Newington American Legion head coach Billy DeBlasio faces a familiar dilemma when he sits down to fill out his lineup before every game. As he scans the already thinned list of available players, he is often forced to stop when he gets to the starting pitcher slot.
DeBlasio, in his fourth year of coaching legion baseball, watched almost all of the Newington High School team’s pitching staff migrate to AAU and travel baseball for the summer, which makes finding available arms on a regular basis an almost impossible task.
“The kids on my legion team didn’t pitch at all for the high school,” DeBlasio said. “It’s hard. In the high school season, if you’re a pitcher, you get work in and you carry it over, but this is almost worse than starting in spring training. We have to pitch by committee. It’s hard to manage.”
DeBlasio’s predicament is one that many legion teams in Connecticut have struggled with for years, yet is one some towns wish they had. While teams like Newington struggle to fill pitcher spots, other nearby areas like Plainville and New Britain have watched their legion teams fold due to an even greater lack of participation. The colliding storm of declining interest in the sport and the plethora of alternative summer leagues have crippled legion baseball in Connecticut. The league has been on a steady decline as AAU and other travel teams continue to pop up in nearby areas.
“It's a huge concern,” American Legion baseball state chairman David Greenleaf said. “We've lost a bunch of teams over the past few years. We're down to 108 teams in the state, and we had over 150 a few years ago.”
Legion’s dwindling participation caused the organization to call a last-minute audible before this season, cutting the league down from eight zones to six, as more kids flocked to different leagues or different sports altogether.
“We consolidated 10 teams into five because teams were having roster problems last year,” Greenleaf explained. “We merged East Windsor and Windsor Locks. We merged Hartford and Manchester...we merged a bunch of teams. That's helped with teams that were struggling last year. But we had Plainville and Bridgeport drop out at the last minute because they couldn't field a team, and we had Waterbury have all of their kids walk off with the coach and go play AAU. Wolcott, which was one of our stronger teams, couldn't field a team this year. It's really unfortunate.”
Coaches departing for other leagues has only magnified legion baseball’s glaring problem, as Greenleaf notes at least two other former legion coaches that ‘left and took the kids with them.’ A mass exodus of that nature is enough to put any team out of commission, but for many teams in central Connecticut that don’t have as many kids to pluck from, even one or two departures can be the difference between a competitive and a middling squad.
“With the explosion of travel baseball or whatever name is put to it, if a small-town program like Plainville or Berlin loses one player, that can hurt,” Berlin legion head coach Gary Van Etten said. “If you lose two or three, it really damages the program. We have a roster of 16 or 17 guys. You lose a couple guys, it really hurts.”
The issue wasn’t as glaring back when AAU teams hadn’t begun to fully blossom, but now smaller towns have to compete for an already diminished selection of players with an ever-increasing number of travel teams that have been thinning legion dugouts for years.
“When I played, there were three top-tier AAU teams in the entire state,” Southington legion head coach Marc Verderame said. “Nowadays, you have 10 or 15 different teams, all the way down to youth. It's diluted the pot a little bit.”
For legion coaches, the growing number of alternate routes for potential legion players is only part of an even greater problem for the kids they desperately try to keep in a legion uniform.
“I have some friends that do a terrific job with their teams, but I also have seen a lot of other coaches that promise kids the moon, saying 'we're going to get you in front of all these scouts and college coaches' and stuff like that,” Van Etten said. “A lot of them promise you the world.”
In the eyes of the local legion coaches, AAU may promise the world, but it will cost you the world as well. As kids make the move to AAU and other travel teams, legion coaches warn the players and parents to be ready to open up their wallets.
“In AAU, some teams charge $5,000,” Verderame said. “I think it's kind of excessive. Parents pay a lot of money and most kids don't go on to play college baseball. You can play legion and have the same brotherhood with your friends.”
Unfortunately for legion baseball in Connecticut, the added cost hasn’t held kids back from making the change.
“We're becoming a really hard sell, and I'm not sure why,” Greenleaf said. “We're a lot cheaper, and we provide equal or better competition. But some kids have the perspective that they have to play AAU to be seen, which is totally not true.”
Some would disagree. DeBlasio watched a number of Newington players pick AAU for the summer, including two-time All-State catcher Gunnar Johnson, who has committed to play in college at Division-I Wofford after his senior season in 2020. After experiencing AAU and the opportunities it has presented him, Johnson is convinced he made the right decision.
