Frank Werman leaned against the rail in the dugout Wednesday morning, watching his Vienna Post 180 players warm up for their second game of the American Legion senior state tournament on Fireman’s Field in Purcellville. Werman knew the odds were stacked against his team’s quest for Vienna’s first state title since 1990, even before he knew they wouldn’t even get a chance to go after it.
Vienna qualified for its third straight state tournament with a gutsy 7-6 win over Springfield Post 176 in Saturday’s District 17 championship, just 24 hours after enduring a 10-3 beating from Springfield in the first leg of their matchup. On Tuesday Vienna suffered a 3-1 loss to Albemarle Post 74 that put them in the losers’ bracket of the double-elimination tournament. Rattling off six straight wins to claim the state trophy seemed unlikely, but this was one of Werman’s most talented squads in years. Maybe they could make a run.
Except that they couldn’t. A few minutes before the 9 a.m. start time, Werman was informed that his side needed to forfeit. Umpires counted only 11 players suited up in black and gray, one short of the minimum of 12 needed to play. Vienna’s season was over.
“We have all these guys on vacation,” Werman said Tuesday, when his team competed with the minimum 12 players. “Last year we had to sign up an injured player because we only had 11 guys, and we walked through districts. But when you get out here to states, you can’t compete. Our No. 5 hitter today usually hits eighth. For us, we have an awesome team, but it’s just not a priority for some of the guys.”
Vienna’s dilemma illustrates the central problem of a league wedged in between high school baseball in the spring and travel ball in the fall. After a long school year and the rigors of postseason play, many high school players want to take advantage of the relaxation that comes with summer months. They see American Legion — a community-oriented veterans organization that has sponsored youth baseball since 1926 — as a fun way to keep baseball skills sharp, but it’s more diversion than grind.
Not every kid looks at it that way, though. Some senior players see American Legion as a last chance to get noticed by college coaches who might have room for walk-ons. Others view it as the last hurrah of their baseball careers, knowing college ball might not be in the cards.
Players’ lack of commitment often reflects that of league organizers. District 17 had planned to field eight teams this summer, but two teams dropped out at the last minute. One of the Fairfax teams would have fielded talent from Robinson, Woodson and Fairfax High.
“We want to get Legion back to where all the talented kids from every area come out,” said Werman, who has been coaching Vienna Post 180 for nine years. “It’s a lot of fun. Nine-inning games four days a week, you’re playing all the time, it’s a blast. And that’s what prepares you for college for the kids that have aspirations to move on.”
Werman has seen several players use his American Legion team as a springboard to college baseball in recent years. Mark Gunst didn’t pitch much for Paul VI Catholic a few years ago, but strong showings for Vienna Post 180 allowed him to walk on at James Madison University and eventually become an occasional Friday night starter. Oakton grad Chris Hanson walked on as a catcher at James Madison. And Jack Anzilotti, Vienna’s catcher last year, served as a student manager for the Virginia team that advanced all the way to the College World Series finals this summer.
In his first year as Legion Baseball Department of Virginia Chairman, James Grenier is taking an aggressive approach to revamp the league across the region. The Post 34 Leesburg manager aims to bring together District 16 and District 17 — an area that includes much of Northern Virginia — to eventually add another American Legion season in the fall. To do that he wants to see more local posts sponsoring baseball teams at both the junior (17-and-under) and senior (19-and-under) levels.
Grenier also wants to overturn a recent rule change that will no longer allow college-aged players to participate in the league, starting in 2015. If the change does officially go into effect at a meeting this September, though, he’ll try to increase the amount of junior teams in the state.
“If these younger guys are going to showcase, and we’re not giving them the right level of play to where college coaches want to come watch, then they’re not going to come to us,” Grenier said.
The conclusion to Vienna Post 180’s season was abrupt, but the District 17 champions still made it further than most. They finished the summer at 21-7-1, all five of their regular-season losses coming to Springfield Post 176, which draws from West Springfield, South County and Lee high schools. Eight of Vienna’s 18 roster spots this year came from Madison, while the rest hailed from Oakton, South Lakes and Paul VI.
“We compare it to an all-star game,” said RJ Gaines, a Vienna pitcher who committed to play at a junior college in Missouri last week. “A bunch of the best players from around our area get together and we come out here and just have fun. We get to mess around a little bit, but when the game comes around we get to it and perform our best.”
The challenge for Vienna Post 180 and the rest of Legion baseball is to fuse that carefree mentality with a commitment to the summer fields.
“It’s amazing how when these guys get here, the pressure’s kind of off, so they can relax,” Werman said. “You need to relax to play baseball.”