By GENE PHELPS
PETAL – Kirk Presley, the pitcher, and his Tupelo 49ers had to qualify 20 years ago for their berth in the American Legion State Tournament.
Presley, now the 49ers’ coach, simply signed his team up for this year’s four-team postseason event at Petal High School field.
“We always had eight teams in the (state) tournament, plus you had to win your division to qualify,” Presley said.
“Even 10 years ago you had to qualify to make it,” added 49ers assistant McKinley Holland.
This summer 11 teams competed in American Legion baseball in the state. Five of those were Senior programs, the rest were Junior teams.
By contrast, American Legion state director Mark Harrington said, there are more than 60 teams in Louisiana and 80 in Alabama.
So why the decline in American Legion baseball in Mississippi? Harrington and Presley cite a number of reasons, but all of them involved competing for a player’s summer time.
Presley points to the fact that high school teams are playing summer league in June.
Harrington says competing programs in South Mississippi have cut into Legion programs – such as Babe Ruth, Dixie Majors and Dizzy Dean.
Petal High School baseball coach Larry Watkins points to summer league 7-on-7 football leagues and the early start of fall high school football practices.
“Summer just isn’t the same,” he said.
American Legion is also cutting back on its player pool starting in 2015 when college freshmen will no longer be allowed to participate.
“They’re making it more for high school players,” Presley said.
Harrington hopes to convince more high school teams to play Junior Legion in the future. “They would be feeder teams for Senior teams,” he said. “Senior Legion teams pull from a lot of different schools.”
Teams from the Starkville area, Meridian and the Coast are expected to field teams next summer.
Presley wants to see Legion baseball make a comeback in the state.
“McKinley and I were talking about this the other day,” he said. “American Legion baseball is still the purest form of baseball. You’ve got to win state and you’ve got to win a regional to get to the World Series.”