“It was just more of the competition in tournaments,” Johnson said about his eventual decision to pick AAU over legion. “We go down to Richmond and a lot of other places to play in tournaments, and a wide range of kids from across the country play, which increases the level of competition. In legion, you're in the same area. To me, it's kind of a continuation of the high school season. You're playing against the same kids. But in AAU you play against kids that are committed to a lot of different schools, which is nice.”
Johnson also credits AAU as the starting block that led to Wofford noticing his talent.
“Wofford found me through a recruiting showcase I did last summer,” Johnson said. “AAU helped me with that. The AAU tournaments were similar pitching to what I saw at the showcase, so it got me used to facing kids that throw a little harder. I wasn't surprised going through and facing those kids. If I had just played high school and legion, I'm not sure I would have performed as well.”
The showcase that revealed Johnson to Wofford was put on by Prep Baseball Report, which hosted another showcase in Binghamton last week that brought in nearly 300 kids. While legion’s Rawlings Showcase on Tuesday at CCSU brought in an estimated 40 college scouts and coaches, the PBR showcase brought in 75, according to CCSU baseball head coach Charlie Hickey, who had coaches in Binghamton to assess the talent pool.
“To be able to see that many kids in that span is good for your recruiting effort,” Hickey said. “I’ll go to (legion tournaments) at the end of the month, but you’ll find fewer kids that are in that recruiting slot. You’ll find seniors that are playing and have already chosen a school. You’ll find fewer kids that are available to recruit or evaluate versus when you go to one of the travel tournaments. Those are the more attractive ones to be at…you’re getting a little more bang for your buck.”
Hickey, a product of Middletown legion and a former state champion, still sees the value in legion, but also admits to seeing a massive trend continuing towards AAU and travel participation, as well as national organizations like PBR.
“I think you can look at it from both sides,” Hickey said. “As a college coach, we recruit legion kids and travel ball kids. But there are more kids playing AAU and travel ball than 20 years ago. Then, most kids would just have the legion option, and that's where everybody played. But the travel programs have become an industry. But you see American Legion trying to provide more exposure to their kids.”
Part of legion baseball’s plan to combat the current AAU craze is to host showcases of their own and provide their players with the same exposure as AAU, only at a drastically discounted price for parents. The most recent one was the Rawlings Showcase at CCSU, which was organized as a Futures Game for All-Star sophomores and juniors.
“I've talked to plenty of scouts over the years, and they've told me that it's not the AAU games that attract them, but the showcases, when a couple of teams come together for a showcase and invite a bunch of scouts,” Verderame said. “We recognized that five or six years ago, and put together three or four different showcases in the summer for our legion kids. We have an All-Star Game where we get about 50 different college coaches come out and watch the kids play. I think it's the showcases that bring the scouts and coaches.”
Those involved with legion also believe the brotherhood of playing baseball with the same teammates since little league would also be a big draw, and was even the subject of a recruiting pitch for the organization to keep kids playing legion ball. Unfortunately, that effort didn’t pan out.
“We had a college coach prepare a video for us saying how he prefers legion ball… and that he actually prefers kids that showed loyalty to their friends and communities, but the NCAA said we couldn't use it, Greenleaf explained. “We weren't allowed to put it up on our website…It was said to be a recruiting violation.”
Coaches like Verderame and Van Etten run into college coaches and scouts at their legion games on a consistent basis, and believe legion poses the same advancement opportunities as AAU. If the talent is there, the eyes and minds at the next level will find you, whether you’re swinging a wooden bat in your hometown or a shiny aluminum bat at a weekend tournament in sunny Richmond.
“My philosophy is, just take a look at Berlin,” Van Etten said. “Our legion team has never had a professional player that (left) and played AAU or travel baseball. I think that's something to be proud of. There are other towns, if all of the kids stayed there, it would be one heck of an organization overall.”
Van Etten’s claim holds plenty of truth. Major league talents like Jesse Carlson (Berlin), Rajai Davis (New London), Chris Denorfia (Southington) and Jeff Bagwell (Middletown) were all legion products, but recent talents like Johnson have used different avenues to get recognized. Legion is trying to replicate those opportunities while also driving home the plea to stay put and watch how scouts appear behind the backstops, just as they would at an AAU game.
“I think legion is better baseball,” Verderame said. “I understand that parents think if they spend a lot of money their kid will have a better shot, but that's not the case. We have plenty of scouts come to our legion games. Parents don't realize that when a scout comes to watch a top player, they also see the whole teams, so they'll see your son.”
For legion coaches in central Connecticut and through the state, the real battle lies in getting kids to believe them. So far, the plan isn’t working, and it has made the once-flourishing American Legion baseball an endangered species.
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org