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Legion Ball : Program Provides the Gateway to the Pros for Many of Today's Stars

July 31, 1986|BRIAN LANDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Tony Diaz remembers with a laugh how he happened to be recruited by Brigham Young University in 1976.

Then a catcher on Santa Monica's American Legion baseball team, Diaz was being interviewed by a Utah newspaperman after his selection as most inspirational player in the regional championships in Salt Lake City.

"He asked me what I wanted to do next and I said I wanted to go to BYU," recalled Diaz. "Actually, I meant I just wanted to go to the campus to visit a girlfriend, but he thought I meant I wanted to attend BYU."

Diaz, now the baseball coach at Oxnard High School, said publication of that misinterpretation was the reason he was recruited by BYU, where he played for two years and coached the junior varsity for two more.

'A Big Difference'

"I had played baseball in California my entire life. BYU had never heard of me. And they probably wouldn't have if it wasn't for Legion baseball.

"It made a big difference for me."

Since its inception July 17, 1925, in Millbank, S. D., American Legion baseball, now 2,600 teams strong nationally, has made a big difference to many of the boys of summer.

"We give kids a chance to continue playing and developing," said Mel Swerdling, commissioner of four American Legion districts, including the Westside, San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley. "The season or two that they spend with us could be the difference between continuing their baseball careers at a higher level or having it end."

Swerdling estimates 75% of current major leaguers have played Legion baseball.

17 Angels, 18 Dodgers

Ray McKinstry, commissioner of California's largest district, the 19th, which includes the South Bay and Long Beach, put the numbers into sharper focus, saying that last year he counted 17 California Angels and 18 Dodgers who had played Legion baseball.

The list of local Legion alumni reads like a "Who's Who" of baseball.

San Diego's Tony Gwynn, the 1984 National League batting champ, and younger brother Chris, now in the Dodger organization, both Long Beach Poly graduates, played Legion ball as did Bobby Grich of the Angels (Long Beach Wilson).

So did pitcher Scott McGregor of the Baltimore Orioles and slugger George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, both of El Segundo High, and Tim Leary of the Milwaukee Brewers pitched for Santa Monica's 1976 world championship team.

The San Fernando Valley, a hotbed of Legion ball, produced Doug DeCinces of the Angels (Monroe High), Robin Yount of the Brewers, the 1982 American League most valuable player (Taft); the Royals' Bret Saberhagen, the 1985 Cy Young Award winner (Cleveland); Don Drysdale (Van Nuys), Tim Foli (Notre Dame), Rick Dempsey (Crespi), Biff Pocoroba (Canoga Park) and many others.

"American Legion baseball instills the kids with a sense a sportsmanship and helps them learn for life," said McKinstry, 75, commander of Peterson Post in Long Beach for 31 years and commissioner since 1971. "And they all realize that a lot of kids have gone on to play in college or in the major leagues."

The Legion's No. 1 selling point is its history of producing major leaguers, according to Bill Viverto, who coached the West Covina team for nine years and led it to a third-place finish in the World Series last year.

"In this area, Legion ball is something the kids all look forward to," he said. "It has such a great tradition that as they progress through Pony League, they envision themselves playing."

DeCinces: 'Big Honor'

Angels third baseman DeCinces concurs. He said it was a "big honor" to play Legion ball.

"My first year, I was a 10th-grader and it was really neat to play with older guys. Legion teams were made up of the high-class players from high school, so it was a step up."

DeCinces rates Legion ball the most competitive of the three summer leagues he played in, which included Connie Mack and a Colt team where he teamed with Dwight Evans, now of the Boston Red Sox.

"As you stepped into American Legion, you had to improve to compete at that higher level," DeCinces said. "If you couldn't compete there, you wouldn't be able to at the next level.

"American Legion baseball was a definite vehicle to further my career as a professional baseball player."

Scout Spotted Grich

Scouts and college coaches pack the bleachers at Legion games throughout the area, hoping to spot a potential phenomenon they missed during the high school season, according to Viverto.

That's what happened to Grich, the Angels second baseman, whose first exposure to a big league scout came at the Legion state tournament in Yountville in 1966.

"A scout with Baltimore came up to me and gave me his card and said he was going to tell the club's scouts in Southern California to watch me next year as a senior," Grich said. "And next June the Orioles selected me in the first round (the 18th pick) of the draft."

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