The ever-growing trend of travel and AAU baseball has been taking its toll on long-time established leagues in various towns, and American Legion in Robbinsville became a victim in the summer of 2012.
But thanks to the initiative of Robbinsville High senior CJ Gearhart and junior Anthony DeChiara, Robbinsville Post 530 is back in business in the Mercer County American Legion League this summer.
The two Raven veterans, with some help from teammate Stephen Dranoff, went on a campaign to talk their high school teammates into re-forming a legion team.
“Once the first kids started leaving, then everyone kept drifting off and drifting off,” Gearhart said of last year. “Once all those starters stopped playing, no one wanted to play anymore because no one thought it would be that good.”
That was not a good sign for the high school baseball program. After Little League in Robbinsville, there is no Babe Ruth, mostly due to travel ball. The players at that level have been merging with Hightstown-East Windsor players for Babe Ruth competition.
Take away legion, and team chemistry begins and ends with high school ball.
“We feel that both programs work together to help each other,” Ravens coach Tom Brettell said. “The more our Robbinsville players stick together and play together, the better both programs are going to be.
“We are a smaller community that needs to stay and work together to accomplish goals that we set. Our legion program is an extension of our high school program. Robbinsville baseball, all around, benefits when Robbinsville players stay together and play for Robbinsville programs.”
And so, Gearhart and DeChiara took the initiative, especially after not enjoying their baseball experience last summer.
“We all just played on different teams,” Gearhart said. “I played on this AAU travel team with all these other kids. It didn’t really help me in high school. It helped me with experience but not teamwork-wise and playing along with my teammates.
“We wanted to play legion. We wanted to make sure that everyone was back together to be playing again. Now that it’s back, it’s so much better going forward.”
DeChiara played with Gallagher Baseball, which he praised as an organization. But the problem was, it wasn’t giving him what he wanted as far as camaraderie.
“It was good over there but it’s just all weekends,” the pitcher said. “I like it here better, especially being with my guys. I wasn’t necessarily more worried about me (than the team) playing travel, but it was harder to get to know guys within a couple weeks before the first games started, than the guys I’d played with for two months in row.”
DeChiara was not happy when word came down that legion was disbanding.
“It bummed me out because I liked the kids I was playing with,” he said. “I still got to go somewhere, and I got to play, but I was kind of upset. I had never experienced anything other than legion. I went out there and tried it but didn’t like it.
“I just felt it was really important to stick with our team. That’s honestly what I wanted to do. A few kids here and there aren’t here, so it kind of hurts. But at least we’re playing with each other, which is kind of what I wanted in general. I just wanted to get everybody together, get everybody playing summer ball.”
In an effort to get the legion team re-united, Gearhart felt it was important not to beat guys over the head with it and give them a hard sell. It was more a case of outlining the good things.
“We didn’t really bug them,” he said. “It was just kind of telling them the advantage of playing with our team instead of some no-name team. We told them this is a much better experience where you’re actually playing with high school players and facing players you’ll be facing next year.”
The good news is, there wasn’t any resistance. Some players listened even though their minds were made up; others got talked back into it.
“Guys seemed willing to hear what we had to say, but a lot of people were stuck on their own stuff,” DeChiara said. “They wanted to do what they could do. We respect that. The guys that were stuck on their stuff would go play where they wanted, and guys that wanted to align, they came here, so that’s not bad.”
The roster has reached 16, and although Post 530 went winless in the first three games, the group seemed to be having a good time under returning coach Ryan Pandolfini.
“Just joking around with your friends as opposed to people you don’t really know is a lot of fun,” DeChiara said. “We want to win, obviously. But the atmosphere is more fun.”
The two players started beating the bushes this past winter, and the team was officially re-instated just prior to the high school season. Gearhart and DeChiara had varying opinions on how much a lack of legion baseball hurt this year’s young varsity team.
“It definitely had an effect,” Gearhart said. “We just went out there without playing with each other all year. This was the first time many of us played together this spring. So the majority of us were very new, and so, we had to get adjusted to everyone playing together, stuff like that.”
“I don’t think it affected us much because a lot of the kids graduated from last year,” DeChiara said. “But it was different coming into the season, seeing new kids and not knowing what they’re able to do from over the summer. I don’t know if it affected us that much, but it was what it was.”
And now it is what it is, which makes Gearhart happy.
“It’s great for the town, especially for the high school team,” The College of New Jersey-bound catcher said. “Now that they’re all back, especially with all the young kids playing, it’s gonna be great for the upcoming year for them.”
And while travel ball looks like it’s here to stay, there are still some kids who appreciate the nuances of home sweet home when it comes to who their teammates are.