The high school baseball season just ended a week ago, but summer baseball is wasting no time in getting underway as local Legion, Junior Legion and VFW teams all have hit the diamonds in an effort to get more playing time and to work on skill level while getting more repetitions than they would in the spring.
"It is always tough in the summer because kids are being pulled in so many directions," said Cloquet Legion coach Bruce Baker. "Years ago, kids didn't have summer hockey, basketball and other sports that asked for time in the summer. There is no disrespect for any other sports at all; it is just the way things are now day."
In the past 20 years other sports have taken on significance in the summer as well such as soccer and lacrosse, which are growing quickly and those sports also demand time as athletes try to be multidimensional while still honing their baseball skills.
"We have a full roster of 18 players, but seven of those kids double roster on our Junior Legion team and our Legion team," Esko Legion coach Jim Karnas said. "In the summer, we will have four seniors who just graduated, three juniors who are moving into their senior year and the rest of them are sophomores and freshman."
New to the area this year is the advent of Junior Legion instead of VFW ball for smaller schools. Legion teams consist of older players with VFW players usually in the 15- to 16-year-old age group. Legion ball has two different divisions where larger towns are in a Division I level and smaller towns are in a DII level, but VFW has just one division and very seldom does a small town ever get the chance to move on out of the district playoffs.
"All of the smaller towns in northern Minnesota that are playing summer baseball are for the first time going to play Junior Legion," said Esko Junior Legion coach Nick Legarde. "We will play VFW and Junior Legion teams in the regular season, but when playoffs come the smaller schools will play each other."
Esko opened their Junior League season with a tournament in Ely where they went 1-3 while playing four games in a 20-hour period. Their lone win was against Babbitt-Embarrass-Soudan-Tower. Since then they swept a double header over Hermantown on Tuesday and will play Nashwauk on Wednesday as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
"We struggled in Ely because our guys were just getting used to playing together," Legarde said. "On Tuesday we hit like we can and it was good to see that. We will have a strong pitching staff which includes four starters, two relievers and we have others who can also throw."
Greg Thompson is in his second year coaching the Cloquet VFW and he has a roster of 20 kids which includes a couple of eighth-graders.
"Our main goal is to learn from our mistakes and have fun," Thompson said. "We just want to see the kids get better with each team we play."
Cloquet started off with a couple of losses a week ago to Proctor and will play again Thursdays at Ed Mettner Field in Cloquet versus Duluth East in a double header with games slated for 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
"At a minimum, we usually play two games a week and practice one day a week over the six weeks of the season," explained Thompson. "Because we double roster players on both the Legion and VFW roster, we don't want to over do it with those kids because that can make for a long summer."
The Cloquet Legion team has bit more practice built into the schedule as Baker tries to hone the skills kids will need when the high school season rolls around in the spring.
"We opened with a 10-8 win over Hermantown and now we have the Lakeview Legion Tournament coming up so kids will get some good playing time," Baker suggested. "Beyond our games we try and get in two to three practices a week so we can work on the things we saw in game situations."
As the struggles to field teams in the summer continue perhaps Karnas summed things up the best.
"As the years go by it gets harder and harder to get guys to commit to the summer," he said. "They have work, vacation, other sports and the opportunity to do so many other things makes it hard to know who is going to be at games. I just tell the kids, go take vacation, work when you have to work and we won't hold it against you, just be here when you can and give us what you can, but it is a struggle. In the past, we used to have four or five guys on the bench during a game and now we are lucky if we have one spare player on the bench."