American Legion baseball’s place in Maine is being contemplated by teams across the state currently as complaints about rules, travel, scheduling and the people in charge swirl as the 2021 season ends and programs look to the future. 

After Quirk Motor City held up the trophy at the end of the 2021 Senior American Legion baseball state tournament, coaches started to think about coming back next year and if it is worth the hurdles they had to jump over this season. 

“I was talking to a few coaches and one had a great idea where we do a Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday league,” Turner Bandits head coach Chuck Mollica said. “We’d have a game of the week somewhere under the lights maybe on Thursday, then if you were expanding to nine innings you’d still play enough innings for 16 games of innings to qualify for whatever we wanted to do. We got a lot of interest from all the coaches of possibly doing the Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday league and going back to whatever it’s called, whether it’s the Maine Independent Baseball League or something else.”

Last summer, the Turner Bandits competed in the Maine Independent Baseball League with other teams around the state after the American Legion season was canceled in Maine. There is growing momentum toward a break-off by some teams in Maine from Legion into the MIBL, or something similar, next year.

Mollica, as well as other coaches, have many complaints when it comes to the 2021 campaign, though they’ve been building up over the years. Legion has continued to lose players and teams recently, with kids going to play travel baseball, play other sports in the summer or work jobs. 

The No. 1 complaint from Mollica boils down to how David Gray, Maine’s director of American Legion baseball, runs the league. 

“I don’t know if we are catching it in time before more and more kids are dropping out and teams are dropping out,” Mollica said. “It’s sad because I love what (American Legion baseball stands) for and love the guys that are running it, except for one. The commissioners, they try to do the best that they do but there’s no flexibility. I think that’s one of the biggest problems with the programs, they want to run a program that was thriving 20 years ago. I think David Gray, I think he still lives in the past 20 years ago. I think they need to take a serious hard look at replacing him as the state director.”

Mollica said in an interview Tuesday that Gray is “rude and condescending” and cited multiple instances of the two colliding, one being centered around paying $16 for two background checks for two coaches, which Mollica said are $8 a piece. 

“I have never been hounded so much and not allowed to sit in the dugout than this with my $16 from David,” Mollica said. “I said, ‘David, I will get you your $16, but we have bigger things to worry about. We have kids and teams dropping out.’ He was so condescending. We got into it one time and he was so rude … and I hung up the phone. I’ve talked to a lot of coaches, he’s rude, he’s condescending, there’s no flexibility, you’re going to do it his way or you’re not going to do it, and I don’t think that works anymore.”

Gray said in an email to the Sun Journal that his “committee will be meeting in September to discuss this past season and to discuss next season… I really am not sure what it will look like for us moving forward, other than we will have a Legion season next summer.”

For Franklin County, three games were turned into forfeits when Legion officials found that the team picked Hunter Tewksbury from Madison to play for their team even though Madison is just outside of Franklin County’s area to pull players from. Coach Kyle Gunzinger was suspended for three games and Tewksbury two by Legion. Gunzinger claims that the issue should have gone to a committee but was instead decided by Gray himself. 

Because of the forfeits, Franklin County narrowly missed the playoffs with a 6-10 record. The team had originally won the three games that were turned to forfeits. 

“In the rule book, what happened was it was a unilateral decision made by the state director,” Gunzinger said. “In the rule book it says that all the player-eligibility disputes should go to the the board and shouldn’t have the decision made unilaterally. In my lifetime, it was a game that was earned on the field in wins and losses… The punishment was overly severe. They should have punished me, and me alone. At the end of the day, (Tewksbury) is a child and I made the mistake, if you want to call it a mistake.”

Tewksbury was able to play on the team, but Franklin County missed the playoffs. 

In a different instance this summer, Pastime coach Chris Reed attempted to add a player early in the season because of an injury to another player. After getting approval from Gray and Maine Legion, the request went to the national American Legion committee and was rejected. Reed said once Gray told him of the decision, it was too late and Pastime couldn’t enter a team into the Maine tournament despite the added player not playing due to medical reasons.

“By the time David noticed it had been rejected it was weeks after and we were getting ready for the tournament,” Reed said. “He got in touch with the national league and they basically said, ‘Well, that’s too bad,’ even though I had a roster in place to begin the season. When I changed the roster and added him, he got hurt, so if they just let me revert to my original roster, and submit it in time, we still could have probably played. It would have been a struggle getting enough guys but we would have been able to play with nine, but national sent us out.”

Reed said he would have had enough players for a team in the tournament and was in the top four of the south division, which would have qualified his team for the tournament. 

“It was deflating,” Reed said. “We tried to play out the run at the end but there was nothing left to play for, that type of thing. Because it was so back and forth and we thought we could do this and even adding players, they came up with the rule where (a player has) to play eight games to be eligible and some of the guys that missed some time because of injury or vacation were teetering on that brink. So all year long we were kind of walking a thin line since we had to postpone a doubleheader … There are a lot of rules that come up and then some get ignored when they need to ignore them. That kind of thing.”

Many coaches complained about weekend games that Legion schedules, which are usually Saturday doubleheaders. 

“I really hope they take a look at what they need to do to compete with travel baseball and I think they need to get rid of the weekends,” Mollica said.

“I think one of the problems that we just are having is that they are trying to compete with travel ball and it’s not working,” Turner assistant coach Ryan Palmer added. “If Legion baseball could go to an all-weekday schedule and avoid the weekends, I think it could work. There’s just too much travel ball nowadays that players are turning to, and those are mostly on the weekends.”

Mollica said he is going to be scheduling a Zoom meeting with “six or seven” coaches to discuss a possible new league. 

“I think if we were able to get six or eight teams in the central area and get teams in the southern area, Augusta-south to maybe Falmouth, I think we could have enough teams here,” Mollica said. “We could have a game of the week under the lights. I think if we get enough interest, I would really like to do that and I know of some coaches that would really like to do it. I think it will be very difficult, the interest level from my players that I had this year that want to do another Legion season, I think it would be very difficult to put that together.”

Cost was another factor, as Mollica and Gunzinger both lamented the high price for baseballs in Legion because of the added cost of the Legion logo on them, compared to what Mollica paid for baseballs in the MIBL. Mollica also said his insurance payments have tripled with Legion. 

With Mollica, Reed and Gunzinger, it came back to the kids and letting them play. 

“I went to the state tournament three times as a player. I wanted the kids to breathe that rarified air, that’s what my wish was,” Gunzinger said. “It feels like it was stolen. It was earned, and then stolen away and that’s what it feels like, at least.

“My grandfather was one of the first people to vote in Legion. He was a commander in Vermont and was a post leader there and was one of the first people to vote. The whole idea of this league was to have young people play baseball because those guys have lost the ability to play through war. In terms of that, if things stay the same way, I don’t see Legion surviving.”


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