Since the Wisconsin American Legion baseball association switched the state tournament format to an eight-team, double-elimination tournament in 1968, Janesville has the most successful program in the state.
Post 205 has won seven AAA state titles and in 1989 become the only Wisconsin team to play in the World Series. Under manager Jerry Davis, Janesville finished third at Millington, Tennessee.
My father, Dale, won a state-record five state titles between 1968 and 1977 for Post 205 and still ranks in the top five in state history for all-time wins.
Yet with the 2021 AAA state tournament set to begin Tuesday in Plover, Janesville won’t be making what would’ve been the program’s 27th state appearance. It’s hard to qualify for state when you don’t field a team.
So what exactly happened to this once-storied program?
COVID-19 canceled the 2020 season.
Travel ball put an end to the 2021 season.
Simply put, too many Janesville Craig and Janesville Parker players that could’ve formed a strong Janesville Legion team opted for travel ball, instead.
Sadly, that’s the current state of affairs in the city, and there don’t appear to be any hopes of reviving the Legion program in the near future.
My dad always told me that when it came to judging talent, “if a player is good enough, scouts will find him.” That’s not the case anymore. It’s all about exposure for players, and that exposures comes with playing on traveling teams such as Hitters or STiKS and not for a city’s Legion team.
Scouts used to flock to Riverside Park to check out the local talent.
Janesville’s 1969 Legion team had three players selected in the MLB Draft—Kent Burdick by the Cincinnati Reds, Jerry Davis by the New York Mets and Gary Gloede by the Cleveland Indians. The only travel teams that existed back then were the Janesville Youth Baseball Babe Ruth tournament teams.
Scouts, and more important, college coaches now flock to see the current traveling teams play in elite tournaments throughout the country. The Hitters Class of 2023 team, which features Craig junior Aiden Schenk, plays tournaments on weekends throughout the summer all over the Midwest, along with a full schedule of daily games during the week.
Schenk, a first-team all-Big Eight selection, was one of two Craig players to miss the Cougars’ regional title game to attend a Showcase event that featured the top sophomores in the Midwest. People were stunned that Schenk and another first-team all-Big Eight selection, Jake Schaffner, would miss an important high school game to be with their traveling teams. I was not, nor did I blame them. The Craig coaching staff knew in December that Schenk and Schaffner would likely miss some tournament time due to the Showcase event. The WIAA season is normally wrapped up by the middle of June, but the 2021 season started two weeks later because of COVID concerns. Teammates were supportive of Schenk and Schaffner’s decision, and Craig blasted Mukwonago in their absence to win the regional title and advance to sectional play.
With traveling teams popping up all over, it’s relatively easy to find a team to play on as long as mom and dad have the money to pay for it and are willing to spend the summer crisscrossing the country. Simply paying to play on a team is not nearly covering all the expenses. Gas, food, lodging and other various travel expenses are added to what is normally a fairly steep price to play on a traveling team.
And judging by the number of Janesville players that found a pipeline to the collegiate level, playing for a traveling team is now the norm and not the exception. Jake Campbell (Illinois), Evan Spry (Creighton), Noah Berghammer (Minnesota), Dan Blomgren (Michigan), and former Michigan star and current Colorado Rockies rookie Jack Blomgren all used their traveling team as a platform to showcase their talents.
My dad is probably rolling over in his grave knowing the Janesville American Legion baseball program is on life support, but it’s all about exposure now. Something that, unfortunately, won’t be happening anytime soon at Riverside Park.