For the second year in a row the area will play host to the American Legion Great Lakes Regional.
Festivities kicked off on Tuesday night with the tournament banquet at Edison’s Entertainment Complex in Edwardsville. Play began on Wednesday at SIUE’s Roy E. Lee Field. Last season the regional played out at Lloyd Hopkins Field inside Gordon Moore Park in Alton, but made the switch to Edwardsville for the second year of the two-year contract.
American Legion baseball was established in 1925 and since has been a vehicle for players to exemplify quality sportsmanship and high level play on the field. The Great Lakes Regional is one of eight regional tournaments that feed into the American Legion World Series in Shelby, NC.
Tuesday’s banquet welcomed all eight teams in the Great Lakes Regional for an introductory celebration for the prestigious event.
The host Metro East Bears were one of the teams on hand Tuesday. Bears stands for Bethalto, Edwardsville, Alton and Roxana. The team is made up of players from the four schools, along with other various smaller schools from the area. Last season the the Edwardsville/Alton Post 199/126 squad finished second in the regional and they hope to do a little better this year.
A double elimination tournament, Metro East opened Wednesday against Pickerington Ohio Post 283. The Bears entered the tournament with a 17-6 mark, while Post 283 came in with a 41-11 record.
Other teams participating in the tourney are: Madison, Wis. Post 501 (33-3), Beloit, Wis. Post 48 (29-7), Bay City Mich. Post 18 (38-1), Shelbyville, Ky. Post 37 (23-7), Danville, Ill. Post 210 (35-4-1) and Rockport, Ind. Post 254 (27-1).
Unfortunately Post 199/126 has been idle since being eliminated from the District 22 tournament and were on a 18-day hiatus from competition prior to Wednesday.
But Tuesday’s celebration was meant to promote what American Legion baseball represents, which is nurturing leadership skills and character in its young players.
Keynote speaker Matt Slater, the St. Louis Cardinals Director of Player Personnel, did a good job of conveying that message of character makeup.
Slater promoted the importance of strong character and maturity in the players he recruits into the Cardinals organization and urged the Legion players to remember that going forward in their careers.
“I thought about it in my office, what you wanted to hear tonight and I want to talk about makeup,” Slater began in his speech.
He went on to say, “talent is the ability to work hard,” and stressed that the Cardinals are “heavily invested in putting into players on the mental side.”
Slater said the Cardinals respect what American Legion baseball represents and are happy to support the Great Lakes Regional being played in the metropolitan area.
“I’m honored to be here tonight,” Slater said. “American Legion baseball is very important to the development of our game. With so many showcases there are nowadays and select travel teams, so many players find that they are left out for financial reasons and the American Legion is open to everyone. You look at the Major Leagues and players come from all over. They come from Nebraska, Florida, Korea and the Dominican Republic. We have scouts that cover this tournament and there are Major Leaguers that come through this and it’s an important event for sure.
“This is close to us so we feel obligated to be here. It’s a huge baseball event in our backyard and that’s why I’m here. I’m also here because there’s baseball talent here and I think it’s great to get to talk to all these players and instill in them what it really takes to be a big leaguer. I could have talked about physical tools, that’s my passion, but I talked about what it takes inside and there is no doubt in my mind that it takes something inside for players to reach that level.”
He knows that mental makeup is being polished and nurtured through the American Legion with its strong moral base and military influence. If the players don’t advance as baseball players, it gives them a good foundation to advance in life.
“When we look at a player, we look at where they’ve come from, where they’ve played and quite frankly if we know a player comes from American Legion, we know they have a certain sense of discipline to them, a certain understanding of sportsmanship and of what it means to work as a team. I was surprised when I was talking tonight how attentive these kids were. I talk to baseball teams all over the world and these kids were like talking to the military. It shows what type of character is developed through American Legion.”
Slater hopes he can make it out to some of the games this week. While the tournament began on Wednesday, it continues through Sunday at Lee Field when the championship game will unfold at 1 p.m.
“I think it’s possible (to make some games),” Slater said. “We do have the Braves coming in Friday and I just got in at midnight last night from the trade deadline in Florida. Mo (John Mozaliak, Cards GM) had us all sequestered in our training facility in Jupiter while we went through our meetings. I’m hoping to get home and see my family and make it Wednesday or Thursday.”
This is an event baseball fans should embrace, as the tournament’s two-year run in the area ends on Sunday and it will move to a new location next year. Make the time to gather the kids and swing by Lee Field, cheer on the Bears and watch some quality American Legion baseball.