American Legion Baseball is as steeped in tradition in Southwestern Illinois as it is anywhere else in the country, with local teams whose roots go nearly as deep as the program’s 1925 inception.
But that doesn’t insulate Region 22 from Legion ball’s persistent decline. Competition with all-star travel teams and other sports limits the availability of top players, which has led to a 25 percent decline in the number of teams nationwide over just the past 10 summers.
I don’t presume to have the answers that will stop the slide, but I do know that embarrassing decisions — such as that made at the Illinois State Tournament in Alton over the weekend — won’t help.
The Alton Telegraph reported on the fiasco in which Mount Prospect was handed the championship trophy with games left to be played and two other teams in contention.
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Mount Prospect advanced to the championship round of the double-elimination tournament as its only undefeated team after three games. It awaited a semifinal game between Alton and Danville Post 210, both 2-1. The winner would have to knock off Mount Prospect twice to earn the championship.
But bad weather had caused delays in the tournament, and games were moved from Alton High School to Roy E. Lee Field at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which has both lights and an artificial field.
Mount Prospect’s manager, however, asked Illinois’ state baseball Chairman Don Wallis and his assistant, Harry Rakers, for a meeting in the ballfield parking lot. Several of the Mount Prospect players had college orientations scheduled for Wednesday, he explained. Should the championship come down to a winner-take-all game on Wednesday, he’d be short-handed.
In that parking lot, without consulting the tournament director or the managers from the remaining teams, Wallis and Rakers declared Mount Prospect the state champion and released the team for its four-hour drive home.
To be clear, both the tournament championship and runner-up earn advancement to the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, which begins Aug. 8 in Toledo, Ohio. Mount Prospect already was a lock. Danville nipped Alton 8-7 in extra innings Tuesday to cinch its trip.
But coaches from Danville and Alton each told the Telegraph their teams were robbed of a shot at the state crown.
Danville already had been vanquished to the tournament loser’s bracket by Mount Prospect, stranding runners along the way in a frustrating 3-1 loss. They faced their own long drive home and put their own commitments on hold, but were eager for a rematch and a fair shot at the championship.
They deserved it.
There is no doubt the delays left Mount Prospect in an unfortunate position and prioritizing college orientations over baseball was the only right thing. But that was their burden, not that of the other contenders.
Had any other team lost players to injury, family vacations, a broken-down car or whatever, the outcome would have been a forfeit.
Or maybe Danville would have agreed to share the title or offered to reschedule at another neutral site? We’ll never know because such options were never presented.
No competition. No compromise. The Illinois American Legion Baseball champion was crowned through an arbitrary decision made in a parking lot.
And that’s bad for any sport.