It’s been 34 years since an American Legion baseball team from Spokane has played in the State AAA championship game.
Appleway Chevrolet knocked off longtime Legion power Yakima and was the lone unbeaten team in the 1975 state tournament. But Yakima came back to beat Appleway twice, thanks largely to 27 walks in two games. Yakima went on to win the World Series.
All that may change today, as the Spokane Bandits are one of three teams remaining in the State AAA tournament at Selah. The Bandits play the Twin City Titans at 3 p.m. in the last semifinal. The winner of that game will play Kelso in the 6 p.m. championship game.
In the 37-year history of high school baseball state championships in Washington, no Spokane big-school team has won a state title. It’s the lone boys sport in which the Greater Spokane League has been shut out.
Three Spokane American Legion teams have won state titles – in 1940, 1955 and 1967. And six GSL teams have played for state titles.
People who have been involved in American Legion in Spokane offered opinions on why there has been such minimal success. Some suspect that in recent years the emergence of select teams has diluted AAA, AA and A Legion in Spokane.
That only explains the lack of success in the last decade. The drought goes back much further.
Some contend that the lack of an organized Little League until recent years has caused players to be behind developmentally by the time they reach Legion. That seems to be a valid argument.
Community Colleges of Spokane assistant coach Tony Byrne, who coaches the Spokane Blue Devils AAA team that will be the playing host in the Northwest Regionals this week, goes so far as to say that Gonzaga University basketball has had an impact on baseball.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Byrne said. “I think more kids want to play basketball because of Gonzaga’s success. Since they started their run, the better athletes are playing basketball.”
Jeff Simmelink, coach of the top premier team in the area, the Spokane Dodgers, doesn’t try to dodge the fact that his program has had an impact lately.
“I’ll be blunt. My team doesn’t help,” Simmelink said.
Simmelink, a native of the Tri-Cities, moved to Spokane in 1995 and immediately got involved in American Legion and assisting at Central Valley. He coached CV’s AA team from 1997-2000.
“What happened was my son was 10 years old and I wasn’t able to watch him play because I was coaching Legion,” Simmelink said. “So in 2001 we put together a select team for him and some friends and that was the beginning of the Dodgers.”
The plan was to fold the select team when the players reached high school age, Simmelink said.
“But when they got to high school they didn’t want to stop playing together,” Simmelink said.
So why has he continued the program?
“My weakness is if I have players coming back I don’t want to leave them hanging,” Simmelink said. “I’ve had ample opportunity to stop. We have some really good juniors right now. Chances are, we’ll have a team next year. I hate to leave a project.”
Simmelink is a fan of Legion. He grew up playing it when he attended Kamiakin High in Kennewick.
“The thing about it is, if we stopped the program the players would go find a different select team to play for, to be honest,” Simmelink said. “They’re looking for an opportunity to play at the next level. We’re not about winning. That takes care of itself with the talent. We’re here to develop.”
Simmelink admits that if the players on his teams played Legion, there would be some good teams.
“There’s no doubt about it, although a lot of the talent would be spread out,” said Simmelink, whose top Dodgers team this year consisted of 13 Spokane players and five from Coeur d’Alene.
Former University coach Don Ressa, who coached the Titans for 28 years and has been involved in Legion as a coach and player for 40 years, acknowledges that the premier teams have stolen the cream of the crop in recent years.
“There’s one single factor that’s watered this whole thing down and that’s the inception of all the select teams,” said Ressa, who continues to coach in U-Hi’s Legion program and still assists at U-Hi. “The best players in Spokane now don’t play American Legion. They play for the Dodgers or whoever. I’m not saying the select teams aren’t a good product. But what happens is when you have these select teams in Spokane, they siphon off the best players. Now the AAA teams must build their rosters out of players who aren’t ready to play at that level.”
Another contributing factor is the cost to play Legion.
“To play AAA it costs anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500,” Ressa said.
Ressa believes the cost has priced out some seniors who don’t plan to play beyond high school.
“For example, Tony Tabish, a great three-sport athlete for us at U-Hi, decided not to play this summer because he’s going to go to Loyola Marymount this fall and he needs to work to save some money,” Ressa said. “We lose a lot of really good senior ballplayers who choose not to play anymore because they need a job to get ready for college.”
Ressa said the parent booster club at U-Hi helps raise money to offset the cost for players in the AA program.
“Our AA kids pay the league minimum $250,” Ressa said. “Some of the other AA kids are paying $700 to $900 to play at other schools.”
Ressa has no problem with the existence of select teams.
“I’m being blatantly honest, they provide better exposure,” Ressa said. “I love American Legion and I’ll continue to be involved with it. But if I had a son that was a good ballplayer and the best opportunity for getting exposure was playing select, I’d encourage him to play select.”
Ressa played on the last Spokane team, a Gonzaga Prep-based team, that won a state Legion championship in 1967. Back when he played, each school had its own AAA team.
That changed in 1995 when Spokane Legion went to the current model in hopes of being competitive with the Legion teams in the Tri-Cities and Yakima where multiple schools feed into teams.
Byrne believes a major reason why Legion teams in the Tri-Cities are especially competitive at a state level each year is Little League.
“They have one Little League association in the Tri-Cities,” Byrne said. “You drive through the Tri-Cities and you see the lights at the fields on and the kids playing Little League. I don’t think kids play it around here much.
“The game hasn’t been taught enough here at a younger age. We’re teaching sophomores and juniors things they should know at a younger age. We’re behind in teaching the game.”
A Spokane Legion commissioner sees better days ahead.
“I think our AAA teams were a little more competitive this year,” Mike Padden said. “Three of four teams that were at (state-qualifying) super regionals won at least one game. I expect the Blue Devils to be competitive at regionals. They’ve played some teams that are regional caliber. I think there could be a time down the road that Spokane breaks through and wins a state title. All we can do is put out the best program that we can put out.”