After a few decades of butting heads, including controversial rulings in the playoffs during the 1990s and some heated playoff battles over the past few seasons, American Legion baseball players in the Garner and Johnston County area will join forces this summer.
The new Garner Nationals Baseball program, coached by former Garner Post 232 head coach Chris Cook, will pull players from those areas and Fuquay-Varina. Post 232 elected this off-season to end its baseball program, citing scheduling difficulties at Garner Magnet High School, a drop in attendance and an aging Legion membership.
“We hated to drop it because of our finish last year (fourth place at the state tournament), but we felt like it was the right thing to do,” said longtime Garner Post 232 athletic officer Ross Whitfield.
The Clayton Post 71 associated Johnston County team has also elected to not field a team for at least one season, citing the likelihood of increased travel this season with fewer Legion teams around the state.
Ready to step in and take advantage of the drop in programs are the newly formed Nationals, which Cook said would pull players from Garner, West Johnston, South Johnston, Fuquay-Varina and Grace Christian.
The team will play its “home” games, currently seven of them in the regular season at Princeton High School, and after June 1 will not play at “home” again unless it makes the playoffs.
“If you play Legion ball, you’re going to travel,” Cook said.
Garner, which will wear new red, white and blue uniforms, will play in a redesigned Area I West Conference with Apex Post 124, Cary Post 67, Raleigh Post 1, Rocky Mount Post 58 and Roxboro Post 138.
The Nationals, who are sponsored by Joye’s Refrigeration, will also play in the Palmetto Invitational in Florence, S.C. in late June. The Legion playoffs begin July 3.
Cook likes his team’s chances of being in those playoffs. “What would have been biggest rival (Johnston County) isn’t going to field a team this year, so we like our chances to be a playoff contender,” he said. “We could have five Division I pitching arms.”
One caveat with all of the regular-season travel, should the new team have a season for the ages and win the American Legion World Series, it would not have to go out of state to do it since both the Southeast Regional (Asheboro) and the World Series (Shelby) are in North Carolina in August.
The new team will cover an area that once saw five different American Legion teams (Garner Post 232, Fuquay-Varina Post 116, Clayton Post 71, Smithfield Pou-Parrish Post 132 and Benson Banner Post 109). But the introduction of high school summer leagues and the expansion of attendance numbers that Legion programs can pull from (up to 5,000 10th, 11th and 12th graders from the schools Legion teams pull players from) have led to a drop in the number of American Legion programs over the past decade.
As schools juggle prep summer league schedules, it has become tougher to fit in the heavy schedule that Legion teams play on the same high school fields. A rise in the costs to rent those facilities as school spending has tightened in recent years has also brought money concerns.
“I filled out a survey last summer from the American Legion about how they could improve things and I cited the increase in the school attendance figure to 5,000 as when we started losing teams,” Whitfield said. “I think the local support started to drop off gradually every year as the area teams pulled from grew in size.”
This summer just 46 senior Legion (ages 16-19) will play across the state. That’s less than one for every two counties and a far cry from the Legion baseball experience Whitfield, who served as Garner’s athletic officer for several decades, remember.
“We’re (Legion members) are going to miss it. There are guys like George Shaw, who’s in his 80s who was still taking up money at the gate for us a 66-year Legion member, and longtime key guys like Larry Watkins and others who have put a lot of time into our program and gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it,” Whitfield said.
“It upsets me to see it go away but so many of our members are just too old. It was just too much.”