As American Legion World Series game time neared Saturday, Diyon Ellis, 18, stood on the field at Shelby’s Keeter Stadium remembering the months of hard work it had taken to get there.
Ellis, who plays for the team in Jacksonville, Fla., said state baseball competition was easy, but he called regional action “very tough.”
Despite the challenges, Jacksonville made the cut and was among eight teams from all over the country taking part in the World Series, which began in Shelby on Thursday and wraps up Tuesday.
Ellis wasn’t feeling great because a baseball had hit him in the back the day before. “I’m fighting the pain just to play,” he said. “I love baseball. It’s my passion.”
Passionate players and fans are making the American Legion World Series an even bigger and better event, organizers say.
Each day, crowds are filling the 5,000-seat, minor-league-quality stadium on the Shelby High School campus. Organizers hope to top last year’s series attendance mark of 104,000.
“It’s a phenomenal event,” said series co-chair Eddie Holbrook. “It’s a dream and a vision of a community. People said it couldn’t be done, but we’ve done it.”
Based in Indianapolis, the American Legion is the nation’s largest veterans service organization. Until 20 years ago, the series went to large cities but then switched to medium-sized communities that didn’t have big-time ballclubs.
Shelby hosted the legion’s Southwestern regionals in 2002 and then in 2008 hosted the legion World Series. For each event, a committee raised money to upgrade the Shelby High School stadium, built in 1976.
A community committee worked for nine years to get Shelby chosen as the first permanent location for the legion World Series. They made the pitch to legion officials in 2010, and Shelby won.
A small army of volunteers – now more than 700 – makes the 15-game series possible. They sell souvenirs, run concessions, clean restrooms, pick up baseball teams at airports and wash uniforms.
The 648 hotel rooms in Cleveland County were booked, and some fans were staying in Forest City, Gastonia and Charlotte.
Holbrook, a Cleveland County commissioner, said the legion World Series’ overall economic impact to the county is about $7 million.
Businesses in downtown Shelby displayed World Series welcome signs. A window display at Hats Off Salon on Lafayette Street included baseballs, a catcher’s mitt and a Louisville Slugger.
On Saturday morning, Raleigh police officer Sherman Gillespie and his 11-year-old son, Carson, dropped by the Shelby Cafe for breakfast.
A Shelby native, Sherman Gillespie was back in his hometown to volunteer at the series. Carson was a batboy during Friday’s game between Columbia, Tenn., and Waipahu, Hawaii.
“The Hawaii team gave me a necklace made out of seashells,” he said. “For good luck.”
Inside the cafe, about a dozen American Legion staff members ate breakfast before the 1 p.m. game.
Making each day special
Larry Price, chairman of the American Legion’s National Baseball Subcommittee, called the series the “highlight of the baseball season.”
“It doesn’t get any higher than this,” said Price of Redfield, S.D. “We want to provide players with an experience they’ll remember the rest of their lives.”
Saturday was Youth Appreciation Day at the series. Sunday’s focus is on the military with all retired and active military personnel getting in free. They’ll also get free hats and commemorative dog tags.
The Green Beret Skydiving Team will parachute onto the field at the 5 p.m. game, and there will be a special program honoring retired Army helicopter pilot Bruce Crandall. He was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions during the Ia Drang campaign, the first major battle of the Vietnam War.
ESPNU will televise Tuesday’s championship game live.
Among the fans filling Keeter Stadium on Saturday was 80-year-old Connie Philbeck of Shelby. She comes to every game and stays to the finish. Her favorite spot is the top row, left of home plate on the third base line.
“It’s my all-time pleasure thing to do,” Philbeck said. “This is pure fun baseball. When you see kids this age, they’re playing it for the love of the game, not money.”