There was once a time when American Legion baseball was synonymous with summer. Players didn’t have many options nor did they need or want them.
The best players played for their Post, no question about it, and most of the players who made the team went on to play college baseball. That was a different era, and today’s version of summer baseball is much different and much more clouded.
With the recent emergence of showcase baseball and the ever-present scholastic league option, the battle for players who spend their summers on the diamond is as heated as it ever has been.
Players are spun in a whirlwind of future ambition or present actuality – ultimately weighing whether the financial requirements of high-end baseball would support the ever-rarer possibility of being offered a college scholarship.
“All of them serve their purpose. All of them have their purpose,” Coleman-Pitt Post 58 coach Hank Jones said. “There’s nothing wrong with scholastic. There’s nothing wrong with showcase.”
Still, the lines are as drawn as ever.
In its infancy, showcase baseball was seen universally as a positive – even by the biggest American Legion stalwarts. Many players who might not have earned a college scholarship without the exposure of travel baseball found themselves playing college baseball thanks in some part to travel baseball. Current Rocky Mount Academy coach Pat Smith, who coached Rocky Mount High to a state championship and has more than 30 years of experience as a coach, saw the benefits of showcase baseball for his better players.
“I believe some of them, you have to let them play the highest brand of ball you can,” Smith said.
Players like Brian Goodwin, Tyler Joyner, Hobbs Johnson and Benton Moss, all of whom have been drafted in the MLB Draft at least once, sought out travel ball, hoping that its exposure would translate. For them, it did.
“What it comes down to is, at least for our mission, our mission is to find true prospects,” said Jeff Petty, general manager of the Evoshield Canes, a showcase organization based out of Greensboro. “We find kids who are college-level players and put them on a roster with kids that are college-level players.”
Nearly 10 years ago, that was how everyone saw showcase ball, but opinions have changed with time. With the rapid growth of organizations like Petty’s Evoshield Canes or The Dirtbags or the South Charlotte Panthers, the demand for showcase baseball in the state of North Carolina has skyrocketed in the past few years.
Some say that it has been fueled by false aspirations, with players spending upward of $2,000 per summer to play in weekend tournaments around the region or country, hoping to catch the eye of a college coach.
With demand comes a supply, and travel baseball expanded rapidly.
While there are positives for the elite players, money can manipulate even the purest intentions.
“There are guys out there who are in it to just run an organization and make money,” said Kerry Kincaide, a volunteer assistant coach for the Carolina Mudcats who has worked for USA Baseball and was a coach at East Wake High School for 11 years. “Not all of them are, but some of them are. ... Some kids just aren’t to the level that they should be out there playing. It has become a business.”
Andy Partin, the owner of The Dirtbags and Impact Baseball, an organization that puts on showcase tournaments, could not be reached for comment.
Petty said that his team cuts more than 300 players per year at the top level of the organization and had more than 30 tryouts last year.
“These are all the kids that you’re going to see in college baseball or professional baseball,” said Petty, who coaches high school baseball in Virginia. “Those are the kids you are going to see. It just provides better competition. Better competition provides better development.”
Jones has watched many of the area’s top players spurn American Legion baseball for a summer for other options.
Last year, Nash Central’s Tyler King and Khalil Macklin played for The Dirtbags. This year, Northern Nash’s Derrick Carter is playing with the Knights’ team in the scholastic league, a growing league that builds teams through high school affiliates.
Carter and King likely would have formed a strong starting rotation for Post 58 after both finished this season with a sub-2.00 ERA during the high school season. Neither is on Post 58’s roster.
“I don’t have anything against showcase baseball, but I think there are certain types of players that can benefit,” Jones said. “Then, I think there are certain types of players that it doesn’t benefit. We’ve got a lot of players around here right now that are playing that probably aren’t going to see the benefits of it. They are going to spend a lot of money, and they’re probably not going to get out of it what they were hoping.”
Jones isn’t alone in this opinion. In fact, many regional or national analysts share his opinion.
“Travel ball is not the be-all-end-all of continuing your career,” said Nathan Rode, a National Supervisor for Prep Baseball Report who also worked for Baseball America.
Baseball scholarships can be distributed as partial scholarships in both Division I and Division II competition. There are a total of 5,653 full scholarships available between the divisions.
Division III schools are prohibited from offering athletic scholarships.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 474,791 high-school age boys playing baseball. That number is the highest it has been in the past four years.
There is a full scholarship for only 1.2 percent of high school baseball players, although the majority received partial scholarships.
“You just have to be realistic about what you are, who you are and what your abilities are,” Jones said. “That’s hard to do. ... Sometimes when you are dealing with things like that, it’s hard to see things clearly.”
Many recruiting websites offer players the specific physical skills that the majority of college coaches take into account and what the minimum requirements would be for each.
From velocity for pitchers, speed for outfielders, power numbers for corner infielders or pop time for catchers, there is a specific science to recruiting.
Simply, baseball players have to fit into a category of minimums to play at the next level – just like any other sport.
“If you’re not, don’t waste your money,” Jones said of playing showcase baseball. “Stay home, play baseball, enjoy it and move on. That’s the first thing that needs to be done. ... There’s a lot of kids spending a lot of money chasing something he’s probably not going to be.”
The landscape of American Legion baseball is changing. Teams are being cut and the better players are finding greener pastures around the state.
Hotbeds like Wilmington, Pitt County, Cherryville, High Point, Rowan County and even the Twin Counties remain a place where American Legion baseball has survived.
Whether from showcase baseball, scholastic league baseball or trouble from within, the product of American Legion baseball is growing more diluted.
“Historically, you’ve been able to assemble what was the best ball players in your area, kind of like an all-star team playing against other areas that are doing the same thing,” Jones said. “That’s why I like it. It used to be, if you made your American Legion team, more than likely you were going to play college ball.”
Jones doesn’t hide that he is a “legion guy.”
But he admits that the organization has its own problems.
Last year, its expansion caused cancellations, and there were multiple teams that barely could field a roster.
The league also has been stubborn about adapting to current players’ needs.
“Their inability to change with the times has cost them a lot of good baseball players over the last 10 years,” Jones said. “You can’t dual participate. You can’t play for two different teams after the certain time of the year. I don’t agree with that rule. I think a kid ought to be able to play wherever he wants to play and as often as he wants to play.
“Had American Legion been more flexible with their rules, some of these kids we’re losing to showcase ball, we probably would have been able to keep.”
The scholastic league plays only during the week, and first-year Northern Nash coach Leonard Allen allows his players to participate in weekend showcases and tournaments. Allen shares Jones’ feelings on the expansion of showcase baseball.
“There are a lot of teams out there,” said Allen, whose No. 2 pitcher, Tyler Barrett, plays for The Dirtbags. “I think if you talk to a lot of high school coaches, we’re not big fans to it.”
There are times when options are a good thing to have.
Being able to choose rarely is a negative.
When it comes to summer baseball, options have cost many players money and robbed teams of talent.
There is a general consensus that change is needed but not necessarily imminent.
“I think it needs to be a collective effort,” Jones said. “I don’t know if that will ever happen because everybody is going to do what’s in the best interest of their own program. That’s never going to change.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org