Playing summer baseball is almost a rite of passage for high-school athletes.
Players mature on the field and at the plate as they prepare themselves for the next prep season.
In the recent past, players had two options for summer play: American Legion baseball for the Oakville, Crestwood, Anheuser Busch and Lemay clubs, or teams like Johnny Mac, which is a member of the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association — SLABA.
Yet years from now, 2009 may be viewed as the turning point for summer baseball programs, with Crestwood failing to field a senior squad this season. Lemay and Anheuser Busch shut down their freshman, junior and senior squads for the season, and possibly forever.
Ed Kopff, who coached the Crestwood senior team last season, acknowledged Post 777 just didn’t have enough players to field a team.
“We tried to pull everybody together, but we just couldn’t pull it off,” Kopff said. “I don’t think that it’s the economy, but rather the options that are available to kids. They now have Legion, SLABA, select clubs as well as the high school teams. I think that for some reason it’s hitting the south part of the district, and it quite possibly could be a trend.”
The Lemay situation may result in Post 162 never fielding a team again, according to Matt Boyer of the Oakville American Legion baseball team.
“Once you fold a program — a whole program — it’s hard to come back,” Boyer said. “Now in Crestwood’s case, they do have a freshman and JV program, so they do have something to build off of and I do look for them to be back next year. But I would be hard-pressed to believe that Lemay would be back next year.
“In the areas that they draw from — Lemay, Bayless and Hancock — the programs there are not as strong as the ones further down in south county. I just don’t think that a lot of their kids think about playing summer baseball, so their drawing power might have hurt them as far as getting kids out.”
Over the past couple of years, Boyer noted the Oakville and Lemay clubs were competing for the same players, which over the long haul hurt both programs.
“We’re out there competing for the same kids, and when Lemay came into play five or six years ago, it took half of my territory,” Boyer said. “So we were both struggling to put out a competitive team. But I think that the word will get around by next year and for us we’ll see more players and a different caliber of player back out playing for the team.”
So where exactly are the rest of the players going?
Some have gone to high school teams like the club that played at Oakville over the past couple years, but folded this season. Lutheran South has fielded a high school team, but it appears most are opting for such year-round select teams as the St. Louis Pirates and the Rawlings Prospects, who travel throughout the country to get their players exposure to college and professional scouts.
“The dynamics of summer baseball have changed quite a bit since I played at Oakville in the late ’80s,” Oakville Senior High School head baseball coach Rich Sturm said. “Back then you had three choices. You played American Legion, Johnny Mac or the Affton league. But in the last 10 to 15 years, you see these baseball academies pop up, which then field their own teams.”
Jim Muskopf of Johnny Mac has yet to see many of his players jump to the select programs, but he understands the problem the American Legion clubs are experiencing. Muskopf was one of the founders of SLABA in the 1980s.
“The folding of the Legion teams is not a surprise because you’ve got four teams that are pretty much located in one attendance area,” Muskopf said. “What is affecting us are the select travel teams that travel all year long. But to be honest, I don’t know how parents can afford all the travel that these select teams are doing.”
The Oakville Legion program hopes keeping its freshman and junior teams strong will help feed the senior team.
“The kids that are freshman, sophomores and juniors are the ones that we’re wanting to get to know about our program,” Boyer said. “But next year is going to put some of these high school teams back onto a level playing field with us because the 25-day rule is going to come into play with them, where a high school coach can’t have more than 25 days of contact with their players over the summer.
“So some of these high school coaches are not going to be able to coach their teams over the summer. I think that will help put some kids back into the Legion program.”