American Legion baseball: Gantt rolls toward 600th Legion win

Published 12:01 am Thursday, June 30, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY —  It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Rowan County American Legion head coach Jim Gantt is preparing for a trip to Mooresville.

Memories are always a big part of baseball. Today is no exception.

Twenty summers ago, very early in Gantt’s tenure as the program’s head coach, Rowan County dropped a tight, tense one at Mooresville to a slick lefty named Brent Frye.

That 2002 Rowan County team won its first 15 games, lost 2-1 at Mooresville, then won 28 games in a row.

A 43-2 season ended abruptly, painfully on a steam-bath afternoon in Shelby with a 3-2 Southeast Regional loss to Dothan, the Alabama state champs. They used a pool-play format in the regional that season. If the format is double-elimination, maybe Rowan wins the regional — and goes on to win the World Series. Gantt has always maintained that would’ve been the case. He still doesn’t believe anyone could have beaten Rowan twice.

The 2002 Rowan club had more horses than the Preakness. Every member of the standard lineup — shortstop Cal Hayes Jr., center fielder Nick Lefko, DH/pitcher Spencer Steedley, catcher Drew Davis, right fielder Aaron Rimer, left fielder Jimbo Davis, third baseman Bryan Graham, first baseman Bobby Parnell and second baseman Michael Gegorek — batted over .300 in an era when it was no small feat to hit .300. Hayes actually hit .402 for a team that breezed to the state championship. Hayes and Lefko combined for 63 steals and 130 runs. That team had pop, with 29 homers and 96 doubles.

The eight-deep pitching staff headed by Julian Sides (9-0, 1.98 ERA), Steedley (6-1, 2.65), Patrick Adams (5-0, 1.90), Jacob Cooper (9-1, 2.80) and Phillip Goodman (9-0, 1.95) was nearly impossible to beat because it was aided by relentless run support and top-notch glove work.

Forty-five games: 43 wins and two one-run losses. Six players who were Division I signees and/or draft picks. Several more who were major stars for Catawba.

The best ever?  A lot of people think so.

Two more things to remember about how big American Legion ball was locally in 2002.

First, when Hayes was drafted in the third round by the St. Louis Cardinals in June, he put a $400,000 signing bonus on hold and told the Cardinals they’d have to wait until the Legion season was over before he reported. Second, Seth Waller was batting .548 (23-for-42) when Rowan made the tough decision to cut him because there was nowhere to play him.

Twenty years later much has changed. There’s artificial turf at Newman Park now. The old grandstand is gone. The Pinkie dogs are gone. Howard Platt is gone.

But American Legion baseball manages to soldier on in Salisbury. The one constant immune to the ravages of time is Gantt, who took over from Jim DeHart in 2001.

Gantt will reach 600 official Rowan County American Legion victories soon. His record entering Wednesday’s game was 598-211. That’s not counting the 23-8 record he logged in 2020 when Rowan County had no choice but to play “NC3 baseball” after American Legion bowed out of the picture in the midst of the COVID pandemic.

Rowan County’s roster didn’t look overly promising when this season began. The only sure things were pitcher Casey Gouge and slugger Aiden Schenck.

Gantt, a stern-looking man with a heart of gold, stoically went to work as he always does. Along with assistants Seth Graham, Adam Patterson and Brett Graham, Gantt embraced the opportunity to coach a full season for the first time since 2019.

“The way you have to look at it is that we had 22 guys come out here who really wanted to play baseball this summer and they wanted to get better at baseball,” Gantt said. “You do everything you can to give people like that the best possible experience because they gave up summer trips and a lot of other things to be out here. Want-to is everything in baseball, and these guys wanted to play. They’ve worked hard at it.  They’ve prepared hard to win ballgames. Your record, the wins and losses — that all depends on who you play. So I really don’t know how good we are, but I do know we’ve gotten a lot better.”

Getting former South Rowan standout Jackson Deal after his freshman season at Methodist University was huge. He had a recent game with five hits and five RBIs, and he’s been a steady force as the center fielder and No. 2 hitter. Other programs released Cole Johnson, who had his heart set on playing for Gantt and Rowan County, and he’s been super at shortstop and at getting on base as the lead-off man.

