Mike Rutherford and Mike D’Andrea have coached some of the best American Legion baseball teams to come out of Maine in the last 25 years.
Rutherford, the head coach at Portland High, took Andrews Post to the American Legion World Series in 1995; D’Andrea, the head coach at Scarborough, guided Nova Seafood to the American Legion national championship in 2004.
Now the two have decided to leave American Legion baseball and form a new summer league for high school players. They felt it was necessary to improve the development of their high school programs – by giving them more time to work with returning players – and the development of individual players.
“We tried to adjust and adapt to what’s best for the kids,” said D’Andrea. “And right now this league that we developed is best for high school baseball players. It’s best for the kids because they can go to showcases or weekend tournaments and not be penalized, it’s best for our programs because we can develop next year’s varsity teams.”
One of the reasons behind the new league is to avoid scheduling conflicts for players. American Legion teams play doubleheaders on Saturdays as part of their 20-game seasons. Many of the top high school players in the state are involved in travel programs that participate in weekend tournaments – and many of those players were skipping their Legion games to play in showcase events. The new league plays Monday through Friday.
“You could do both before but one of the teams was going to be short-changed,” said Coach Derek Soule of Greely, the only non-SMAA team involved in the new league. “Kids do both but Legion takes the hit where you’re missing half the games because you weren’t playing Saturday doubleheaders. This gives us more flexibility in scheduling away from weekends so players who want to play in the showcase circuit can do those.”
D’Andrea said he has 10 players involved in summer travel baseball and now they can play in the showcase events without missing any league games.
The Regency Mortgage Wooden Bat League consists of nine teams – Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Greely, Windham, Westbrook, Gorham, Bonny Eagle and Deering – all of which previously had players on American Legion teams. The new league is limited to players who will be returning to high school; recent graduates are not allowed, unlike in American Legion ball. Batters use wooden bats instead of the composite bats used in high school games. Teams play an 18-game schedule that will culminate with a league championship at Hadlock Field on July 30.
Most of the teams have sponsors. There was a $400 entry fee for teams and players also paid a minimal fee to play, the amount depending on how large the team sponsorship was.
Rutherford said coaches will now have a chance to work strictly with their players. Many Legion teams in recent years have been made up of two high school teams. Last year, Rutherford said he had nine Falmouth High players on his Legion team.
“I’m losing four starters (from his 2016 Portland High team), this is going to be an 18-game tryout for those positions,” said Rutherford. “The kids are going to have all summer long to prove they can play varsity baseball. They’re going to prove it by playing. I need to replace a shortstop who was a three-time SMAA Gold Glove. Here’s your chance.”
Cam King, a catcher who just finished his junior year at Portland, likes the thought of looking to the future.
“It’s a chance to get a look at next year’s team and face other teams that will be put together next year,” he said. “It should be pretty cool.”
Rutherford also likes the appeal of the wooden bat. Each team has a limited supply of wooden bats, but many of the players purchased their own.
“College scouts want to see the kids use wooden bats,” he said. “All the college summer leagues use wooden bats. The kids are excited about using wooden bats.”
The pitchers are excited as well.
“I think it lets you have a little more confidence and working on your stuff, not worrying any little mishap is going to be a bomb off contact,” said Morgan Pratt, a pitcher/shortstop who will be a senior at Scarborough next year. “It gives you a little more freedom to work on your pitches.”
The league will be beneficial to Pratt, who not only plays travel baseball for the Maine Lightning but also AAU basketball for the Blue Wave out of Portland. The new league plays doubleheaders on Wednesdays, meaning he doesn’t have to miss any of his AAU obligations.
“He has basketball games on Wednesdays,” said D’Andrea. “I tell him to come to my game at 4 (p.m.) and then skip my second game and go to his basketball game after that. … It keeps his basketball coaches happy, his baseball coaches happy. Game two of the doubleheader, I want to play some of my younger guys, my JV guys, to see what they can do. Those are guys I don’t get a chance to see.”
American Legion, of course, has had to adjust. Zone 3 is now down to five teams and will forego a postseason tournament, instead sending its top two teams directly to the state tournament. But Daniel St. Pierre, the American Legion state director, said the program is healthy and the product is competitive. “We lost six teams this year, but we gained six as well (at the Junior Legion level),” he said.
Of the new league, he said, “No hard feelings, I wish them the best of luck. We’re going to continue to do our thing and try to continue to grow American Legion baseball.”
D’Andrea knows the new league will need some work. “Ten years from now we may need to go back to the drawing board and say, ‘What changes need to be made?’” he said.
But for now, it’s a new beginning.
“I will miss (American Legion) a little bit,” said Portland’s King. “But as long as I get to play baseball, I’ll be happy and I’ll be around kids who want to play. It’s still fun.”
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or: