American Legion baseball in Maine has faced numerous challenges since the glory days of the early 2000s, when as many as 48 teams from around the state supplemented the high school season and one — Nova Seafood of Portland — captured a national championship in 2004.
Now, other baseball opportunities such as out-of-state travel teams and wooden-bat leagues have flourished in some areas, while lacrosse has emerged as a strong spring alternative to high school baseball and thinned the pool of athletes participating in what has been known as America’s pastime.
The time demands on teenage baseball players from their other sports and activities also have increased exponentially, as has the need for many to work during the summer to earn money for college.
There’s also the old-fashioned notion of trying to squeeze in a family vacation during the five weeks available for the American Legion regular season, which this year began Tuesday and will conclude July 20 in order to provide time to hold a state tournament to send a representative to the Northeast Regional tournament that begins Aug. 3 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
But the latest obstacles for the shrinking number of American Legion teams in the state include more recent economic factors such as inflation and record-high gas prices. One Senior Legion team had planned a trip to Connecticut this summer, only to cancel because of the cost.
“The amount of money it was going to cost was outrageous,” Bangor High School and Senior Legion coach Dave Morris said.
This follows COVID-19, which caused the cancellation of the 2020 season for many sports, and from which many young athletes have not yet returned to competition.
“Legion is just such a short season now,” said Morris, part of a coaches’ council that is organizing this summer’s Legion schedule. “It used to go into those early weeks of August where some kids would be late for preseason football, but now the way they’ve crunched it, it makes it a little more challenging, but we’re optimistic and hopefully things will go well.”
This summer’s American Legion baseball program has 16 Senior Legion teams for players ages 17 to 19 and 12 Junior Legion teams for players 13 to 16.
The number is slightly down from the last two years Legion baseball was played. Eighteen Senior Legion teams and 17 Junior Legion teams returned from the pandemic to play last summer, while 16 Senior Legion clubs and 21 Junior Legion teams competed in 2019.
“That COVID year obviously didn’t help,” Morris said. “We lost not only some interest, but that momentum you might have from your high school season.”
This year’s Senior and Junior Legion teams are divided into North and South divisions, down from as many as five zones that represented the state more than a decade ago.
The Senior Legion North Division will consist of defending state champion Quirk Motor City of Bangor, Bangor Comrades, Central Maine of Fairfield, Hermon Hawks, Queen City Athletic Riverdogs of Hampden, Sebasticook of the Newport-Pittsfield area, Tidewater Oil of Belfast and the Trenton Acadians.
The South Division has Augusta-Capital Area, Bessey Motors of South Paris, Erskine (Charlie’s Family of Dealerships) of South China, Franklin County Flyers of Farmington, Skowhegan, Topsham, Ware-Butler Eagles of Messalonskee (Oakland) and Ware-Butler of Mt. Abram (Salem).
The Junior Legion North Division is made up of the Bangor Cadets, Downeast Storm of Calais, Hampden Riverhawks, Machias Post 9, Motor City/Brewer and the Trenton Acadians.
The South Division will have Augusta, Fairfield, Franklin County, Messalonskee of Oakland, Tidewater Oil of Belfast and Topsham.
The regular-season schedules also have been condensed. Senior Legion teams have begun a five-week, 14-game schedule of single seven-inning games to be played on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings, leading to an eight-team, double-elimination tournament on July 24-28 at Husson University in Bangor.
Junior Legion games will be played on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, also leading to a state tournament at a yet-to-be determined location.
The condensed schedules are designed to allow players more time for other sports, activities and jobs while also leaving additional time for baseball players interested in travel team opportunities on the weekend or for the Legion teams to schedule additional games.
“Some teams are traveling and some teams are staying home and playing other games,” Morris said.
Even scheduling games on the weekends against in-state foes isn’t as easy as just calling another coach.
Bangor, for instance, has games scheduled for the next two weekends, but beyond that he’s still searching for opponents.
“Right now we’re having a hard time getting teams to commit with the high gas prices,” he said. “You just try to schedule as many games as you can, so we have the three during the week and then we and other teams are going to try to schedule games on the weekend with southern teams and local teams, too. I think we’ve got a decent schedule. We’ll see how it goes.”