“That’s two guys with some ability and with pleasant personalities,” Gantt said. “They’ve helped us. They’ve been a lot of fun to coach.”

Schenck, a strong lefty hitter who hopes to walk on to the team at Western Carolina, has hit with authority, as expected. He’s made his biggest strides on defense this summer. He’s made some surprising plays in left field.

The other two guys who hit in the middle of the lineup have been serious surprises. Zach McNeely, usually the right fielder, didn’t start for West Rowan, while Blake Hill, who handles third base, rarely got at-bats for a loaded East Rowan team. They have blossomed this summer playing every day and in warm weather.

Hill probably has been Rowan’s most consistent hitter. He owns a long hitting streak and has been good for an RBI every game.

“Potential is a very real thing, and those two have potential — they’ve got some tools,” Gantt said. “All we’ve done as a coaching staff is try to build their confidence. The rest of it has been up to the players. They’ve done everything we could have asked.”

Rowan’s two new catchers — Matt Connolly and Cameron Burleyson — have been solid handling the pitching staff and producing timely hits.

“Both of them are better than most of the catchers we’ve played against,” Gantt said. “That’s been an advantage.”

Gouge has proven to be a skilled all-round player, slashing line drives and playing a smooth first base when he’s not pitching. Gantt said the Catawba recruit’s defense has been a pleasant surprise.

Rowan cut Luke Graham, in a way, last season, sending him down to Junior Legion ball, but he’s responded in the best possible way. He’s become a stellar defensive second baseman and is a dependable hitter in the bottom third of the batting order.

“Sometimes a guy doesn’t make the team and he doesn’t want to come back,” Gantt said. “He not only came back, he’s showing us that he’s improved tremendously.”

Both Burton brothers, Zander and Drew, have had their moments. Zander swings the bat well and pitched five shutout innings against Cleveland County on Sunday. Drew has been a solid pitching option all summer.

McCall Henderson, who played jayvee ball for East, is frequently the DH and has provided lefty power.

Elijah Palmer’s role is usually as an outfield defensive replacement when McNeely moves to the infield or Schenck goes to the mound.

Trey Johnson, a North Rowan player, made the final roster mostly because of his speed. He’s the backup shortstop and he could decide some playoff games as a pinch-runner.

Pitching figured to be Rowan’s biggest issue.

West Rowan graduates Gouge (6-0) and  Jake Blevins (5-1) have been outstanding as the 1 and 2 pitchers.

Gouge usually dominates, while Blevins gets quick. weak-contact outs. Once Blevins gets through the first inning, he usually rolls.

Alex Hagler and Nate Green, unknown commodities from West Rowan, have stepped forward to provide many quality innings.

Casey Crawford, a big lefty from Carson, certainly looks the part of an ace. He’s been very good, at times. For him, it’s just a matter of throwing more strikes. He’s got a future.

“First day of practice, we asked who could pitch and 17 hands went up,” Gantt said with a laugh. “We figured no way that was going to happen, but it just about has. A lot of guys have worked hard on their pitching mechanics. We’ve been able to piece it together by committee.”

Lineup regulars such as Schenck, Connolly, Graham, Henderson and Cole Johnson have contributed valuable relief innings.

Rowan is a surprising 23-7 and has a 7-0 division record. Rowan still has two to play with Kannapolis (July 1 and 3), its chief rival for supremacy in the Southern Division of Area III.

Kannapolis has one league loss.

“The Kannapolis games are big because of the the way the standings are, but every division game is equally big,” Gantt said. “They all count the same. We’ll see where we stand at the end of the regular season.”

One of Gantt’s least favorite days of the summer occurred a few days go. Rowan had to cut down from 22 to the 18-man limit. The playoffs start July 8.

The cuts were Malakie Harris, Joseph Hartman, Gavin Byrd and Maverick Walters, a promising Gray Stone Day rising freshman.

“We hated to cut any of those guys because they came out here this summer wanting to play baseball for Rowan County,” Gantt said. “It’s just the Legion rules. We would loved to have kept all of them. All of them helped us.”