American Legion baseball trying to avoid hospice
Retif Oil’s Brady Williamson peeks toward first base to see if Deanie’s Seafood second baseman Spencer Veit will complete a double play during first-round play in the First District American Legion baseball tournament on July 15 at Kirsch-Rooney Stadium. Four teams will advance from the local tournament to the Louisiana Legion Tournament this weekend at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Photo by Ron Brocato | CLARION HERALD
Once considered the sports capital of the South, New Orleans has lost some of the staple events that earned the Crescent City that moniker. Interest has moved into other areas of entertainment.
This is the city that gave birth to professional boxing. Except for sporadic promotions of competition that hardly resembles fighting under the Marquis of Queensbury rules, boxing as we knew it is dead in this city.
No more St. Mary’s gym, Curley’s Neutral Corner, the Municipal Auditorium, the Coliseum Arena where the likes of Joe Brown, the Docusens, Willie Pastrano and Ralph Dupas plied their trade to packed houses and ringsides filled with enthusiastic media.
At one time, the greater metro area boasted seven thoroughbred racing tracks.
Few people now know that Metairie Cemetery was a race track, or that Lafreniere Park was once Jefferson Downs, or that part of the plot on which Tad Gormley Stadium and Roosevelt Mall are located once thrived as City Park’s race course.
It now has one that survives thanks to the addition of slot machines and the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Yachting, a third fan favorite, has been reduced to small club regattas, largely because of the yacht club’s location in or near the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico and the lack of coverage of yachting events.
Seniors love to recall the Golden Era of Prep Sports at a time before the New Orleans Saints, when the city’s three newspapers (the New Orleans States, Item and Times-Picayune) competed against each other for news stories as hard as the schools did against each other.
Those days are gone, as are the neighborhoods of which families had four things that they could count on – a church, a grocery store, a movie theater and a playground. And all were within walking distance.
Another local tradition seems to be headed for the hollow – American Legion baseball.
Although the men of the Legion work hard to keep the storied league alive, it seems to be a hospice candidate. And, to their chagrin, four high school baseball coaches competing in last week’s First District playoffs agree wholeheartedly that there are elements hastening the demise of the summer sport.
Have team, will travel
Two factors have played a large part in the summer league’s downward spiral: all-star travel teams from around the state and the lack of newspaper coverage the sport once enjoyed.
According to Sidney Parfait, Commissioner of the First District American Legion Baseball and coordinator of the local tournament, there are just 35 schools in Louisiana that field Legion teams. There were more than 100 at one time. New Orleans once had two districts. It now has one.
There were enough districts competing that just two from each region qualified for the state tournament. The number is now four.
“Parents pay $1,800 to $3,500 for their kid to play on travel teams,” Parfait said. As a result, “those teams killed Legion baseball in Lake Charles, Alexandria, Monroe, Houma and Baton Rouge. We’re trying to start a Junior Legion program for pre-16-year-olds, but have not gotten much interest.”
Parfait said that some public and small school coaches contacted him about fielding a team but backed off because they don’t feel their kids can compete against the Jesuits, Brother Martins, Rummels, Shaws and Holy Crosses.
Little bang for buck
The local coaches see the travel teams and media apathy as a detriment to the development of their athletes and their ability to solicit corporate sponsorships.
“The sponsor wants to know what he’s getting for his money,” said Mark Wisniewski, who coaches the Brother Martin-based team sponsored by Peake BMW. “Coaches on travel teams tell kids they’ll get more exposure by playing for them. And there is no local coverage. I called in our boxes (scores and highlights) to the newspaper and half the time they don’t run them, so I stopped calling them in.”
Jesuit-based Retif Oil coach Joey Latino added, “People are still interested in Legion ball, but unless they are the kids’ parents or go to the schools’ websites, they don’t know when the games are. The newspaper used to have stories on games that were coming up with photos of the players. They ran standings weekly.”
In fairness, The Times-Picayune (soon to be the “Part-Time” Picayune) assigned an excellent part-time writer, Pat Mashburn, to cover last week’s district tournament. Perhaps because of its early deadline, the T-P did not run box scores on its agate page.
Nick Monica, the coach of Deanie’s Seafood and Archbishop Rummel, said it’s difficult to keep his players active in Legion ball in the summer. “The seniors think travel ball is better for them,” he said. “It’s tough for a coach to tell a kid Legion ball is getting them ready for next year when the season is 10 months away. And it’s tough to get a kid to commit to play baseball until he can’t play anymore.”
The Archbishop Shaw-based Refuel coach Doug Faust said he simply tells his players, “If you want to travel, do it around the Legion schedule if you want to play prep next season. Parents think travel teams will get them noticed, and that’s not necessarily true.”
American Legion in New Orleans was so much a part of a young baseball player’s development, the metro area had two districts.
Second District consisted of teams from Archbishop Rummel, Archbishop Shaw, Destrehan, Hahnville, St. Charles Catholic, John Ehret and East and West Jefferson.
No longer hot news
As an alumnus of the T-P organization, it saddens me to see local coverage neglected by the whims of the sports editors rather than the interest of their readers.
When I began at the States-Item both we and the T-P had the resources to cover all schools. And, although we writers shared desks with our T-P counterparts at the old building on Lafayette Square, we competed against each other.
And if a game extended past the T-P’s 11:30 p.m. deadline, readers could find the full story in the States-Item sports section (with photos) that afternoon. They did not have to go to a website to ferret it out.
Of course, there were no websites in the 1960, but I don’t believe readers’ attitudes are any different today than they were then. Not in this town.
The 2012 Legion season will resume this weekend in Lafayette with the start of the state tournament. The Mid-South Regional Tournament will return to Kirsch-Rooney Stadium on Aug. 9.
The participants will take the Legion oath of sportsmanship and continue to perform with drive and enthusiasm. But few people will read about it. They may have to find it on a remote website.