Albany does not have an American Legion baseball team this summer. The Mid-Valley Southpaws are in limbo, leaving Corvallis Gerding Builders as the lone local program.
Former Southpaws’ general manager Jim Carver said American Legion baseball has a long history in Albany. For many years, the squad has been open to players from throughout the county, including Lebanon.
“This would have been close to the 100th anniversary of the team,” Carver said. “The team was founded I believe around 1920.”
A celebration is doubtful.
Mid-Valley Southpaws’ coach Troy Babbitt was suspended for two years in December by the American Legion Department of Oregon for breaking eligibility rules at the state tournament that August.
The program was left without a coach and did not have an easy fix with somebody ready to step right in and take the reins.
West Albany coach Don Lien said the best candidate for the position would be someone that not only has the ability level as a coach but is objective when it comes to putting together a roster.
“Who in the community is going to coach a legion team? I can’t as the West Albany coach, Brad Kidd can’t as the South Albany coach and Jeff Stolsig can’t as the Lebanon coach,” Lien said.
“That’s got to be somebody in the community with some kind of background in baseball who doesn’t have a dog in the fight with their own players.”
A meeting with some of the Southpaws officials and players’ parents was held just before Christmas.
In that meeting, there was discussion on whether players would play for a coach other than Babbitt. When it appeared players may look elsewhere, there was talk about possibly not fielding a team this summer.
“They have to figure out what the next step is,” Lien said. “The next step might not involve us using a Legion team as an affiliate.”
Carver was present in the meeting.
“Apparently there’s a lot of ill will from the parents toward the American Legion,” Carver, who retired from the position in 2017, said. “It was clear to us that they did not support the Albany American Legion team going forward and they would follow Troy wherever he went.”
Both Carver and Lien mentioned that finances were a concern and Lien said the Southpaws operated with a much smaller budget than most American Legion programs.
Carver expressed doubt that the Southpaws would be back.
“The biggest reason is it will be very difficult to raise funds,” he said. “The last several years we went to five-day tournaments and it takes about $1,000 a night to take a team on the road. If you don’t play in those kinds of tournaments or travel to the kind of teams that are competitive just in the state, you’re not going to do very well.”
The decision to suspend Babbitt did not sit well with Lien, who said the Southpaws never received any report from the American Legion on the action.
“People want to cast tomatoes at us and rotten fruit (thinking) that we don’t have the kids’ best interests in mind,” Lien said, adding that Babbitt put in quite a bit of work to form a roster with the type of players he wanted on the Southpaws.
“Our kids understood the true meaning of team,” Lien said. “Not talent. Team.”
The suspension stemmed from a review of actions that took place at the state championship game in Roseburg on Aug. 1, where it was determined that Babbitt played an ineligible player in the title game against Medford.
Following the game, which the Southpaws won 6-2, the Mustangs filed an appeal and eventually represented Oregon in the Northwest Regional tournament.
The Southpaws were found to have violated Rule 4.D in regards to player recruiting and transfers, as well as Rule 6.D, in regards to team and player certification and dual participation.
It would have been their first state title since 1954.
Babbitt said at the time and in the weeks that followed the title game that he had made sure that the player in question, Briley Knight, was eligible despite having played with the Corvallis Knights during the state tournament.
He only played Knight, who started on the mound, when he was cleared by state American Legion chairman Ron Long and the national commissioner. Long was also suspended.
“We followed to a ‘T’ what they told us to do,” Babbitt told the Gazette-Times and Democrat-Herald a day after the championship game. “I was told by our state chairman and the national commissioner that he was eligible.”
Lien said the Southpaws did not make the decision in a secretive way.
“There needs to be some air cleared here,” Lien said. “It was never behind the scenes. It’s not like we just grabbed him and played.”
Carver had a different view of the matter.
“That’s not even subject to interpretation. That rule is pretty clean,” Carver said. “The rule allows kids to be dual rostered and play for another team until the playoffs start.
“He played the night before (with the Knights) and then came in and played in the championship.”
Carver said the Mustangs were able to submit newspaper articles to prove Knight played for the Knights the night before the championship game and that resulted in the Southpaws’ forfeit.
“It should have been caught before the tournament even started and it wasn’t and part of the reason it wasn’t is not all of the information was provided,” he said.
Carver said the team is now a thing of the past.
“It’s a great program I played legion baseball 50-some years ago and it’s a great organization and does a lot for the kids,” he said. “I’m really sad to see it go but I just don’t see it coming back.”
Mid-Valley Media sports editor Steve Gress contributed to this report