Before Padres great Tony Gwynn was a Baseball Hall of Famer, he played American Legion Baseball.
Before Randy Jones became a Padres Hall of Famer, he was an American Legion player.
“Randy still talks about those American Legion days as some of the best times he had in baseball,” said Carlsbad’s Peter-Rolf Ohnstad, Jones’ weekly golf partner. “Even all these years later.”
Fast-forward to the present and American Legion ball, a youth baseball program for ages 13-19, is finding a new pulse in the area. That includes North County, where teams are being established as well as being formed.
“The reason why we are seeing a resurgence, and why we brought it back, is because parents had an appreciation for the opportunity for their kids to play out there without paying $3,000 for travel ball,” Ohnstad said.
The emergence of travel ball, where players pay to play and coaches are paid to coach, helped deliver a haymaker to American Legion. Ohnstad, who is the American Legion Baseball commissioner for San Diego and four surrounding counties, doesn’t count himself as a fan of travel ball. He believes it turned into a cash cow for coaches trying to balance teaching youngsters baseball while being compensated for their services.
“With travel ball, the coaches make money and I don’t think it is the best program out there for where some of the kids are today,” Ohnstad said.
Some of those kids are long on dreams but short on cash. The American Legion Baseball model gives them, and everyone else, a chance to play minus reaching for an ATM card.
“I think it is coming back strong because of the venues we are playing at and that we do not require players to pay to play, which I think is kind of crazy,” Ohnstad said. “What we found out is so many kids don’t have the money for travel ball.”
American Legion Baseball has cache as more than 55,000 players participate nationwide and its championship game is broadcast nationally. It’s been around since 1925, with countless major leaguers having American Legion Baseball on their resumes.
Ohnstad, a former Navy pilot who retired as a captain in the Merchant Marines, is hoping to match last year’s total of 22 teams hailing from San Diego County high schools. That includes squads from Oceanside, El Camino, Escondido and San Pasqual.
Each team is tied to an American Legion post, which marries baseball with our veterans and is anything more patriotic than that? Ohnstad is the commander of Post 416 in Encinitas, but its “home” team consists of players from La Jolla Country Day.
Post 416’s bunch is coached by John Edman, whose son, Tommy, is a Gold Glove-winning infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“When we first brought it back a lot of folks hardly knew what American Legion Baseball was,” Ohnstad said.
He beats the drum while beating back the notion that American Legion Baseball is somehow inferior to other summer programs. He notes that championship games are played on Division I college fields, with the University of San Diego playing host to the local winners.
Securing that site in the summer, when it’s filled with youth baseball camps that generate revenues, was tough, until Ohnstad played his American Legion card with Ron Fowler, the former Padres owner whose name graces the USD venue.
“He played American Legion ball back in Minnesota,” Ohnstad said.
Want to play as well? Registration is open at ald22baseball.org for the summer season.
“I never got to play,” Ohnstad said. “I was drafted at 17 and went to Vietnam while my buddies were back home playing American Legion ball.”
Ohnstad was flying, instead of flying out. Now he’s determined that no other teenager misses out.