Funding efforts keep team on the diamond

After fund cuts a few years ago, the existence of Concord Post 51's baseball team came into question.

The local American Legion organization that had put up the team since 1949 decided to stop funding the program, which left local residents with close ties to the team scrambling to find a way to keep the summer program alive.

One of these people is Tim Furr, who has been around Post 51 for nearly his entire life.

"We couldn't let it go because it's fun - all the kids love American Legion baseball," said Furr, who would watch Post 51 games with his father as a child before growing up to play for the team in the 1970s.

Furr, who is now the program's athletic director, started calling around former players and formed a committee to keep it going by raising money from local residents and businesses.

The baseball team had a large number of donations three years ago but as the economy has weakened, the amount of donations has declined.

"This year is worse than ever, but we're going to make it," said Furr, who is a member of the Cabarrus County Board of Education, adding that they're now once again getting some help for the Legion chapter.

But the baseball team is still looking for private and business donations.

This year, the team has given 24 local 17- to 19-year-olds from five local high schools - Central Cabarrus, Concord, Hickory Ridge, Jay M. Robinson and Mount Pleasant - the chance to play baseball free of charge.

Eric Renfro, who also plays baseball at Stanly Community College, said the Legion team gives him the opportunity to not only stay in shape but also to keep doing what he loves - to play baseball competitively.

"It's something fun to do in the summer when you're too old to play AAU or Showcase," said the 19-year-old, who graduated from Robinson last year and is in his second year with Post 51.

The team is coached by two former Post 51 players - Jayme Russ, who is also an assistant coach at Northwest Cabarrus, and Justin Ridenhour, who coaches the Mount Pleasant Middle baseball team.

Russ, who pitched for the Trojans before moving on to Belmont Abbey and the minor leagues, said he's stayed around the program because he has good memories of his playing days.

"I enjoy being around the comradery," he said. "I want to teach it to these young men and be around the game of baseball."

Post 51, which is 4-7 (as of June 11), struggled at first but they have improved as the season has matured.

Shortstop Eric Brenk, who will play at Wofford after graduating from Robinson last week, Mount Pleasant's Matt Barrier and Central's Brandon Porter have all excelled in the past few weeks and have been hitting well.

The team's slow start had a lot to do with not having its Mount Pleasant players until later in the season, as the Tigers played in the 3A playoffs.

Ridenhour said the team had to develop team chemistry, which can pose a challenge when players from rival schools come together.

"At first you have a lot of groups within the teams," he said. "But you start seeing them come together as one team."

Russ said that the team has also had to adjust to a more strenuous schedule. Legion teams play five days every week while playing nine innings, compared to seven in high school ball.

"Guys aren't really used to that, but if they have any ambition of making it to the next level - as far as college - I think this is the best place to be to get ready," said Russ.

Ryan Watlington, a second baseman who just graduated from Central Cabarrus, agreed that playing more games than in high school can be difficult.

"It's a lot more tiring," he explained. "You have to learn to get your rest."

Watlington hopes the team will survive even though this is his last eligible year. He said it would be tough to lose the team and is thankful for the people who have worked so hard to keep it going.

"There are other teams out there, but it would never be anything like this," he said.

Ridenhour, who also played at Central Cabarrus, said that the end of the program would be devastating - not only to those who've played for Post 51 but to kids who wouldn't get the opportunity to do so.

"If you take that free baseball away from kids, it takes a lot away - they might not be able to afford playing in any other team."