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/ TRIS WYKES

Over the Years, It Has Become Rookie League

July 29, 1998|TRIS WYKES

Rick Stockton had a season to remember the last two months, batting .468 for the Calabasas Legion team. A 1997 graduate of Calabasas High who plays at Moorpark College, Stockton was a clutch performer and the type of player Legion officials point to with pride.

But he's a dying breed.

Ten years ago, District 20 was awash in players like Stockton, seasoned athletes who returned from college to compete with their younger friends and reunite with their former high school classmates.

These days, Legion players are less likely to shave and more likely to view college as something in the distant future. Freshmen and sophomores dot lineup cards like dandelions in the outfield.

"It used to be you played college boys and [recent graduates]," said Charlie Hatfield, an Area 6 co-Commissioner. "Now I'd say 60% of your coaches want to take the young players and get them prepared for next year."

The split in philosophy forms along predictable lines. Legion coaches with no ties to a high school program tend to be more willing to use older players. Coaches involved with high schools want to run their Legion team as a summer primer for the players who will help them next spring.

Harold Hall, California Commissioner for Legion baseball, said more and more teams across the state are being run by high school coaches.

"Times have changed and to get outside people to come in and manage ballclubs is all but impossible," Hall said. "So you're relying on high school coaches, often because they control access to the fields. I wish we had an outsider [coaching] every team because the high school coaches don't want to give the older guys their time."

In Ventura County's District 16, teams are given either an "A" or "B" designation, based on their roster composition. "B" teams may not include any players older than 17. Although the teams compete against each other, they vie for postseason berths in either "A" or "B" area tournaments.

Hatfield said he will try later this year to convince District 20 coaches to approve a similar plan for implementation next season. With 33 teams in the district, separate "A" and "B" leagues could be formed.

Jody Breeden, who recently completed his 12th year as a Legion coach by guiding Van Nuys Notre Dame to the district championship, is a standard-bearer for the organization's old guard.

"I'm one of the old school guys who thinks American Legion should not be a developmental league for the younger players," Breeden said. "Some of the older guys don't get a chance to play during the [high school] season. But in the summer they can get seen and picked up by [pro] scouts or college coaches."

Breeden cites Jorge Piedra, a former Notre Dame High multiple-sport athlete, as an example. After not concentrating on one sport during his high school career, Piedra blossomed during the Legion season last year and eventually signed with the Dodgers. He is playing well in the rookie Pioneer League.

Breeden says there's been a dramatic increase in the number of lopsided games in the district as "developmental" teams run into ones with older players and a different approach. He gets no argument from Scott Muckey, who coaches the Crespi High and the Encino Crespi Legion teams and uses only players with high school eligibility for Legion competition.

"We've felt that if we only have returning [high school] guys we can do OK in this league," Muckey said. "My first year in Legion we had [graduated players] and there were just so many problems getting them to show up and we had a terrible summer. If I have [an older player] on the team, he's taking the spot of a younger guy who can help us at the high school."

Hatfield will try his best to alleviate the problem at a meeting of local Legion coaches in October. There, he will try to gain a consensus on forming a "B" league for the district.

"We'll get everyone together who wants to be in it next year and get their input," Hatfield said.

"We're going to see if we can get some sort of junior Legion program going and maybe that will stop all the screaming."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

American Legion State Pairings

OPENING-ROUND GAMES

Saturday at Cleve Borman

Field, Yountville

* 9 a.m.: Santa Susana vs. Ontario

* 11:30 a.m.: Charles Egan (Sacramento) vs. Long Beach Wilson

* 2:30 p.m.: Stockton vs. Danville

* 5 p.m.: *Fairfield vs. *Lafayette

*At-large teams. Others are area champions

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