American Legion Baseball was once the event of the summer ... what happened?
It is either purely coincidental or eerily ironic that 30 years ago this summer, American Legion Baseball roared to its crescendo in our corner of the world. The state tournament, then a high-profile sporting event normally confined to traditionalists Bristol and Middletown, found its way to East Lyme.
This was news. You think the state ignores us now? It was way worse in the old days before Mohegan Sun, Foxwoods and Dodd Stadium. The Legion tournament’s arrival to them, thar hills was big news.
It was, unwittingly or otherwise, the state’s way of paying homage to New London’s spate of success. The fighting Jim O’Neills had won three straight state titles from 1985-87 and went to the World Series in ’85 and ’86. New London games had become events. New London Legion, which used to wear pinstripes at home, had become the Yankees.
New London opened the 1988 state tournament in the nighttime feature game, to a crowd at East Lyme that was five and six deep along the fences. Maybe we’d seen crowds like this for football and basketball. But baseball? Never this. This was the culmination. The Yankees commanded the state. The state came to us.
And now, 30 years later, New London Legion has folded for the summer.
Its second forfeit of the season last week — New London couldn’t field nine players — invoked a two-forfeit rule that automatically terminated the season. New London, which began 5-1, ends 9-18.
How very sad.
I’m just not sure lament is the best use of our time. Whatever the reason for New London’s inability to find nine players — Waterford has been playing with exactly nine for a while now, too — isn’t as relevant as fixing this moving forward.
But can it be fixed?
American Legion Baseball’s rhythms have changed since the salad days of the '70s and '80s. Gone are 60-game summers. There are fewer games, shorter regular seasons and more playoff teams. Still, Legion requires the same daily commitment, even if over a shorter period of time. And with the popularity of travel teams and society’s overall commitment disorder, American Legion Baseball’s ruination has been slow, steady and steadfast.
Joe Average Teenage Athlete has a proliferation of options to occupy his time now, unlike 30 years ago when Legion was Option A. Travel baseball. Summer basketball. Football weightlifting and 7-on-7 leagues. Soccer camps. Lacrosse camps. Vacation with the fam. Employment. Beach days. Fortnite. And on the band plays.
Hence, common sense suggests that with fewer kids in the talent pool, Legion’s survival relies on fewer programs. Around here, they must consolidate, even if it takes rewriting rules to do so. Greater minds can configure how it might look. But there is no need, for example, for teams in Niantic, Waterford, New London and Ledyard-Pawcatuck any longer. If four became two, the odds increase of not only better teams and better competition, but rosters bearing more depth.
Change isn’t necessarily easy. But this much we know: Change only happens through feeling discomfort. I can’t imagine anything more uncomfortable — or attention-grabbing — than a proud program that gets kids from New London and Fitch that’s suddenly unable to get nine kids interested in playing.
Again: Blame assessment may be the natural byproduct, but a waste of time. As a famous coach once uttered: It is what it is. The better question: What’s the remedy? And does it require out-of-the-box thinking?
Since 1988, the summer sporting menu has changed drastically around here. American Legion, once front-page news, shares space with the WNBAl, minor league baseball, a college baseball league, summer youth sports and the aforementioned summer high school football and basketball leagues, among other endeavors. Lots going on. Much more to cover.
Legion has become an often anonymous toil, successive hot days and nights with not many people paying attention. A harder sell than ever.
Fewer teams are the only answer. It’ll shatter a few egos for sure. But the alternative is that American Legion Baseball, once the foundation of sports around here, will die sooner rather than later.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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