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American Legion baseball faces continuing battle for survival in Maine

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With Maine’s American Legion baseball ranks continuing to be thinned by the popularity of regional travel baseball programs, state American Legion baseball officials have held frequent planning sessions in an effort to adapt to the sport’s changing summer landscape.

“It was a long offseason,” said Dave Paul, a longtime commissioner for Zone 1, which covers northern Maine. “We usually meet a couple of times leading up to our state meeting. I think we met five times this year and I still don’t quite know if we’ve got everything done or not.

“We’ve been sort of in a state of change trying to figure out exactly who was still going to have a Senior or Junior Legion team or both and who was not.”

The number of Senior Legion teams — largely for older high school players — has dipped dramatically in Maine during the last decade, from a high of 48 in 2007 to 27 last summer. Several Cumberland County communities started their own high school-age leagues for weekday games in order to free up weekends for travel-team competition.

That trend has extended farther south this year, with several former York County legion teams taking the same path as the number of Senior Legion teams statewide has fallen to 20.

The nosedive from 48 teams to 20 represents a decrease of 58 percent in only 11 years.

“All those places have decided to go in another direction and leave the weekends open so those kids can play travel baseball. That’s the way it’s heading,” Paul said. “We’re not going to fight it, we’ll just continue to move forward and keep promoting the tradition of American Legion baseball, the history of American Legion, the strength of American Legion baseball and the fact that kids are together every day for five or six weeks shooting for a zone tournament berth followed hopefully by a state tournament and possibly a chance to go to the New Englands and a World Series.”

Some legion officials have discussed adapting regular-season schedules to play two or three days during the week to accommodate the growing interest in travel baseball across southern Maine.

“But it always gets back to the crunch we’re under with the time frame we have to get our games in,” Paul said. “Everything is based off when the [legion] World Series takes place and we have to work backward from that.”

The Maine American Legion baseball regular season begins in mid-June at the end of the high school season but must be completed by mid-July to accommodate zone, state and regional tournaments that ultimately qualify teams for the Senior Legion World Series, set this year for Aug. 16-21 in Shelby, North Carolina.

“Legion’s been such a great program over the years, but we’ve got to adapt to where we’re at,” said Dave Morris, coach of the reigning state champion Bangor Senior Legion club. “I think there’s a compromise with what kids are doing, and at the same time Legion is trying to do different things.”

The survivors

Maine’s remaining Senior Legion teams will be divided into three regions or zones, one fewer than in 2017. There were as many as five as recently as 2014.

The northernmost zone overseen by Paul is on track to experience the least change this year, remaining at six Senior Legion teams as Post 51 of Oakland and Skowhegan will merge their efforts while Motor City of the Bangor area returns after a one-year hiatus.

Motor City and Post 51-Skowhegan will be joined in Zone 1 by Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Trenton.

Zone 2 will have eight teams: Rogers Post 153 of Auburn, Locke Mills of Bethel, the Capitals of South China, Bessey Motors of South Paris, Augusta Elks, Franklin County Flyers of Farmington, Pastime Club of Lewiston and Rumford-Dirigo.

Zone 3 will have six teams, including two survivors from York County, the Waterboro Eagles and Staples Crossing of South Berwick. Other entries are Coastal Landscaping of Portland (Cheverus High School), Post 202 of Topsham, Post 86 United (Gray-Cumberland-Freeport) and Yankee Ford of South Portland.

Plans for the zone and state tournaments have yet to be confirmed, but eight-team and six-team state tourney formats are being considered.

“We’d like to keep it at eight to reward as many teams as we can,” Paul said. “But on the other hand if we only have 20 senior teams, that’s almost 50 percent going to the state tournament. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

A Junior Legion boost?

One source of possible optimism for American Legion baseball, particularly in its more northern reaches, involves the Junior Legion division for younger high school players.

Paul said Junior Legion teams are expected to number in the low-20s statewide this summer, including a bump up to 11 in Zone 1. Teams are planned for Bangor, Brewer, Motor City, Trenton, Waldo County, Penquis (Dover-Foxcroft), Skowhegan, Fairfield, Oakland and two from Hampden.

“We’ve talked in our area about how in order to stay strong and viable there should be more Junior Legion teams than Senior Legion teams theoretically,” Paul said. “Those kids hopefully will filter up through as they get older and become the Senior Legion players.”

Some of Junior Legion’s growth in eastern Maine may stem from the loss of the Little League-franchised Senior League World Series and its automatic bid for the host team — which concluded a 15-year stay in Bangor in 2016.

“Those kids are your incoming freshmen and sophomores and some of your juniors,” he said. “If they are going to need a place to play during the summer I think Junior Legion is a perfect fit.”

Paul also hopes the Waldo County and Penquis Junior Legion entries could lead to the re-introduction of Senior Legion baseball in those areas.

“It’s like a JV and a varsity if that’s what you want to call it,” Paul said. “Hopefully, that will keep the interest there so the kids can eventually transition up to the next level of legion baseball.”

Morris said Junior Legion’s success is pivotal to the health of Senior Legion baseball in the region.

“It’s tough playing legion baseball, it takes a great deal of sacrifice from kids,” he said. “Hopefully, the Junior Legion teams really grow because that’s really going to be key in the development of baseball around here because geographically it’s hard to go from Dover-Foxcroft to Boston for travel baseball.

“In the southern part of the state, they have a little easier situation.”

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