BANGOR, Maine — The 2017 American Legion baseball state tournament begins Wednesday, seeking the 86th champion since Alfred Post 134 and Lisbon Falls Post 166 shared the honor in 1929.

This year’s double-elimination event at Husson University furthers the event’s tradition with an eight-team cast of powerhouses representing the state’s four zones.

Defending champion Yankee Ford of South Portland is back, as is Bangor Coffee News, winner in 2014 and 2015 and runners-up last summer.

The Pastime Club of Lewiston, champion in 2008 and 2009 when known as Gayton Post, also is in the field, as are perennial contenders Bessey Motors of South Paris, Brewer and Fayette-Staples of Saco. Wells and Coastal Landscape of Portland, both state tournament qualifiers last year, return this year.

Yet while the top tier of Maine’s American Legion baseball teams seems as rich as ever, there is concern with the program’s foundation.

Since 2007, when seven new teams joined the ranks to bring the statewide total to 48, the Legion count has diminished steadily. There were 31 programs last year and only 27 Senior Legion teams this summer.

That’s a 44 percent drop in 11 years.

A Junior Legion program for players ages 14-16 has been added in recent years to attract younger players, but the trend at the Senior Legion level is undeniable.

“Kids are being drawn toward so many things it’s unbelievable,” said Daniel St. Pierre, chairman of the Maine American Legion baseball committee. “We had more forfeited games this year than I can ever recall.”

After the 2007 expansion, a fifth zone based in York County was added in 2008. It was scaled back to four zones in 2015 when the former Zone 2 (Waterville-Augusta area) was dissolved as the number of teams declined.

Today there is no Senior Legion team north of Bangor nor along the coast between Topsham and Trenton.

“There’s a number of contributing factors,” said longtime Zone 1 commissioner Dave Paul, whose northern Maine region had a high of 11 teams when Motor City of Orono-Old Town and Messalonskee of Oakland joined in 2007. It fielded only six programs this summer, including two of the former Zone 2 participants.

“There may not be as many kids playing baseball as there once were, unfortunately, and I know it’s tougher and tougher each year to find dedicated coaches to run programs,” said Paul.

He also acknowledged competition with other summer activities, including other sports, and job commitments as well as a change in how Legion baseball programs are funded. Most teams are funded by private and corporate sources as opposed to earlier during his leadership tenure and when he coached the former Old Town-Orono Twins to consecutive state championships in 1992, 1993 and 1994.

“If you look back, certainly in the ’80s and ’90s, at least three-quarters of the American Legion teams in the state were 80 percent funded or fully funded by their Legion posts,” Paul said.

“But now the Legionnaires at those posts are getting older and some have passed, and there aren’t a lot of new, younger people going into the Legion organization.”

Southern Maine has experienced the rapid growth of travel baseball programs. Many top players opt to play on competing age-level teams that routinely travel out of state on summer weekends to play in tournaments often attended by college baseball recruiters.

Those showcases typically conflict with Legion schedules, one reason high school baseball coaches in the Portland area this summer started a wooden-bat league for Legion-age players that confined games to weeknights to leave weekends open for travel-team participants.

That league fielded nine teams encompassing most of Cumberland County, leaving only five Senior Legion programs in the baseball-rich area.

“I know they’re a little worried and concerned in the southern part of the state about whether Legion baseball will exist as we know it even as early as next year,” said Paul, “but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that up here. I think we’re still pretty good and we may be able to even add teams at some point.”

Paul cited the roster sizes of this year’s six Zone 1 teams, with three at the maximum 18 players while the other three were between 16 and 18.

“So I don’t think it’s in the dire straits that some people think it is,” said Paul. “If you watch the tournament and watch the teams play, the baseball is still very good and the coaching is very good.

“The history and tradition of American Legion baseball is as strong as ever, and I think we just need to keep pounding on the positives of the whole thing as opposed to looking at the would-be and could-be negative issues.”

The positives include seeking expansion of the Junior Legion program as both a feeder system for Senior Legion and as a separate opportunity for more youngsters to play the sport, as well as the continuing chance for top teams to compete for zone, state, regional and even national championships.

“Our program is here to teach the game, to teach sportsmanship,” said St. Pierre. “And with Legion baseball we try to help kids out and make it as inexpensive as possible to play a great sport.”

Paul, whose zone covers a vast swath of Maine ranging from just north of Augusta to the state’s rooftop, sees opportunities to reverse the downward trend among Senior Legion programs in his region.

The Penquis Navigators from Dover-Foxcroft, for example, have opted to field only a Junior Legion team for two years. Plans call for the resumption of a Senior Legion schedule in 2019.

Paul would welcome the return of a team from Aroostook County, which also could accommodate some players from Millinocket or the Calais-Woodland area.

“I think a northern Maine team could be very competitive,” said Paul.

“And I honestly believe there’s absolutely no reason we shouldn’t have a team in Waldo County,” he added, citing Belfast, Searsport, Oceanside (Rockland-Thomaston), Camden, Medomak Valley (Waldoboro) and Lincoln Academy (Newcastle) as schools from which it could draw.

“If you had the right people organizing it and found the right coach, you could put together a very, very competitive team year in and year out,” Paul said.

Some changes already are being considered for Senior Legion next year, particularly regarding team and zone boundaries.

What’s unlikely to change, say American Legion baseball officials, is the staying power of a program that’s been a fixture in Maine for nearly a century.

“We’re not going anywhere,” said St. Pierre. “We have 4 million American Legion members that back us, and baseball is the largest youth program American Legion has.

“Yes, it may be shrinking, but we’re not going to close the doors on baseball here.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...