PORTSMOUTH — They say it’s not whether you win or lose, but indeed how you play the game.
Well, to be honest, most important for Ohio high school baseball players this summer is just to play the game at all.
Despite Ohio’s American Legion baseball season officially being canceled for 2020, the James Dickey Portsmouth Post 23 program is still on and — once again — is offering a season for high-school-age players.
Post 23 is sponsoring two teams again — a Junior and Senior squad — as the Post 23 Juniors consist of sophomores, juniors and seniors to-be.
The Juniors, who open a 28-game schedule over almost 40 days on Saturday, sport 16 players on their roster, according to a Twitter post @BaseballPost23.
Josh McGraw, a 1995 Portsmouth High School graduate and former Trojan and current Jackson High School head coach, returns for his second season coaching the Junior program.
McGraw’s grandfather Bill Newman coached Post 23 for three decades, and now McGraw’s son Caeleb — the primary Juniors catcher and junior-to-be at Jackson — is the fourth generation of McGraws to play.
“My family tradition is with Post 23. I think my grandfather would be proud of me down here coaching the program he helped build. He spent a large part of his life building the Post 23 program,” he said. “Now my son is on this team.”
But in an interview on Tuesday, the elder McGraw said simply that his son and all the other Juniors just wanted to be boys of summer.
“This year, unlike other summers, I will say that it does feel different. Winning may not be as important, as just getting to play,” said the coach. “Having that feeling of getting to play and having that feeling of mom and dad showing up at the ballfield and watching their son. I think these 28 games this summer may mean more than maybe it ever has. It feels pretty good. Practices have been fun, these kids like to be on the field. They’ve been stuck at home for two-and-a-half months.”
That’s correct, as 28 games are scheduled for June and July — when zero games took place in March, April and May.
In response to the coronavirus threat, the Ohio High School Athletic Association canceled this past season — as its mandatory no-contact period for baseball and all sports originally extended through May 31.
At the American Legion level, the cancellation dominoes fell their way backward — as in early April the 2020 American Legion World Series and all eight regional tournaments announced their cancellations.
The awarding of American Legion Baseball scholarships for the year was also suspended.
A month later, on May 4, the Ohio American Legion announced it was canceling its annual state and region tournaments.
That left any Legion season, or any independent league, in severe limbo for the summer — but as part of his Responsible Restart Ohio plan, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced on May 21 that any “low contact” or “non contact” sports can begin as of Tuesday, May 26.
Baseball obviously qualifies as such, and that prompted a pair of tweets from the Post 23 account, citing “that’s a great thing for summer baseball.”
Indeed, Post 23 wanted to sponsor summer baseball — and succeeded in doing so.
It is playing “an independent season following American Legion Baseball rules and guidelines,” and there will be a two-day region tournament in mid-July (July 17-18) to close out the campaign.
Other regional clubs for this summer include Chillicothe Post 757, Hillsboro Post 129 and Waverly Post 142.
“It was really difficult and heartbreaking not having a high school season. And we really never thought we would have summer ball, until the governor put it out there that May 26 you are allowed. I was shocked, and I think every other coach in the area was shocked because you kept hearing the opposite. The managers of the Legion programs did a good job because Legion season was canceled. They got together and tried to put something together. So we are independent this year, but we got games scheduled for these kids,” said McGraw. “These kids work their butts off all year. They need something.”
Which they now have, but McGraw said with players primarily relegated to home workouts for the spring, “nobody is really in shape.”
“That’s the downside. Arms aren’t in shape. It will be more difficult with pitching this year, and we are probably going to go with just two innings at a time when we get to games. We don’t want to stress anybody’s arm too much,” he said. “But we have a lot of kids, so we have enough players and pitchers to get us through the year. And they are understanding their roles and are fun to coach.”
Almost all Legion players play multiple positions, as the roster features primarily players from Scioto and Lawrence counties.
Five Portsmouth Trojans take a third of the roster spots — including the team’s two seniors-to-be in Hayden Yerardi and Michael Duncan.
The others include sophomores Tyler Duncan and Vinnie Lonardo, and junior ace pitcher Daewin Spence.
Wheelersburg will be represented by juniors Jacob Richardson and sophomore Eli Jones, while Valley junior Landon Jones and Northwest junior Kaleb Seals are the other Scioto Countians.
With the exception of Rock Hill sophomore Isaac Doolin, the remaining Lawrence County contingent is all juniors — including Ironton’s Jacob Sloan, Coal Grove’s Malachi Wheeler, Rock Hill’s Isaiah Kelly and Ironton St. Joseph’s Blake Stuntebeck.
The lone Kentuckian is junior Brock Kitchen of Greenup County, as Buddy Kitchen coaches with McGraw.
Matt Miller, once again, is the Post 23 general manager.
Kitchen returns along with Yerardi, Spence, Seals, McGraw and Landon Jones.
“This is a good group. And we’ve had that talk about positions and roles. That’s what’s tough about Legion ball. Most of these guys are middle infielders on their high school teams. But if they want to get in the game and get their bat in the lineup, we have to mix guys around,” said coach McGraw.
Speaking of mixing, Portsmouth plans to play Chillicothe, Hillsboro, Jackson, Lancaster, Ashland (Ky.) and Raceland (Ky.) — with both Portsmouth teams taking part in at least two tournaments and possibly a third.
The Juniors jump start their summer this weekend with two road doubleheaders — at Lancaster Post 11 on Saturday (12:30 p.m.) and at Chillicothe Post 757 on Sunday (2 p.m.).
“We play 28 games with a mixture of teams from Kentucky and southern Ohio,” said McGraw. “Very much like we did last year, but this schedule is condensed into 35 to 40 days instead of 60.”
And, while winning whatever amount of those 28 games does matter, it likely won’t as much this summer with the more important aspect of simply taking the field.
“The goal is to get these kids some innings, some at-bats and some time on the mound,” said McGraw. “Try to help them progress to their high school season for next year.”