BY JEFF FALK
Better than it has been. Not as good as it could be.
That statement pretty much sums up the level of play in the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League this summer.
As a whole, the local circuit is more competitive than it has been in recent years, thanks to an infusion of older talent. But the league continues to be plagued by non-participation caused partly by what quickly is becoming known as “the dreaded traveling baseball phenomenon’.
There’s one thing the coaches around the circuit can agree upon – the Lebanon County American Legion Baseball League should be as good as it could be.
“I think it’s more competitive in the league this year because of the kids who have come back to legion ball,” said Myerstown manager Johnny Mentzer. “We haven’t had that in a while. I’d be lying if I said I’d rather have a guy like (shortstop) Zach Hostetter for one year instead of three.”
AAU baseball or ‘travel ball’ like Elite Baseball in Mount Joy is a pay-for-play endeavor that affords its teenaged customers the opportunity to play in front of college coaches and scouts looking to stock their rosters. And while it has helped many local baseball players take their games to the next level, it has also taken talented competitors out of the local circuit.
“If it weren’t for travel ball, I’d have some depth,” said Campbelltown head coach Tim Morgan. “There’s like five or six guys who aren’t here all the time. It does absolutely affect the league. But I think things are finally starting to change.”
“We’ve lost a lot of our talent pool to travel ball,” said Mentzer. “If I think back to ’04 when I was playing, all the high-level baseball talent, they played legion ball all the way through. I’d say it’s about six years that this whole travel ball thing has come around. But I definitely think for the kids who have the talent it’s a good exposure thing.”
For varying reasons, four members of www.lebanonsportsbuzz.com’s 2012 all-Lebanon County scholastic baseball team – Logan Fullmer, Dan Black and Galen Rader of Cedar Crest, and Matt Kern of Lebanon Catholic – are not competing in the Lebanon County American Legion League this summer. Some of those guys have never played in the league.
“You’re exactly right,” said Mentzer. “There’s top-notch varsity kids from Cedar Crest who haven’t played in the league. It might be a vicious cycle where it’s (travel ball) not going away anytime soon. As legion teams, we have to adapt.”
“If everybody was out,” said Fredericksburg manager Jim McKinney, “if all the kids who could come out did, I imagine the level of play in the league could be higher. But I have as talented a team as I’ve ever had. I’d rather have kids who want to play.”
“It’s a shame the way it is,” said Morgan. “This legion league used to be good.”
This trend of all the top players locally not playing in the Lebanon County American Legion league affects some teams more than others. Lebanon/Fifth Ward, Campbelltown, Richland and Myerstown seem to be hit the hardest.
Richland, for example, would certainly welcome Fullmer, Black, Rader and Mathis to its fold, all players who reside in its territory. This season Lyle Krall’s summer program has had to double-roster seven 14- and 15-year-olds just to field a team.
“There’s kids from Lebanon Catholic who should be here, who could help us,” said Fifth Ward head coach Tony McDonnell. “I think there’s some talent out there in the city. But I don’t know what it is.”
“Boy, not that I know of,” said McKinney when asked if there were any players not playing who could help his program. “There’s always pay-to-play ball. That hurts all of legion baseball.”
“From what I heard, Kern would be in our area,” said Mentzer. “I got Zach Hostetter this year, which is a plus. I think these guys are beginning to understand that it’s more fun to play your last year of legion, and that legion ball is fun.”
Another casualty that travel baseball has claimed is the state’s American Legion all-star process. It’s been two years since legion coaches have nominated their top players to work-out in front of college and professional scouts and coaches.
“I watch a lot of this travel crap,” said Morgan. “There’s a lot of bickering and fighting going on. But as a player, if you make it into regionals in legion you get exposure. There’s all kinds of college guys there.”
“The perfect example of where we’re at as a league is when we get to regionals,” said Mentzer. “It’s a big discrepancy in talent. We’re not competing because the talent isn’t there.”
Next time around, local players who have gone through the travel process, secured a college future and have come back to the Lebanon County American Legion baseball league.