A watershed summer for Legion baseball in McPherson

By Steve Sell
July 22, 2015

There was a time many years ago when it appeared American Legion baseball in McPherson was running on fumes and headed for extinction.

I’ve been through the good times and bad with the program in my nearly 40 years of covering it, starting at the beginning when Vance Carlson was the coach and many players from area towns gave it a McPherson County All-Star team feel. You had players like Brad Hill and the late Butch Ladd from Canton-Galva, and later the Durst brothers from Moundridge and the Biegert and Bengtson brothers from Lindsborg who starred.

But I’ve also been through years where the team would have to cancel games due to a lack of players and other years where it played before virtually empty crowds except for Moms and Dads.

Let’s face it. Baseball isn’t as popular with the young crowd as it was when I was a kid. Back in my formative days, baseball was at its pinnacle, while football and especially basketball had not peaked. There was no such thing as AAU basketball when I was a kid and traveling teams for any sport was an idea that was in the far-distant future.

Kids now have to LOVE baseball to play it in the summer. I know when I was growing up in my pre-teen days, we would play baseball every morning, head to practice in the afternoon or play league games before big crowds in the evening. When I was 12, my Kiwanis team made it to the Independence Little League Championship Series, which was a 2-out-of-3 affair that was carried by the local radio station and plastered above the fold on the sports pages of The Daily Reporter.

Before long, though, basketball and football started to become more and more dominant in youngster’s consciousness because of their faster pace and the “age of specialization” took over. There are many kids who now focus on just one sport and work at it year-around in order to get a full-ride college scholarship.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. It just shows the changing of the times and playing the sport that happens to be in season has all but disappeared. How many three-sport stars do you see in high school anymore? Most of the great athletes are good at one, maybe two, but very seldom three.

I have digressed. Getting back to my original thought, it has been refreshing to see that McPherson American Legion baseball is flourishing again. It started a few years back with the formation of the McPherson Baseball Association, which has proven to be a feeder program for both the Legion and high school. We are now seeing the benefits of the MBA, as these players have been together for several years now. It’s also a reason McPherson High advanced all the way to the Class 4A Division I state championship game in May and many of those players return next year.

Strong leadership and interest from the American Legion board has helped. It’s a stable organization and has the program back on sound footing. Also welcomed is the addition of Heath Gerstner as McPherson High coach, as he’s brought his boundless enthusiasm, positive outlook and love for the game to town and it’s been infectious. Kids like playing for him and it’s reflected in the won-loss record.

When the Legion program decided to go with two teams this year, I was a bit on the skeptical side, which is to be expected since I tend to look at things with a half-empty glass than a half-full. I knew the nucleus was there to have a good Senior team since most of those who played for last year’s Class A state championship team were back. But I wasn’t sure there was enough depth in the program to field a competitive Junior team.

As it turns out, the Juniors are one victory away from advancing to the Class A state championship game in Salina. With a win today over a very strong Paola team — many Tuesday were telling me it was the team to beat — McPherson would be in position to defend its title.

This is a watershed summer for Legion baseball and hopefully this success will continue for years to come. I’m hoping next week’s Class AAA State Tournament at Grant Complex will capture local fans’ fancy and the stands will be full. As we all know, when we do things in McPherson, we want them done right.