth, Gray-NG, Freeport, and Cheverus) are in Cumberland County. None are in York County.
Alan Livingston, the Zone 3 commissioner and coach of the South Portland-based Yankee Ford team, said American Legion needs to redefine its purpose, as opposed to trying to compete with travel baseball and alternate leagues.
“I’m trying to promote Legion baseball. Let’s make it the most competitive baseball for high school seniors and those juniors who are good enough,” Livingston said.