BY JEFF FALK
The most successful baseball players find ways to utilize every part of their beings. But apparently while travel baseball is played to satisfy the head, American Legion baseball is more about the heart and soul.
The level of play in the Lebanon County American Legion this summer has received an unexpected shot in the arm thanks to an infusion of some seasoned talent. And what brought the local players back into the fold were a certain sense of loyalty, friendship and a bit of sentimentality.
What took them away initially was a desire to continue playing baseball in college. But after they accomplished their goals, the locals were drawn back to home by their roots.
“Travel ball is not about a win or a loss,” said Zach Smith, an infielder with Fredericksburg. “It’s about playing in college and getting noticed. Legion baseball is more about the team concept and competition. And I like that.”
“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Campbelltown outfielder Preston Bare. “It was pointless to play travel ball this year. I wanted to stay close to home and play with my friends.”
AAU baseball or ‘travel ball’ is a relatively recent phenomenon on the local sports scene. Participants drop down cash to become part of a program that showcases players’ talents for college coaches and scouts.
To a man, the Lebanon County players who have gone through it swear by the process, because it has provided them with their desired results – the opportunity to play college baseball.
“I played for Elite Baseball in Mount Joy last summer and they do a really good job of talking to coaches and getting them to watch you play,” said Smith, who secured a partial athletic grant-in-aid to play at Division One Mount Saint Mary’s. “I guess they liked what they saw.”
“The travel team was a showcase for college coaches,” said Bare, who played for Campbelltown two summers ago. “I loved it. Our coaches would bring tons of colleges in. The games were competitive, but it wasn’t about winning.
“But I like not traveling during the summer,” continued Bare. “I can relax and play with my friends.”
Smith and Bare are just two current Lebanon County American Legion players who have gone through the travel-ball process and returned to the local summer circuit. The same can be said for Myerstown shortstop Zach Hostetter and Campbelltown infielder Mike Fuhrman, who are headed to Mount Saint Mary’s and Niagara University to play baseball, respectively.
Other players, like Campbelltown’s Josh Sollenberger, managed to play both.
“We have one or two players who have decided to play elite baseball,” said Sollenberger, a former member of the Keystone Nationals who’s headed to Division Three Elizabethtown College. “It’s important to do legion and travel ball. Travel ball helps you find college. That’s where you get recognized.”
“Well, Elite baseball costs a lot of money and I didn’t think I should play again,” said Smith. “All the kids on our team (Fredericksburg) played together two years ago. I talked to them about it and and I thought it would be fun to play one more year together. There’s no reason to play travel ball because I don’t need to play in front of college coaches any more because I’m committed.
“I was pretty much all in because I needed to play this summer to stay in shape,” Smith added.
But for every local travel player who has returned to the Lebanon County American Legion League, there’s one out there who didn’t. While the reasons are unclear, it may be that those players just never experienced the feeling of local summer baseball coursing through their veins.
“Yeah, it definitely would be better if they were here,” said Smith of some of his former teammates at Cedar Crest High School. “I wish we could get all of those guys out. It would be awesome.”
“This league has the potential to be a very good league,” said Sollenberger. “This team (Campbelltown) came together and we agreed to play legion.”
But it is what it is. Not unlike most circuits, the Lebanon County American Legion League is better than it has been, but not as good as it could be.
“The league’s good,” said Tyler Napierala, Annville’s top player. “It’s just how much effort people put into it. There’s talent in this league. We’ve got to show everyone we can compete.”
“Well, I think it (the league) actually has a lot of competition,” said Smith. “It has a lot of older kids who are talented.”
“We knew if we all played we’d have a pretty good team,” said Bare, who’s headed to Division One Longwood University in Virginia. “A lot of the kids weren’t playing last year. But a lot of the kids came back this year.”