Lack of players forces Legion to suspend baseball

 
 
Posted7/22/2018 7:00 AM
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  • This June 5, 2014 photo shows, Lloyd Meyer, American Legion baseball in Arlington Height,  Ill., poses speaks during an interview in Arlington Heights, Ill. When Meyer began coaching the American Legion baseball program in Arlington in late 1940s, he thought that the program would outlive him. Meyer, who is 88, is still alive. But his beloved Legion team took a huge step toward ending its run. On July 9, 2018, the Arlington Legion Post 208 team suspended operations for the 2018 season. The team, can't field enough players to continue. (Bob Chwedyk/Daily Herald, via AP)

    This June 5, 2014 photo shows, Lloyd Meyer, American Legion baseball in Arlington Height, Ill., poses speaks during an interview in Arlington Heights, Ill. When Meyer began coaching the American Legion baseball program in Arlington in late 1940s, he thought that the program would outlive him. Meyer, who is 88, is still alive. But his beloved Legion team took a huge step toward ending its run. On July 9, 2018, the Arlington Legion Post 208 team suspended operations for the 2018 season. The team, can't field enough players to continue. (Bob Chwedyk/Daily Herald, via AP) Associated Press

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- When Lloyd Meyer began coaching the American Legion baseball program in Arlington Heights in late 1940s, he thought that the program would outlive him.

Meyer, who is 88, is thankfully still alive. But his beloved Legion team took a huge step toward ending its run.

On July 9, the Arlington Legion Post 208 team suspended operations for the 2018 season. The team, which has won 8 state championships and finished second in the nation in 1976, can't field enough players to continue.

"It is disappointing," Meyer said. "But I look back and I say I was blessed. It was a strong program with strong players and families."

Dennis Drolet, who was a member of that 1976 team and took over the reins as head coach 12 years ago, said it was a difficult decision.

"We had a couple weeks of noodling on it," Drolet said. "We didn't want to be anything short of being the best we can be. We didn't want to embarrass the kids, the program or the Legion."

Drolet said that 11 years ago they had 37 players try out for the team. This season it was 18.

"We have been struggling since Day 1 for kids," Drolet said. "We have kids who can't drive on our team. That's 15-year olds playing against 17-, 18- and 19-year olds.

"Every game is a scramble. We need 35 innings of pitching for tournaments and we don't have the arms. It is not just us. Everyone is in this predicament."

Arlington has been the center of Legion baseball in Cook County since it started its program in the 1940s. It grew under the guidance of Lloyd Meyer who took over in 1950. The 88-year old Meyer, who still helps with coaching, said he saw the change coming a few years ago.

"It is a sign of the times and you have to roll with the punches," Meyer said. "There are many factors, but we could not get the commitments we needed to continue."

Drolet said that athletes had three options to play baseball this summer in Arlington Heights.

"There was a house baseball league, high school and Legion," Drolet said. "And we worked well with the area high school coaches to get players."

Because of that, Drolet and Meyer said they had to change their tactics to draw players.

"Lloyd and I had to switch our philosophy," said Drolet, who along with Meyer is an unpaid volunteer.

"We asked the players to play with us during the week and their travel team on weekends. Of the 16 kids we had, 7 were committed to Legion. For every game we were scratching for players and pitching."

Nationally, the American Legion program began in 1926. It has grown to programs in nearly all 50 states and culminates with a national championship tournament hosted in Shelby, North Carolina, and carried live on ESPN2.

Edwardsville Post 199 is the last Illinois team to win the American Legion World Series, which it did in 1998.

With this month's induction ceremonies, three more former American Legion Baseball players -- Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome -- will give Legion baseball 77 members in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

According to a 2017 report by The Washington Post, Legion baseball lost 25 percent of its teams nationwide over the past 10 seasons. And some states, according to figures in that report provided by American Legion baseball, lost nearly 80 percent of their teams in that same period.

Mount Prospect, which has one of two teams remaining in Cook County, will be the representative to the state tournament in Alton at the end of this month. Northbrook, a team Mount Prospect defeated in all three of their meetings this season, was forced to close its program early this season due to conflicts with the Illinois High School Association and coaches of the Northbrook program.

That conflict, however, didn't affect Arlington, which suffered when players opted play summer ball for private club teams rather than the local American Legion team.

The growth of the travel baseball business began the decline for American Legion baseball in Cook County. In 2011, there were 8 teams in Cook County (Arlington Heights, Mount Prospect, Northbrook, Palatine, Elk Grove, Skokie and two from Chicago). Now there are just four.

The issue is not just limited to Cook County. Lacrosse Post 52 in Wisconsin has also struggled for players this season and is experiencing many of the same issues.

"But when you can't get enough guys to go to go to a tournament, you might as well cancel the season," Meyer said. "We just couldn't get commitments."

No decision has been made for 2019, but Meyer is not optimistic.

"I am not saying we won't have a team next year, but it 90 percent certain," Meyer said. "It is not just worth it."

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Source: (Arlington Heights) Daily Herald, https://bit.ly/2KYpNsA

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Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com

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