Kroner: Group pitches in for comeback
Summer baseball locally has not yet struck out. Harry Rakers prefers to think of it as in a save situation.
A new pitch is being delivered.
Rakers’ involvement in baseball in the Champaign area goes back more than three decades. Urbana’s Gene Hoffman has been around the game for nearly 40 years. At Rantoul, Garry Smith’s coaching tenure has surpassed a quarter of a century.
They’ve seen changes such as declines in participation, both individually and overall teams. Last year, the Champaign American Legion Post 24 program — which can be traced back more than half a century (to 1958) — was inactive following the 2012 retirement of longtime coach Norlyn Loschen.
At the Little League level, there were 15 Twin City teams in 2013. In 1969, there were 44.
Rakers, Hoffman and Smith, as a three-member board of directors, hope to be part of a positive movement for the future, starting at the American Legion level.
Currently, when youth baseball players are too old for Little League (after their 12-year-old summer), there are few attractive options until they are 15 and can try out for a Junior Legion team. Some families — with money and the ability to spend weekends on the road — have children on travel teams, but that option is out of reach for many.
A Pony League team, for 13- and 14-year-olds, was sponsored through each of the local park districts, but the schedule was minimal and most of the opponents were from the area.
Rakers, Smith and Hoffman are teaming up to create a third level to the local American Legion baseball program. Two prep teams, specifically for players in the 13-14 age range, have been established for next summer.
“We hope to get them a broader and tougher schedule where they can improve more significantly and be more prepared going into high school,” Rakers said.
In addition, Champaign, Rantoul and Urbana also are joining forces to have two varsity (senior) Legion teams as well as two junior teams. There will be a maximum of 18 players per team.
“Several other (Legion) posts around, Mattoon and Danville, have started going with a younger program for kids not yet in high school,” Rakers said. “It’s a program to fill the gap, to serve as a feeder into the junior (Legion) program.”
Hoffman played high school and Legion baseball in Rantoul. He has remained active with the sport and has coached Urbana’s Legion team for six years.
“It’s disturbing to me that we haven’t adjusted and did the things we needed to do,” Hoffman said. “For a long time, we complained about it, but we never really addressed the issues.”
Besides the lack of competitive options for players in the 13- to 14-year-old age range, Hoffman has sensed a desire for the athletes to expand their horizons.
“Kids wanted to be on good teams and didn’t necessarily want to be handcuffed by playing with people in their own town,” he said.
As the men discussed possibilities, Rakers said, one was especially appealing. “We said, why not create a countywide program,” he said.
Rather than Champaign, Rantoul and Urbana trying to field teams with athletes from those towns as well as nearby communities, interested players will go through a one-day tryout process next month. In some cases, efforts will be made to keep players from the same area together — “friends who are the same age and similar talent levels can designate one or two players with whom they want to play,” Rakers said — which will help with transportation issues for those who are commuting.
“American Legion baseball is headed in the right direction with the prep division,” Smith said. “It’s a good opportunity for Legion baseball to continue in this area. If we get the players to buy back into Legion and take what we have to offer, it will be a good fit for everybody.”
One drawing card for Legion is the postseason series. Teams can enter at the district level with hopes of advancing to a division tournament and then a state tournament. For the senior teams, there’s an additional multi-state regional event in which that winner qualifies for the Legion World Series.
There is also a state series for the junior programs. Rakers is optimistic that one may eventually be created for the prep division, but for the foreseeable future those teams can compete in the state series with junior teams.
Rakers and Smith aren’t opposed to the travel teams, which are prevalent at many age levels, but they see distinct advantages of the Legion program.
“Because we have Legion teams all around us, we can play throughout the week and aren’t limited to playing on weekends,” Rakers said. “We can go to strong tournaments in Decatur, Mattoon, Danville or Peoria (on weekends) and come back without incurring motel costs. We won’t ask parents to have motel rooms every weekend, maybe once or twice during a season.”
Hoffman doesn’t expect an exodus from players currently on travel teams, but he is optimistic that the American Legion program can be considered as an alternative.
“We can introduce to kids coming up that Legion is a viable option at half the price,” Hoffman said. “One thing we preach is that you can get as many games (as with a travel team) and sleep in your own bed at night.”
Urbana native Randy Green — the president of the C-U Kiwanis Little League program the past four years — believes an attitude of cooperation is the best approach for the various area programs.
“My dream or hope is that all of the baseball entities around town, from the UI all the way down to park district T-ball, can work together for the betterment of youth baseball in our community,” Green said. “There’s a need for travel baseball for certain kids. There’s a place for Little League. There’s a place and need for all of them, and not competing against one another.”
Green serves in his volunteer position for one reason.
“I do this as payment for what others volunteered on my behalf when I was a kid (playing in Urbana’s Prairie League),” Green said. “It took a lot of volunteer hours of sweat and tears to allow me to enjoy Little League baseball.”
Rakers has no idea how many candidates will attend next month’s tryouts. He hopes everyone can be accommodated, in some form.
“It’s conceivable some kids could be cut,” Rakers said. “Any kids that are cut, we will work with park districts for them to have an opportunity where they can play summer baseball.”
The early feedback, Rakers said, has been favorable.
“Most people are pretty excited about this opportunity,” he said, “that kids will have a strong program to move into when they get out of Little League.”
For 2014, the setup calls for Rantoul Post 287 and Urbana Post 71 to field varsity (senior) Legion teams. Champaign Post 24 and Rantoul Post 287 will have junior Legion teams. Champaign Post 24 and Urbana Post 71 will be the hosts for the newly created prep teams, one of which Hoffman will coach.
“All six teams will have some players from Champaign, Urbana and Rantoul and a smattering of five or six other towns like St. Joe, Tolono, Gibson City and Fisher,” Rakers said.
Senior Legion teams plan to schedule at least 40 regular season games; the junior Legion teams expect to have 35-40 games, and the preps will start with 25-30.
“We hope we can build all of these programs together over the long term once people see the level they can participate in and do it at an affordable level,” Rakers said.
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.
Making a pitch
Teenage baseball players from Champaign County and southern Ford County interested in participating in the American Legion summer program are invited to tryouts next month. Coaches will pick teams for the 2014 season. There will be two senior teams chosen (ages 17, 18 and some 19), two junior teams (15-16) and two prep teams (13-14). A $150 deposit is required to try out and will be applied to the total cost ($275 for the senior and junior teams; $150 for the prep teams). Anyone not chosen for a team will have the money refunded.
OCT. 12 AT WABASH PARK, RANTOUL
Birthdays in 1995, 1996 10 a.m.-noon
Birthdays in 1997 Noon-2 p.m.
Birthdays in 1998 2-4 p.m.
Birthdays in 1999 4-6 p.m.
OCT. 13 AT ZAHND PARK, CHAMPAIGN
Birthdays 1999-June 2000 Noon-2 p.m.
Birthdays July 2000-April 2011 2-4 p.m.
Registration required in advance. Info at www.leaguelineup.com/post24.