Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Uncle Sam baseball in 2010: your thoughts?

Every Monday this spring, I'm going to have a baseball or softball column of some sort in the paper. The first thing I was curious about this season was the lack of an Uncle Sam baseball tournament in 2010.

(Also look for regular track and field stories on Friday and lacrosse features over the weekends as soon as Chris Fitz Gerald is done covering the River Rats).

The Uncle Sam cancellation certainly isn't due to lack of interest. The biggest problem was that when the NYSPHSAA cut four games from the schedule a season ago, Big 10 rivals Troy, La Salle and Catholic Central would be scheduling half (two) of their total non-league games (four) to compete against teams they had already played during the regular season. The Big 10 teams would rather diversify their schedules and Lansingburgh, a Class A school, would rather play as many Class AA teams as it can to toughen up prior to the Colonial Council regular season.

Thus, the Uncle Sam tournament was dropped from the schedule in 2010. Here is an extended version of the column that will run Monday morning:

Play it again, Sam
Local coaches understand, yet lament, loss of Uncle Sam baseball tournament

William Montgomery
The Record

TROY — Behind the right field foul pole on the baseball diamond in Lansingburgh’s Knickerbacker Park stands a monument to the city’s rich baseball history. From the Troy Haymakers and the Troy Trojans, the precursors to the San Francisco Giants, to Hall of Famers King Kelly and Johnny Evers, Troy natives both, the national pastime has always had a major presence in the Collar City.
2010 is another year packed full of promise for Troy’s baseball teams, especially on the high school level, as Troy High and La Salle Institute are expected to contend for the Big 10 Conference regular season title. Both of those teams, along with North Side rivals Catholic Central and Lansingburgh, are hoping to play in their respective Section II title games at Joe Bruno Stadium.
Dave Bestle, along with many Collar City baseball fans, has plenty of memories from past Uncle Sam tournaments.
He remembers the time Troy High’s Shawn Miller no-hit his Lansingburgh team and how the Knights still found a way to win the game. He recalled all the rain showers and all the families and friends assembled to watch the city’s young baseball players clash for supremacy on the diamonds.
Much to his chagrin, Bestle, who left Lansingburgh a season ago for an opportunity to coach his son Kyle at Tamarac High, will not have an opportunity to participate in the 2010 Uncle Sam Tournament. No, he isn’t tied up with his Bengals that day.
The 2010 Uncle Sam Baseball Tournament, an off-and-on Troy tradition since the late 1970s, has been canceled, at least for this year.
Around 1978, former Lansingburgh baseball coach Dave Bochette created an eight-team preseason tournament that pitted teams from the city and neighboring towns in a battle for bragging rights, but that format did not last long.
“It was so difficult with the weather to get the games in that we just pared it down to the Uncle Sam Tournament featuring the Troy schools,” Bochette said.
Despite winning the tournament numerous times, Bochette began to take his team south early in the spring and the Uncle Sam event faded away.
In 1999, Bestle, who had taken over for Bochette, got together with the other coaches in the city to plan a resumption of the tournament. From 1999 to 2009, Troy’s four teams slugged it out for bragging rights.
“We figured it was a great opportunity to showcase all of the baseball players in Troy for college coaches and all of the families that had come to know each other,” Bestle said.
When the New York State Public High School Athletic Association mandated in 2009 that all baseball and softball teams play no more than 20 regular season games in 2010 and 2011, down from the standard 24, it meant that teams in the Big 10 Conference, which play a 16-game regular season schedule, have just four non-league dates.
For Troy, La Salle and Catholic Central to surrender half their non-league contests to teams they have previously played just doesn’t make sense for coaches trying to prepare their teams for a run to the Section II playoffs.
“With the state cutbacks, I can’t blame those guys for not wanting to play a third time,” said Lansingburgh’s current head coach, Joe Henkel, who played in Uncle Sam Tournaments in his days at Lansingburgh in the late 1970s.
The annual Uncle Sam softball tournament will still be played as scheduled on May 1 at Knickerbacker Park. The Troy High girls have won that each of the past five seasons.
Troy has long-standing non-league rivalries with Suburban Council powers Colonie and Shaker, teams which Lansingburgh, a Class A school, also played early in an effort to toughen up before the regular season.
Catholic Central’s first-year head coach, Don Glennan, who had previously coached in the New York City area, admitted he had never heard of the tournament and had not overheard any of his players or their parents lamenting its loss either.
Henkel created the first annual Lansingburgh Wood Bat Scrimmage this season, in which Troy, Catholic Central and former Troy High coach Jack Brady’s Ichabod Crane team geared up for the season by practicing situational hitting and testing everyone on the roster.
In its modern incarnation, the tournament was played in late May rather than before the season, which also had its implications. The teams that were assured of a postseason bid often saved the arms of their top pitchers, resting, rather than gearing up for the playoffs.
“A huge part of it, to be honest, is the weather,” Bochette said. “It sounds good and everybody likes to say it’s important, but fewer and fewer teams were playing in it because they were trying to win their league championships and battle for spots in sectionals.”
Although the Uncle Sam Tournament will be missed for its battle for bragging-rights and sentimental nature, Henkel doesn’t envision it reappearing until the NYSPHSAA reinstates those four games to the schedule.
“It’s something we should have and it’s something I would help to build,” Bestle said. “It’s something we should be doing again.”

Past Uncle Sam Baseball Tournament Champions
1999 – Catholic Central
2000 – Lansingburgh
2001 – La Salle
2002 – Lansingburgh
2003 – Troy
2004- Lansingburgh
2005 – La Salle
2006 – Troy
2007 – La Salle
2008 – La Salle
2009 – Troy
2010 – tournament canceled

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