As a young baseball player, Jimmy Lawler used to spend his summers on the old field at Gainesville High as a member of the Post 7 American Legion baseball team.
It is there that he played alongside several of the best players in the area, formed lifelong friendships and, as he put it, “had the best time of my life playing baseball.”
While Post 7 hasn’t fielded a team in years and Gainesville’s other American Legion team, the Reds, folded a few years ago, high school players used to be able to share in that experience when playing on the Gainesville A’s. But not anymore.
Citing a lack of time and money, former coach and recent college graduate, Clay Haynes decided to step down and was unable to find a coaching replacement.
“It’s something I loved doing, but at this point in my life, I have other things I need to take care of,” Haynes said. “I had people set up looking to take over, but no one was able to put in the time, effort and money to run a team.”
Former general manager Mike Casper said that the decision to halt the team’s 11-year history was not easy.
“I have 11 years vested, so it’s a little disappointing,” said Casper, who helped start the team in 1998 when it was affiliated with Oakwood Post 308. “I knew Clay’s situation last year would mean he couldn’t pursue it anymore and I thought a couple of assistants would take over, but they didn’t.
“I didn’t find out there wasn’t a coach until a month ago, and by that time it was too late,” he added. “It was one of those things that fell through the crack.
With the Gainesville A’s not playing baseball this summer, some of the area’s top talent have to look elsewhere to hone their skills.
“We like for our better players to go off and get the best competition they could get, and the A’s were an option,” said Lawler, the coach of the Flowery Branch Falcons who had several of his players play on the A’s in the past.
“I felt like it was a positive thing because they were better because of that,” he added.
Several of the game’s best players were helped in their progression toward a successful career, as Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Stan Musial and Frank Robinson, as well as current stars Albert Pujols, Justin Verlander and Chipper Jones all played American Legion.
Although there are several —Blairsville, Cumming and Alpharetta — local American Legion posts that still have teams, Lawler and several other area coaches have recommended their players head to Winder and play with Team Elite.
“They’ve gotten a lot of our guys because they didn’t have any place to play,” said Lawler, who found out two weeks ago that the Gainesville A’s wouldn’t field a team.
One of those guys is shortstop Logan Conley, whose playing with Team Elite’s U-17 grey team.
“It would have definitely been more convenient if there was a team out here,” Conley said. “But I wanted to get my name out so I have a better chance of getting recruited.”
Receiving a scholarship offer isn’t a guarantee when playing summer baseball, but improving your game is.
“You’ve got to prove yourself,” Conley said. “You have to show what you got everyday. It’s a whole different environment (than playing on the school team in the summer).”
Every high school fields a summer baseball team and competes in several tournaments, but the level of competition isn’t as great as in travel ball, including American Legion.
“I thought American Legion always had better competition,” Lawler said. “I had a great experience playing on those teams and I always had great coaching.”
Players certainly have other avenues in regards to summer baseball — aside from Team Elite, some players compete in the exclusive East Cobb league and some play on All-Star teams — but those leagues can be costly even compared to the $600-650 fee players had to pay to don an A’s jersey.
The cost of playing in another league raises once you factor in traveling costs, which makes having a local travel team so appealing.
“Someone needs to pick it up,” Lawler said. “It’s a shame because there’s so much baseball talent and history around here that there should be an American Legion team.”
While he admitted he knows of “nothing in the works,” Casper said that an American Legion team, or something like it, may return to Gainesville.
“I hope somebody would take the mantle and hopefully get things going for next year,” Casper said.