PEMBROKE — Two American Legion baseball coaches, one past and one present, both said the need to push for an American Legion team in Robeson County is there.
Ronnie Chavis, who started the Robeson County Post 205 program in the 1980s, and Jeff Lamb, the current head coach at Purnell Swett and the Whiteville Post 137 team, echoed each other’s comments on their vision to have a local American Legion team next summer. Both said that would not only be competitive with the competition in the area, but a good brand of baseball for local players to play.
Post 205, the program Chavis started, last played in Robeson County in 2007, and since then Robeson County players have went to Hope Mills and Whiteville to play American Legion baseball.
“When you look at St. Pauls, Fairmont, Red Springs, South Robeson, Purnell Swett and Lumberton, there’s enough quality kids on these teams that you can have a super Legion team,” Chavis said. “A lot of folks in Robeson County are asking the same thing, ‘Why don’t we have a Legion team, because we know we have enough quality kids?’
“We’ve got kids going to Whiteville and Fayetteville playing Legion ball and I would love to see it start back.”
Lamb, who has been around Legion baseball for several summers, including coaching at Whiteville for the past two, knows what goes behind the scenes to start or fund a program, and that it is well within reach.
“It’s probably about an $8,000 endeavor, and that’s the big thing. You don’t want to start it up and scratch your head about how we are going to pay for stuff,” Lamb said. “If you had a bank account with $10,000 in it, you would be good for the summer.
“I think we could pull it off. We’ve just got to get a bunch of people behind it, and I think it would be a great thing.”
That money would cover expenses such as paying for officials and coaches, field maintenance and travel, whether or not the team goes to away games on a bus or in their own vehicles.
“I think the sooner the better to start raising money, getting a booster club or local American Legion post or whatever and they’ve got to get a committee together,” Lamb said. “I know the county Athletic Director (Jeff Fipps) is behind it because when he met with all the coaches at the end of the year he told them that we need Legion baseball. There’s enough people to seize the interest now.”
The price tag to field a team is there, but Lamb sees the free-to-the-players format of American Legion as more beneficial than travel or showcase baseball.
“The biggest challenge now is travel ball and showcase, and I call that baseball out of convenience because they can play on the weekend and it doesn’t really mess up their week. This, it’s every other day,” he said. “To me, it’s the best summer baseball around. It’s the real deal. It’s a grind and it humbles guys you don’t see get humbled often.”
The Purnell Swett coach also noted the growth of teams in the Wilmington area. Ashley High School is is the site of one of the new teams that pulls players from there and other local schools in the vicinity. The team based out of Laney High School is made up solely of players from that high school this season.
As a coach for the program when it was started, Chavis elected to watch the games from outside the fence after he was named the county athletic director, but is a firm believer in the brand of baseball.
“The reason I would like to see it come back is that it puts emphasis on Robeson County baseball,” Chavis said. “It opens up people’s eyes to the kind of talent we have. … The caliber of play for American Legion baseball is as good as it gets for any young man that has aspirations of playing college baseball.”
The main differences he pointed out from high school to Legion baseball is the talent level.
“It was one of the highlights of my career because I coached high school baseball for 18 years, but getting that Legion team together and playing the level of talent we played night in and night out it impressed me,” Chavis said. “It made me learn some things. You’ve got to up your play to play Legion baseball.”
Chavis said when starting up the program that fundraising was the main focus, and with the help of Bobby Locklear, a county commissioner, and several other fundraising efforts, the financial goal was easily reach, but getting the money is still the main commitment of a program.
Many players in recent years have elected to go the travel ball or showcase route in hopes of it increasing their chance for college and pro exposure. Lamb and Chavis both said that players electing to chose American Legion if it comes back to Robeson County would still have the same chances.
“We played at a tournament in Conway this year and the head coach at Coastal (Carolina University) is there, and when we play here (Whiteville) the head coach at UNCW is here,” Lamb said. “Everybody says you’ve got to go to showcases, but these guys are here.”
Post 205 played its games in the early years at UNCP and Chavis said that then UNCP baseball head coach Danny Davis was there for almost every home game to see the talent on the home and away teams.
“The college coach will tell you the difference between travel ball players and Legion players,” Chavis said. “It’s a great way to get prepared for college baseball and I’m a firm believer in that.”
Baseball has woven a certain niche in Robeson County, and just like the players, Chavis believes that the fan base and outside support would also come with a Robeson County American Legion baseball program.
“I think we would have enough fans. Folks in Robeson County love baseball,” Chavis said. “It’s just a good situation if we could get it back again.”