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American Legion baseball in Minnesota faces challenge

  • July 10, 2014 - 12:03 AM

Minnesota has a long, proud history in American Legion baseball, winning five national titles, including three since 1999.

But some of the state’s top baseball officials fear that tradition could be in jeopardy since the proliferation of elite traveling programs in the past decade. Minnesota, following a national trend, has about a dozen such programs that provide top teenage players with intensive, specialized and close to year-round training.

Gophers coach John Anderson said players choosing elite travel ball is already “having an impact on Legion baseball.’’

Mike Perry, the state’s Legion baseball director, said Minnesota’s participation numbers have remained consistently strong. But he admits the elite teams already have “hurt a little here and there.’’

One of those places is Red Wing, which last year lost two NCAA Division I players — Ryan Boldt and Ty Buck — to Ohio elite programs during the summer. This summer, another top player, Michael Bigelbach, has elected to focus on hockey.

“It’s nice to see those kids succeeding,’’ Red Wing Legion manager Justin Plein said. “But it does hurt. Those guys could really help out.’’

Twins President Dave St. Peter views elite teams as a threat to baseball’s long-standing tradition of being a sport for the masses, calling it “class warfare’’ that “creates another gap, not in talent but in access.’’

Adam Barta, owner of the Minnesota Blizzard elite program, compares what’s happening in baseball with top prospects to hockey players leaving their high school teams early for juniors or national training.

“Typically, playing on a club, or elite team, your chances of getting recruited are much higher because of the players you’re playing with,’’ Barta said.

Reid Mahon, a former Gopher who works with pitchers for the Minnesota Millers elite program, said such opportunities make up for the inherent advantage players from warm-weather climates have.

“I think [elite training is] a good thing to help kids from the North to raise their level of play,’’ Mahon said.

But St. Peter and Anderson said they worry what might happen to the state’s Legion program in the next decade.

“Legion baseball has a great tradition in this state,’’ St. Peter said. “But I don’t know if that’s here to stay, or not.’’

Dennis Brackin

© 2014 Star Tribune