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American Legion baseball holds lure despite club team growth

By JIM PAULSEN, Star Tribune, 07/16/16, 1:46PM CDT


The summer mainstay remains popular but faces threats from club teams.

Wayzata's American Legion team warmed up before its game against Creighton Prep (Neb.) in the Gopher Classic semifinals at Minnetonka High School.

Walking off the Target Field turf after pitching Wayzata to the Class 4A state championship last month, Tom Skoro knew the celebration would be brief.

He and most of his high school teammates had another baseball commitment the next day, with the Wayzata American Legion Post 118 team, which had won the Legion state title in 2015. Even if he had wanted to explore other options, Skoro knew playing ball with his high school friends for Post 118 was what he was going to do.

“With all we’ve been through together? There’s no way I could have played somewhere else,” Skoro said with a laugh. “We all wanted to stay together.”

American Legion is as much a part of the fabric of Minnesota baseball as sunflower seeds. It has 326 teams under the American Legion banner, more than any state.

But the rapid growth of club baseball and showcases have started to fray the edges of the American Legion model. More established programs, like the Minnesota Blizzard, have developed a system that works alongside Legion ball. But others, including for-profit clubs with year-round training and broader exposure to college recruiters, have caught the attention of Legion leaders.

“We’ve got the most teams ever in my time,” said Jim Peck, in his 53rd year as American Legion program director. “But no doubt the clubs have caught people’s eyes.”

Faced with steep college costs, many parents are enticed by the idea of a baseball scholarship for their sons. Club teams and weekend showcases — akin to football combines — attract players with the promise of individual development. They include year-round training, up-to-date coaching methods and national travel that can put players in front of hordes of national scouts who may never venture north to see a Minnesota player.

“That’s pretty enticing to a lot of people,” said Pete Waggoner, a longtime American Legion supporter.

One problem, American Legion administrators and coaches agree, is that parents end up shelling out as much as $6,000 a year, without getting the expected return.

“There are some clubs that do a really good job, but in essence what most of them are promising is a chance at a college scholarship and that’s misleading,” American Legion State Director Mike Perry said. “I think the number we’ve seen is that only 5.6 percent of high school baseball players go on to play college at any level.”

Making the choice

Before 2015, Will Oberg, a teammate of Skoro’s at Wayzata, faced a baseball choice.

“I had played club before, and there was a lot of good things about it,” said Oberg, a year younger than most of the Trojans’ players. “But I decided to play Legion because I wanted to play with these guys. And I can always play fall [base]ball.”

Some, like Cody Albers, try to balance club and American Legion. A shortstop and pitcher for Champlin Park, which lost to Wayzata in the championship game, Albers is baseball junkie, He plays for the Champlin Park American Legion team, but also competes for the Minnesota Blizzard Club traveling team. Albers has missed a few Legion games this season while traveling with the Blizzard, but he’s satisfied with his commitment to both teams.

“My teammates understand,” said Albers, who figures he’s played baseball on all but three days this summer. “My [Legion] coach, Mike Loberg, also coaches with the Blizzard, and he’s fine with it.”

Loberg said he makes allowances for Albers because “having Cody Albers most of the time is better than not at all.”

“Kids have so much going on in the summer,” Loberg said. “You have to let them live their lives.”

Being better marketers

To combat the growing competition, American Legion baseball is stepping away from its traditional, almost sleepy approach. Terms like “marketing” and “image” are cropping up in conversations among district and state directors. An ad hoc committee has been formed to study the idea of offering a technologically advanced three-day combine to help promote players.

“We have great coaching and a tremendous network of college coaches,” Perry said. “We just have to be better at marketing ourselves.”

Some club coaches understand the legacy of American Legion baseball.

Rob Schneider runs a club in Wayzata called Pine Tar Academy. A financial analyst for Medtronic by day, Schneider’s approach has been to supplement the high school and American Legion programs, not compete with them. He encourages players to play Legion ball — his son Griffin bats third for Wayzata Post 118 — and offers his academy and its services without the pressure of a long-term commitment. The cost is $1,000, much less than most club teams charge and not much more than the cost for a season of Legion ball.

“American Legion has a lot to offer,” said Schneider, whose club also plays an abbreviated fall tournament schedule under the name Fire Club. “It’s all about what’s best for the player and what he wants to do.”

Schneider admitted, however, that he doesn’t foresee the growth of club baseball slowing down any time soon.

“I think that’s where the trend is going, unfortunately,”

Still, American Legion baseball is far from being on life-support. Wayzata recently won the Gopher Classic, a 96-team tournament that brings in teams from across the Midwest and is considered the top regular-season tournament in the nation.

Said Peck: “With the number of teams we’ve got this year, we must be doing something right.”

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