There’s a plan for Legion-ish baseball

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 10, 2020

By Mike London

SALISBURY — On May 29, 1961, six Rowan posts joined forces to put a team known as Rowan County American Legion baseball on the field for the first time at Newman Park.

Bob Rusher was the coach. Jack Safley was the team manager. Dale Lefler fired the first pitch. Shortstop Bucky Beaver took the first swings for Rowan County in the bottom of the first against visiting Davie County. Rowan trailed 3-0, but rallied for a 5-3 win. Lefler went the distance.

This season would’ve have been the 60th for Rowan County American Legion baseball, but it didn’t happen.

There is, however, a possibility that summer baseball will occur at Newman Park and other venues.

These games would not be Legion, but they would be Legion-ish.

“A Legion league without Legion,” is how Rowan County coach Jim Gantt describes it.

No Legion sponsorship. No official Legion help of any kind. North Carolina has shut down Legion baseball (and softball) for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phase 1 of a three-step plan to reopen North Carolina went into effect at 5 p.m. on Friday.

There’s cautious optimism that baseball can happen at some point in June.

There’s a meeting scheduled for May 30 to see where things stand. The hope is for teams to practice for a week or two — high school athletes haven’t played games since mid-March and will need practice — and start playing on June 15.

If that timetable isn’t feasible, the next possibility is practicing during the latter half of June, with games beginning on July 1. Everyone agrees July 1 is the drop-dead deadline on getting a league started this summer.

Coaches are excited. Players are more excited. Fans, who would probably pay $20 to watch a Tee-Ball game right now if they could, are the most excited of all.

Despite the excitement, there are no guarantees. Just blueprints and plans.

“A league has been established,” Gantt said. “Players have been contacted. (Assistant coaches) Adam Patterson and Seth Graham have done a great job of getting the word out to potential players, and the response we hoped for has been there. The high school coaches have been a big help. We’ll have enough guys to field a team. We’re getting the insurance lined up and getting the rules lined up. Everything is on the up and up.”

The new league that would include Rowan County, Kannapolis and Mocksville, among others, is known as NC3 American League Baseball.

Leaders include High Point’s Greg Suire and Eastern Randolph’s Seth Arrington.

Gantt said the goal is for 13 teams from the traditional Area 3 squads to play each other twice each, with no North or South divisional considerations. That would make a 24-game regular season.

As far as playoffs, that’s TBA. That contingent on when they’re able to start the regular season.

The umpires would be the same guys that you’re used to seeing — and yelling at — at Legion games.

The new Legion pitch-count rules would not be altered, but Gantt said single games would return to a nine-inning format, with a provision for seven-inning doubleheaders. There probably would be no 10-run rule for games scheduled for seven innings. The courtesy runner and re-entry rules that you see in high school would be jettisoned, great news for Legion purists.

Rosters could include as many as 25 players, which should mean enough pitchers to handle the stringent pitch counts.

With Legion out of the picture for this summer, there are obstacles to hurdle as far as finances and ballparks, but Gantt believes it will happen.

He emphasizes that this isn’t some sort of anti-Legion movement. It’s strictly a save-baseball thing.

“We’re not trying to put anyone’s health in jeopardy, we’re just trying to play baseball and trying to provide a place for guys to play baseball,” Gantt said. “We want to keep baseball alive this summer because if you have a summer without baseball,  it’s going to really hurt the interest. We’re trying to keep kids involved in basbeball and not lose them to other things. That’s why Major League Baseball is trying so hard to have some kind of season, even if it’s only 30 games. If you take a year off, you’re going to lose a lot of fans.”

Because he’s also the head baseball coach of Catawba College and subject to NCAA recruiting restrictions, Gantt can’t talk face-to-face to high school players right now, but Patterson has handled a lot of the leg work.

“This is going to be Legion without the name and Legion without the funding,” Gantt said. “But we hope people will come out and watch the games. If everybody buys a hot dog, we can pay the umpires and we can make it work.”

This is a stop-gap, one-year thing.

Gantt’s fondest hope is to see everyone playing American Legion ball again next summer, playing with Legion patches and playing for Legion posts and veterans, the whole nine yards.

“Sports are important to people’s lives,” Gantt said. “We’ll do everything we can to give guys a chance to play.”