Going all the way back to my playing days in the mid-1960s, I've had a fondness for the American Legion Baseball program.
As a player, of course. But also as a manager and a league officer for a number of years. I've always considered it to be an essential program for York-area boys who enjoy playing baseball during the summer. But now I worry about its future.
How competitive can the league be, I can't help but wonder, if the players on the best high school team in the state -- that would be West York -- for the last two years aren't playing in it. I spoke to the father of one of those West York players, and he confirmed that no West York player, including his own son, participated in Legion baseball this summer. I'll take his word for it.
Did they not play baseball at all? No, that's not the case. But those who did play apparently participated in summer travel leagues instead of Legion baseball. The reason for that could've been that there was no Legion team situated within the West York Area School District this summer. It should've been Shiloh, but that team folded.
Part of the problem at Shiloh, I'm told, is internal. Part of it was a lack of commitment by players. Some of it -- a large part of it, I suspect -- has to do with the scheduling of state high school baseball playoffs so that they overlap the first three weeks of the Legion season.
Worse, the York-Adams American Legion schedule starts before Memorial Day and must be completed within about six weeks -- say, the second week of July or thereabouts. And that includes rainouts, all-star games and make-up contests. That doesn't leave much time for a state championship high school team to play 15 Legion games, followed by league and state Legion playoffs by the end of July.
So the players on the West York High School state title baseball team -- two years running -- had no Legion team on which they could play (as a team) this summer. The Shiloh team completed just seven games in the 2012 Legion season.
Sure, they could've played Legion baseball, but only as individuals traveling to the Legion team situated closest (in actual miles) to their home. For some, that might have been York (City). For some, perhaps Dover. For some, maybe Spring Grove. Apparently none of them chose that route. Instead they played in a travel league.
Which might have been just fine for them as players. Maybe the competition was as good as Legion baseball. Maybe it was better. But it's just awful for the Legion program. And it certainly lowers the level of competition when a dozen or so of the most talented players in York County aren't participating -- for whatever reason.
I don't know what the answer is. None of this seemed to be a problem when I played Legion baseball 50 years ago. Maybe that's because we never -- that I can remember -- had a state high school championship team from York County back in the day. So maybe there weren't the scheduling conflicts that seem to exist today. The most serious conflict with Legion baseball in those days were family vacations.
And back then, our "traveling" teams were actually the teams in the Central and Susquehanna leagues, where talented high school players signed on in the hope of playing six or seven baseball games a week, including holidays and weekends.
For three straight years, I played as many as 60 baseball games each summer. And I loved it.
Sure there were occasional conflicts of schedule, but not many. And when there was one, everyone knew Legion came first during the Legion season. And that was that.
One thing seems clear: the PIAA isn't going to change its baseball schedule to accommodate Legion baseball. And it's just as certain that Legion baseball isn't going to alter its playing schedule to accommodate the high school program.
And even if one of them did, it doesn't mean much will change with the introduction in recent years of travel teams and weekend tournaments that compete directly with the local leagues and the Legion program.
Like I said, I've always been a huge fan of the Legion program. In my eyes it matters. It has community value. It's good for baseball. But only if enough people think that's true and they do the work necessary to keep it going.
Is it dying? I hope not. Ask me again in four or five years. We'll know better then.
Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Thurs days. E-mail: lhick firstname.lastname@example.org.