MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Sports

June 17, 2014

A struggling tradition endures with area’s Legion team

Rusty Fulps can remember different times over 20 years of doing this, a time when American Legion baseball had a significant foothold in northeast Oklahoma as opposed to the toe in the puddle it has now.

“At LaFortune Park 10 years ago there were like 12 teams out of Tulsa. There’s none now,” he said.

Fulps coaches the Three Rivers Bandits, sponsored by Legion Post 213. It’s one of two on this side of the state and the only one with area representation. Post 213 happens to be in Oklahoma City, though.

Statewide, nine of the 11 teams the Legion has is on the west side. The overall total is four less than 2012. Only one state in the union, Mississippi, has fewer (10).  

There are places where it flourishes. Pennsylvania, by comparison, has 310. Closer to home, Missouri has 137, Kansas has 87, Arkansas 70. The Sooner State has more in common with Texas, which has 14.

There are a couple factors for this decline. American Legion membership is down. The national membership of the American Legion is currently at 2.4 million. In 1993, the membership was 3.1 million. That translates into less money for the Legion charities, including baseball.

Another is the number of “select” and “traveling” teams that have been organized. Some of those nationally have been a response to the lack of Legion options. Some promise games and tournaments with a plethora of scouts and deliver. Others are nothing more than a costly endeavor for parents in an increasingly watered-down product.

“Some of these cost a kid $5,000 a summer,” Fulps said, noting he’s had encounters with kids and families who said it didn’t bring dividends.

Many area high schools, including Muskogee, take part in the Diamond League, which goes through June each year. We used to attempt to cover these. Games were often tentative — I remember a game one morning that didn’t have umpires. They didn’t ultimately play for anything of championship variety.

But high school baseball is under the same pressure to produce an off-season as other sports. Football squads have team camps and 7-on-7 leagues. Basketball has its share of summer leagues for schools.

Some of these prep baseball teams won’t let a kid squeeze in a Legion experience.

“In the next couple of weeks, I’ll have some kids from Broken Arrow come to me and say they want to join up,” Fulps, a native of BA, said. “Our total number of participating schools can’t add up to more than 5,000. BA has almost that many itself.”

His team has a 2014 All-Phoenix team flavor — Checotah catcher Caleb Knight and pitcher Jack Christian, Wagoner pitcher Tyler Milligan, Fort Gibson outfielder Boo Seward and Oktaha catcher Dalton Martin are on it. Wagoner infielder Wyat Grooms was a three-time All-Phoenix selection that just missed it this season. Tim Smithson, a Warner ex now at Connors State, was a two-time selection. The squad also includes Preston Whitten of Wagoner and standouts from Stilwell, Liberty, Claremore Sequoyah and Cushing.

“These are kids down here that fall through the cracks,” Fulps said. “In Tulsa when you pick up the paper as a college coach and find kids from Broken Arrow, Owasso, Jenks and Union in print on a regular basis, you start picking up the phone and checking those kids out.

“Around these parts it’s not as simple. Josh Neal (former Haskell pitcher who wound up at Oklahoma State), got one offer out of college. Matt Oberste of Sallisaw (he played on the Muskogee Titans select team for several years) got one offer coming out of high school. Tyler Johnson got zero offers out of high school. Two of those were first-team All-Americans and the other was drafted out of high school. That’s some pretty good players who have come out of here.”

Since 2005, two Oklahoma teams have been Legion national champions — Midwest City Post 170 in 2010 and Enid Post 4 in 2005.

“When (Midwest City) got back from winning it, their coach told us we were probably one of the top five teams in the country that year, and our problem was we were playing in the wrong state,” Fulps said.

Fulps’ current group is off to a 12-0 start. The range of opposition talent varies greatly, but that’s partly because Fulps has to fill his schedule with whatever he can get. Fort Smith (Ark.) Kerwins, tonight’s road opponent, is a quality Legion team in that state. On Friday, the Bandits go to Bartlesville, the Legion’s only other east side team in Oklahoma.

Aside from the area’s Heartland Classic and Connors July Showcase, the Bandits’ only home games — played at Connors State — will be four to finish the regular season July 19, 21, 24 and 26 against fellow Legion teams Ada, OKC Bulls, Midwest City Outlaws and Bartlesville.

“You can only make so many two-hour trips to Ada and Midwest City,” Fulps said. “You do what we can.”

Unlike anything else around, these guys are still actually competing for something other than to be seen or to get some work.

“We’ve been one of the top three teams in the state the last 4-5 years and every year we’ve been a pitcher or two short. This year might be different,” Fulps said.

It’s a fading summer tradition, but alive and well with Fulps’ kids.

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