Jeff Owens had the opportunity to talk to Mattoon American Legion Manager Stacey Birdsong about baseball and the upcoming season. Mattoon opens up its season Sunday at a showcase event near House Springs, Missouri.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: How excited are you for baseball to be back?
STACEY BIRDSONG: Very excited and very appreciative for the opportunity to get back on a baseball field and watch these kids play. Was not sure we would get to this point of playing games. Can’t wait!
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: It is kind of a weird season, since American Legion baseball has called off its post-season, explain what Mattoon is doing?
BIRDSONG: Yes, it has been a different start to the season and, unfortunately, as you mentioned, our Legion season has been cancelled. We were to host the State Tournament, which would have been a great event here in Mattoon. We are playing as an independent travel team under the Mattoon Baseball Club, Inc organization. With the merger of Post 88 and Mattoon Hit-Men at all levels it was an easy transition to play travel ball for one summer. There are some other Legion programs locally and a couple of out-of-state teams that we will be playing some games against this summer. We are also entered into some travel showcase type tournaments, which we play in every season. These will provide some good competition for our players and should feel a little bit like our old Hit-Men days of travel ball.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Talk about the strengths of this year’s Legion team.
BIRDSONG: Our Senior team is very experienced and is deep with talent this year. We have six players returning from college on our roster, and we are returning a very good pitching staff, along with some good athletes and just plain solid baseball players on this team. We have a very solid class of recently graduated high school seniors. There are six players from the class with at least two of them heading to play college baseball this Fall, and three others with interest in playing. We have a very talented and athletic group of players headed into their senior high school year. They will all play an important role in our success this season. This season Charleston doesn’t have a team, so we were able to bring in three players, who have added depth and given us additional college level talent. This team will be fun to watch! It is disappointing they didn’t get to play as a Legion team and make a run in the postseason, but we will make the most of the games we do get to play and enjoy every moment along the way.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Is it tougher to coach and prepare with all the new social distancing rules in place?
BIRDSONG: I don’t see it as tougher to coach. It just takes making sure our players are aware of the rules and are prepared to follow them as closely as we can. I am finding that each venue has posted rules specific to Covid-19, and each location does it differently. I am hopeful that we don’t have too many rules that take away from the games in general. Baseball in, and of, itself allows for social distancing and most of our players see each other pretty regularly and are a tight-knit group, so I think we will adapt pretty well to any changes we encounter.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Your first games are this Sunday and that will be the first time on a field. Are you ready?
BIRDSONG: We are excited to play on Sunday. We have been able to get in some good practices over the past three weeks. Our pitchers will most likely have shorter outings as we get started, but should be ready, and should get some good work in this weekend to lead into the next few weeks. We have been hitting in our cages and have been able to take a few ground balls and fly balls, but haven’t seen any live pitching or been able to scrimmage, so, hopefully, we can knock the rust off early. I think the fact that we can get on a field and play will be huge for these young men. We have quite a few of our players that thought their last game together or last game ever may have been played last July, so I expect we will be as focused and ready to go as if we practiced and played for the past three months.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: When will you know if you get to play some home games this year?
BIRDSONG: I believe we will know about our local field’s situation within the next week. I am extremely hopeful these young men get to play at Grimes Field at least one more time. For more than half of our roster. this will be their last opportunity to play at home in front of our home-town fans and enjoy the park. Time will tell if this happens. If it isn’t meant to be we will adjust and make sure the season is still a success.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Talk about your team’s coaching staff?
BIRDSONG: Our coaching staff is a great group of guys and again a large and fluid group that are there to help our players and our team have success. Raif Perry and Richie Smyer have been there to help out or to coach over the past nine years of baseball for many of our players. We have added Davis Johnson this year and Deacon Letner has returned from the Junior Legion Level, which gives us some needed youth in our Dugout. Tucker Rappe will help at both our Junior Level and senior level, so we are keeping him busy. I was really looking forward to the opportunity to coach with Jim Miller this season, but, with Covid-19, he will be limited to home games this season. Hopefully, we can get that done for him. He helped Coach Logan in the past, and I have coached against him these past few years while he was with the Charleston Legion program, so it would be great to have him join our team. We have other guys like Tyler Whitworth and Ryan Hutchinson that have helped in the past, and are busy with jobs and life and general, but they may show up and, as usual, they will be more than welcome.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: What are your goals for this year’s team?
BIRDSONG: Our overall team goals for the end of season have obviously changed, but we still want to play and win as many games as we can, compete against good competition, see our players improve and see if we can get them some opportunities at the next level. To be quite honest, if you had asked me one month ago what my goal for this season would be, I would have answered to get these boys a baseball game. They have lost a lot this year in regard to opportunities and memories. We can’t replace those opportunities or memories, but, if we can give them some baseball this summer: get a few wins and have some fun. I will feel like we accomplished something.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: You have two junior teams this year – tell us a little about the coaches and teams.
BIRDSONG: We have our Junior Legion team and have added a 14U Junior team this season. We are young at both levels for Legion Baseball, but with playing some travel games we can get them some games within their specific age groups or close to their ages. Our Junior team has a group of players who have played together during their travel ball years, and are returning a handful of experienced players from last season’s Junior Legion team to help create a solid team. I expect them to be very competitive this summer. They are coached by Brad Bergstrom, Tucker Rappe, Trey Skocy and Derek Owens. Again, some youth mixed with experience, Our 14U team was initially supposed to play a travel season in April and May and then transition into June to gain Legion experience, This team has played together for the past few summers and will do so again this summer. They will miss out on the Legion experience this summer, but will get some travel games and some DH’s in this summer. They did get to spend the winter getting ready with our older teams, so they should be ready to go next year for Legion Baseball. The 14U team is coached by Gabe Black, Chris Wetzel and Quinn Camfield. One of my goals when I took over the program a few years ago was to continue to allow and convince more former players to come back and help coach. At all three levels, we have guys who have played Post 88, and are now giving back to the program. I really enjoy watching them develop as coaches and how well they relate to the players.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Do you think we will have major league baseball this year?
BIRDSONG: I really think they will play this season, but I know, like most things currently, it won’t feel normal. I am looking forward to seeing them back on the field and hope they can get it worked out soon. I believe for the first time in quite some time the players may have the upper hand with the public, but the fact that there are millionaires and billionaires arguing over factors which relate to their money in these times, (it) is very frustrating to listen to day in and day out.
COLES COUNTY SPORTS: Is there anything else you would like to add? BIRDSONG: The term “Play Ball!” seems appropriate to wrap this up.