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American Legion baseball trying to make a comeback

For decades, American Legion baseball thrived, the standard bearer of summer competition.

Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, Mike Piazza, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Bench and Stan Musial are among the more than 50 major leaguers who played Legion ball. Same goes for active players Albert Pujols, Kris Bryant, Wil Myers and Bryce Harper.

Legion ball was huge in the ’50s through the ’80s, but there was a disconnect somewhere along the line.

Most say the advent of pay-to-play travel ball is to blame.

There is, however, a groundswell of enthusiasm to bring Legion ball back to San Diego.

The effort is headed by Peter-Rolf Ohnstad, baseball commissioner for the county’s Legion District 22.

Ohnstad is a former Navy pilot who also served in the Merchant Marine. He was deployed in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Haiti. Ohnstad still works as an adjunct professor at the Maritime Institute of Technology.

He never played Legion ball, though.

“Got cut by my Legion team,” he said. “But I’m a baseball fan, and there is a need to provide high school players with a place to play in the summer.”

After a number of organizational meetings, 10 high schools — Madison, Chula Vista, Montgomery, Ramona, San Pasqual, Sweetwater, Patrick Henry, La Jolla Country Day, Coronado and Foothills Christian — have shown interest. Some have tentatively agreed to field teams this summer.

Interested players from other schools could join the 18-player rosters of those teams if there is room.

There is meeting Saturday at Madison High with Legion state baseball Commissioner Bob Boyd to gauge the interest of those schools and others.

“Legion ball in San Diego ended in ’85,” said Madison baseball coach Robert Lovato. “I know because in ’83, I was playing for Clairemont and we beat Madison 1-0 in the championship game at Hoover.

“It has been gone for a while, but I think this revival will work out great.

“Legion ball is for players up to 19, but I think we’ll be geared toward 16-17-year-olds.

“This will be an opportunity for the younger guys to play games, for the kid who might have had eight varsity at-bats as a sophomore to get 50-75 at-bats over the summer, play games and develop.”

Ohnstad calls it “Restoring the Legacy.”

About 10 years ago, there were close to 130 American Legion teams in California. Participation is down nearly 70 percent in baseball hotbeds like Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

Last year, Boyd said, there were only 49 teams in California.

In Southern California, the Long Beach-Carson area led the way with 11 teams, but that is down from a high of 25.

The San Clemente area was strong as was Temecula-Murrieta before five teams dropped out.

“We’re ecstatic we’re getting San Diego back,” Boyd said. “After going backward for a long time, there is momentum throughout the state.

“I think we’ll field 70-75 teams this summer.”

The idea behind American Legion Baseball isn’t to put travel ball out of business, Ohnstad said, but to provide opportunities for all players.

All costs — uniforms, baseballs, umpires, insurance, field use — are absorbed by American Legion posts throughout the county.

Players will need to provide bats and catching gear.

“Pretty much every player has a bat,” said Lovato. “And in today’s game, catchers have their own gear. If we need to share bats and catching gear to get this going, we’ll find a way.”

Ohnstad wants to play about 25 games — mostly weekday evenings — at high school facilities.

The American Legion season starts at the conclusion of the high school season, usually the first week of June.

Team names will come from military aviation. Seahawks, Tracers and Skyhawks have already been taken.

It will cost about $5,000 to outfit each team, but 10 American Legion posts in the county have expressed interest in sponsoring a team.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t need sponsors,” Ohnstad said. “I’m sure there are veterans who own businesses or companies who would like to help. Vets who love baseball, who would love to get involved, we’d welcome that.”

Over the years, the number of veterans who are involved in the American Legion has declined. Posts have closed.

“Baseball is a way for the younger generation of veterans to get involved,” Ohnstad said.

“The whole idea behind this is to give kids a chance to play at little or no cost to them. We raise the flag at every game and play the national anthem or say the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It’s a simple thing, but it’s a way to honor our country and the men and women who served it.”

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