Since 1926, American Legion baseball has been a staple of this nation’s landscape.
As comfortable as a Norman Rockwell painting, Clark Field in Woodland has hosted Legion games since before World War II — and to this day there may not be a more relaxing June evening than kicking back at that Ol’ Ballpark to watch our Post 77 athletes compete into the pleasant summer night.
Local American Legion ball has brought together prep rivals from Woodland, Davis, Esparto, Winters and beyond. It is always worth the $5 admission. And the Post 77 organization — on and off the diamond — has been a model of consistency.
That rock-solidness revolves around program administrator Frank Eakle and field manager Matt Castles. Eakle, for 25 years, has overseen the paperwork, the fundraising and the facility staffing. For the past 18 seasons, former UC Davis player Castles has been in the dugout.
But this season, some of that granite has shifted.
Castles gives way to longtime assistant Dave Ryan.
And the seven area districts — once supporting more than 30 teams — have been pared down to a three-district, 12-team Area 1 grouping.
While American Legion nationwide seems to be going strong (there are 5,400 teams in 50 states), Northern California has taken a hit.
In the old District 6 in which Yolo played, Manhart of Sacramento has folded and the so-called Eastern District is down to Fair Oaks, Lodi and West Sacramento. Fairfield, Napa, Humboldt, Petaluma, Chico, Redding, Orland and Susanville make up the new Northern and Western districts.
Eakle and I had a chance to chat this week. The Patron Saint of Local Legion Ball says Post 77’s immediate health is good, but there are challenges.
“Travel-ball teams, USSSA and college groups like Sacramento State’s Stingers have hurt American Legion,” Eakle believes. “And a lot of high school coaches develop their own summer programs … and demand their players be involved.”
Eakle says Davis High’s Dan Ariola, a veteran of Post 77, has been supportive and it’s been a two-way street as American Legion sponsors the school’s junior team and has helped with insurance and costs of Ariola’s weekend summer team.
But competition is everywhere. For the first time, American Legion has backed off trying to get those older kids who are college-age.
Eakle says, beginning in 2015, senior Legion players must have competed at either the junior high or high school levels immediately preceding their American Legion seasons. No more juco or college players.
The folks running Post 77 are confident in it being business-as-usual at Clark Field. Last week’s always successful American Legion crab feed drew more than 500 baseball folks to the Yolo County Fairgrounds. This kind of support has covered all the costs associated with playing Legion baseball.
A far cry from USSSA, travel ball and showcase teams, all of which can get pricey for those involved.
“Everybody else is making money off having a kid play,” Eakle says.
With its new coaching alignment of Ryan, Jeff Lopez, Pat Aukas and Ryan’s son Josh, players and fans know there is long-term commitment by veterans of the program.
At this point, the Area 1 Tournament will have eight teams, starting with the division winners, followed by those with the next-best records. The playoffs begin July 22.
It’s been a rich history for American Legion baseball.
Greg Maddux, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Sacramento’s Dusty Baker and our own Rich Chiles are alums.
According to an MLB official, “more than 60 percent of current college players and a majority of U.S.-based major-leaguers” were involved in American Legion.
Thank goodness for men like Eakle, Castles and now Ryan …
Our Post 77 sense of community and history remains intact.
While I Have You Here: Castles promises to stay involved, lending Eakle a hand with administration and providing advice to whomever asks.
But family is the coach’s immediate focus.
Next time you see Castles in a dugout, it will be at the corner of Covell Boulevard and F Street — coaching his 7-year-old son Caden in Davis Little League AA ball.
By the way, tryouts for Post 77 will be May 17-18 (5 p.m.) at Clark Field. Interested? Call Eakle at 530-867-6641.
One more thing: Crab fans rejoice.
The Davis High Blue Devil Football Backers host their eighth annual Crab Feed on Feb. 15 at the Veterans Memorial Center.
A monster fundraiser for the DHS gridiron program, this year will provide those in attendance a chance to meet new Devil football coach John Wiley — in addition to all the other nifty goings on.
The $45 ticket includes a silent auction, raffle, door prizes and tons o’ crab.
Doors open at 5 p.m. with cocktails and appetizers from 5:30 p.m. until dinner at 6:30.
For tickets, call Trish Riffle 530-759-2398 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greet the new football coach in style — with another support-showing sellout.
— Bruce Gallaudet is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at email@example.com or 530-320-4456.