It can’t be blamed on COVID-19.

American Legion baseball suffered a 17-team drop statewide from 2019 to 2021. This includes teams at all levels: Senior, Junior and Freshman. Missouri has registered 97 teams this year compared with 113 for 2019 and 2018.

Actually, make that 96 registered teams this year. New Haven Post 366, which fielded a Senior Legion team this year, backed out of Legion baseball late last week. New Haven was in the middle of its league season. The team has announced it will continue to play as an independent team, although some of the Ninth District programs are seeking other opponents now that New Haven is out. Nearly every league game for Post 366 this year was supposed to be in New Haven.

The “why” of this happening can be debated by those more familiar with the situation and the rules. 

With New Haven’s drop, the Ninth District is down to nine Senior Legion teams. New Haven did not have Junior or Freshman teams, and those divisions have six and nine teams, respectively.

There was a time where the Ninth District had many more teams. There were times when the Ninth District Tournament, run in a double-elimination format, required over a week to complete, with games every day and night.

Many Legion teams are the true descendants of the old town ball teams. They draw fans and have a good following in many areas. 

We’ve seen many storied programs stop fielding teams. In the Ninth District alone, programs which have ended in the past 30 years include C&H (Harvester Memorial), Daniel Boone, West, O’Fallon, Central, North Knights, Troy, Warrenton and St. Clair. I’m probably forgetting others. The biggest drop has come in St. Charles County.

Wentzville, which won the 1990 Senior Legion state title and fielded as many as two Senior teams in the past, only has a Freshman team this year.

So what’s happening?

There’s probably a variety of factors.

Young athletes are being driven into making athletic choices younger and younger now. They’re being asked to specialize in a sport or a couple of sports. The summer, which used to be the time to play summer sports with a week or so of camps for school sports, is being taken up by more training for other sports. Baseball players are being pushed into attending camps and contests for other sports. With competition strong for those rosters, players are choosing to focus on the other sports.

Club teams also have taken away from Legion baseball. I’m not talking about teams like the Midwest Rage, which plays the local Legion teams and has developed a reputation in the community. I’m talking about the big “factory” clubs.

There’s nothing wrong about them. There’s a market for them. They do a good job of training their players and getting exposure to college coaches. The Ninth District has one college showcase per year, but these teams are going to showcase events nearly every weekend in the summer.

Realistically, this happens in many sports, not just baseball. The big clubs do an amazing job of getting their kids’ names and abilities in front of college coaches. However, the general public never hears about them because they don’t do a good job of getting their kids’ names out there in the media.

Maybe you can blame the NCAA. Yes, I’ll kick the NCAA while it’s down. The NCAA has restricted recruiting to the point where coaches economically will go to a big club event rather than spend a trip to a high school game or tournament. It just makes more sense to go to a national qualifier or showcase where you can see dozens of kids across many age groups rather than go to a high school game to see maybe one player who might be recruited.

Thanks to the NCAA, most athletes don’t get recruited from high school. It’s club sports and college tryouts.

There’s plenty of time to prepare for college sports. If an athlete truly wants to play at the next level, there are openings. For example, East Central College always is looking for athletes for its teams. The same can be said for other regional colleges.

I don’t think it will happen, but it certainly would be great to see things go back to where the kids are allowed to be kids and play the sports which are in season. I know the traditional summer sports teams would love to see that happen.