American Legion baseball is a national institution founded in 1925 with some pretty lofty goals. Everyone wants to be on a winning team, but understanding how to be a good teammate is not so easy. The Mint Hill Post 4059 Army Juniors got it this summer. The planning, the practice, and the long hours paid off and they triumphed against Kernersville July 23 to win the N.C. Junior American Legion title.
So what does it take to create a winning team? First, it takes coaches that care.
Volunteer coaches Dan Kerr, Darryl Simmons, and Steve Baucom love baseball. They have a vision for creating a program that begins long before the players are even eligible to play on the junior team. They have a goal of bringing baseball back into the forefront of the town’s consciousness. They are dedicated to realizing these lofty ideals and often put them ahead of their own daily lives, and they have a drive that makes it all come together in a way that is memorable for the team in a way that doesn’t often happen in sports.
“I can’t get enough baseball,” says Coach Kerr, who is the athletic director at Queens Grant High School. “I missed my ten year high school reunion for this, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
The whole process starts in October, when the travel teams begin sign-ups.
“The Legion teams offer the boys more playing time and the traveling teams can be very expensive,” says Coach Bunn.
Throughout the fall and winter months, the Legion offers weekend camps for 9-19 year olds. The six-week camps are held at Showcase Baseball Academy and run from just after Thanksgiving to the beginning of spring sports. And the outcome has been surprising.
“The Legion baseball players have blended together with the other kids from the Little League teams,” says Bunn. “A sort of mentorship has developed where the younger ones look up to the bigger kids, and the bigger kids are helping them out, and friending them on Facebook.”
Now the opportunity exists to build the program from the bottom all the way up. Kids from 5-19 are encouraging each other, helping each other become better players. It’s a baseball community and a team mind-set grows that can be fostered from year to year.
“When I was little, I played ball in Mint Hill and the whole town was there,” says Simmons. “Kids weren’t glued to their electronic games, or TV. We are starting to see more and more people come out to see us. It really gives it that small town atmosphere that I remember.”
Creating a winning team is not cheap. According to the coaches, traveling team fees can run parents upwards of $3,000. Legion ball costs participants $275, and that goes to help defray the costs of insurance, registration fees, uniforms, umpires, fees for using CMS facilities, and equipment.
“We went through about 40 dozen practice balls this year,” says Bunn. “And at $6 a piece, it adds up.”
The team worked hard to get its own van, which in the long run will cut some of the traveling expenses. It also tips the favor toward camaraderie when the whole team can travel together.
They also have fund raisers, such as the annual American Legion Golf Tournament. This year’s tournament was held at Olde Sycamore and was highly successful. Prizes included a week-long cruise, sponsored by Wells Fargo, and an autographed Mickey Mantle photo.
They have also been blessed by support from local businesses such as Griffin Masonry and Scott, McCorkle’s Liberty, Buick, GMC.
And every team needs its own inside joke, something that is important to them, a unique thing that just happens, but everybody gets it.
“The rally bat,” they say.
“It started at the first game, where we just picked up something that was left over in the dugout and put it on this bat,” says Simmons. “We kept that bat through the whole season.”
It’s true that the team will remember the feeling they had when they won the tournament. They will all have memories of hard practices, and digging deep to find that ounce more of spirit they needed to pull off an incredible season.
But they’ll talk about the younger kids they helped along the way, the bus rides, the coaches’ dedication, and, of course, they will all remember the rally bat.
For more information about the American Legion Post 4059 teams, contact Steve Baucom at 704-507-1526, or visit the website at www.mhlegion.com.