American Legion baseball in Maine is at its lowest participation level in decades, but league managers are confident the summer baseball league will be on the upswing soon.

Just 18 teams will play Senior Legion baseball this summer, down from nearly 50 teams a decade ago. Twenty teams will participate in Junior Legion baseball this summer. Fewer teams means the state will be reorganized into three zones, rather than four, or even five, as was the case in the 2000s when participation grew.

“Legion baseball is strong with the teams we have,” state director David Gray said, “but I would like to see more teams.”

Cumberland and York counties, once the hotbed of Maine’s American Legion baseball, was divided into two zones to accommodate all the teams a decade ago. Now, the region has six teams, each drawing from at least three schools. The Cole Post Eagles draws players from nine high school programs.

Last summer, several communities in Cumberland County started their own league, with weekday only games, freeing up weekends for players to join travel leagues. This year, some York County communities followed suit.

“The high school league, that really dug into our numbers,” Gray said.

The new league and travel baseball are just a few options tugging at high school athletes’ summer time. Already, many players chose to play summer basketball, soccer, or ice hockey rather than commit to the local American Legion team.

“There’s more competition for those good athletes,” Gray said, adding that with the growth of lacrosse in high schools across Maine, the pool of baseball talent is shrinking.

In central Maine, low participation numbers meant the merger of former rivals, Post 51 and Skowhegan. The team features players from Messalonskee, Lawrence, Skowhegan, Waterville and Carrabec, coach Rod Stevens said. Players from Winslow and Maine Central Institute also had the option to play for the team, Stevens said. With Junior Legion teams representing Fairfield, Messalonskee and Skowhegan, the hope is the combined Senior Legion team is just a one-year solution, Stevens said.

“This year, we’ll try it. It is our hope we can go back to two Senior teams next year,” Stevens said. “I probably have the youngest team in the state.”

With 20 Junior Legion teams statewide, American Legion baseball has a feeder system in place, Gray said.

“There is an interest. We’ve got to get these younger kids to continue to play,” Gray said.

The Post 51/Skowhegan team will play in Zone 1, with Bangor area teams. While Brewer will not field a team for the first time since 1985, Motor City, made up of players from Orono and Old Town, returns this summer. Zone 1 will have five teams. Brewer players will play with Bangor, Gray said.

Post 51/Skowhegan will play home games at Colby College.

“We’re playing at nice fields. I think the experience could be good for kids who want to play baseball,” Stevens said.

Central Maine’s other three teams: Augusta, Franklin County and the Capitals (players from Gardiner, Erskine, Medomak Valley and Lincoln) will play in Zone 2.

“We have 18 (players on the roster). Our numbers are good,” Capitals coach Dennis Meehan said. “It’s tough for them, being so busy with work and family commitments as well as other sports that might be more important to them than baseball.”

Gray said there were discussions about dividing the state in two divisions of nine teams, a north and a south, but it was determined three zones would be better for scheduling. The format for the state tournament will remain eight teams and double elimination. The winner and runner-up from each zone will qualify, and the host zone will receive an addition bid. This year, with the tournament scheduled for July 28-Aug. 1 at Husson University’s Winkin Complex in Bangor, that means an automatic third team is from Zone 1. To fill the eighth spot in the state tournament field, the third place teams from Zone 2 and Zone 3 will meet in a play-in game, Gray said.

With the number of players coming up through the Junior Legion ranks, Stevens is optimistic Senior Legion will see a rebound in the coming years.

“The numbers are coming. It’s a year-to-year thing,” Stevens said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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