Everything about Coach Don "Chopper" Schmeltz’ Pemberville Freedom Post 183 American Legion baseball team is elite, including the coaches.
That includes Schmeltz, his assistant, former Northwood head coach Dave Russell, and another assistant, Eastwood alum Thomas Schmeltz.
It includes the players, such as Northern Buckeye Conference Player of the Year Connor Bowen of Lake, Northwood's Evan Perkins, Genoa's Nick Wolfe, Gibsonburg's Brent Hayward, Cardinal Stritch Catholic’s Grant Curavo and Austin Pratt and Eastwood's Grant Peters, Ryan Mang and Elijah Brown.
|Northern Buckeye Conference Offensive Player of
the Year Connor Bowen, Lake, is playing for the
Pemberville American Legion Freedom Post 183
baseball team. (Photo courtesy of Innovations
Currently 20-9, Pemberville is on a roll after nearly 30 games into the season and heading into a tournament over the weekend in Lancaster, Ohio.
"Things are going pretty well thus far," said Schmeltz, who's been coaching baseball for over 40 years. "We're playing against some great competition. We're playing some elite teams and seeing guys that are No. 3 and 4 hitters on their high school teams."
Bowling Green High School alum Andrew Herringshaw is leading Pemberville at the plate with a .386 average, followed by Jordan Watson (North Baltimore), who's hitting .377. There are currently three players hitting around .340. The team's leading pitchers include Zach Foster (Elmwood), Hayward, Curavo, Peters, Watson, Nick Watts (Lakota) and Austin Rodesky (Bowling Green).
"After you play 20 games or so, you know who can hit and pitch," Schmeltz said. "It shows up more here more than it does in school. You're seeing the best pitchers all the time. And the good hitters, they'll adjust and do the job. The ones that are mediocre, it catches up with them."
Schmeltz says one of the most important parts is the bond that players from opposing schools develop with one another while playing together for the summer. If you ever watch the end of a high school baseball game, you'll notice that a number of players on the opposing teams are acquainted with one another, something that develops from playing Legion or other summer baseball together.
Legion baseball is not just for high school players, it's for college players who are on break after their freshman season — at least for now. Starting next year, players with a year of college experience behind them will be ineligible for Legion ball, even if they are under 19-years-old, which is the age limit.
Two of Pemberville’s players, Foster and Watson, currently play college baseball, but wouldn’t have been able to play next year when the new eligibility rules go into effect. Foster just completed his first season at Ohio Northern University in Ada and Watson just got done with his freshman campaign at Heidelberg University in Tiffin.
Coaches say one of the reasons is because college recruiters don’t bother attending games if the player has already signed. Still, Schmeltz is against the rule change.
"It's important for guys that are freshman (in college) to play," said Schmeltz, who played Legion ball at the same Pemberville field in the late 1960s with former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who was his teammate.
"They get a lot more experience against a lot of 19-year-olds. If they didn't start or get to play a lot in college, they get to play a lot in the summer," Schmeltz, also an Eastwood graduate, continued.
There are other issues facing Legion teams. Two longtime Northwest Ohio programs, Lima and Fremont, folded this season because of funding issues and a lack of volunteers. Legion directors say the World War II and Korean veterans who used to support the programs are dying off. The Lima team had been in existence for a half century and its games were still covered regularly by the Lima News.
In recent years, Legion ball has also had to deal with competition from travel baseball teams and showcase tournaments. The downside includes the high costs to families that are required if their children want to play.
In the old days, and still at most Legion halls today, the veterans who make up membership do the fundraising, but a few Northwest Ohio Legion teams are also now requiring a pay to play policy to keep their baseball program running, but costs still generally remain cheaper than other travel baseball.
A longtime Legion coach in Pennsylvania, Kevin Manero, wrote, "In so many ways, it appears that parents and their sons now feel they should measure the quality of a baseball program on how much it costs to join it. But does it make sense to pay at least a $2,000 registration fee (sometimes much more) and then dish out more money on top of that for transportation and hotels, only to end up at a college where your counterparts on American Legion teams also landed, after paying much less to get to that point?"