Comradery, atmosphere separates Legion ball

As the school year came to an end throughout Cabarrus County, a select group of high school and college baseball players put on uniforms bearing their town's names as they geared to play American Legion ball.

With the Legion season in its final stretch, players from both Concord Post 51 and Kannapolis Post 115 say they've not only had a good time playing baseball this summer but have built a comradery like no other.

"You don't get a brotherhood like you get here anywhere else," said Kannapolis infielder Wes Honeycutt.

Post 115 coach Matt Stack, a former Northwest Cabarrus and Kannapolis Legion player, agreed. "I remember more from my Legion seasons than I do high school - hands down," he said.

Concord coach Jaymie Russ said the main reason players have "a blast" playing Legion ball is because of the relaxed atmosphere derived from not having to worry about school.

"We try to keep it loose during the summer," Russ said. "I want them to have a good time, but when the lights are on, I want them to focus on baseball."

Concord's Ethan Ledbetter said Legion ball gives players a unique experience.

"It's a little different than what everybody's used to," the 19-year-old Mount Pleasant graduate said. "In showcase ball, it's not much of a team experience - you're pretty much going out there to show your individual talents.

"Here, you're actually trying to accomplish something as a team."

Ledbetter, who will play at Pfeiffer next season after sitting out a year as a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill, said Legion play forces players to improve their game.

Facing an array of off-speed pitches and fastballs in the mid-to-high 80s and even the low 90s, Ledbetter said, players must deal with some of the best pitching around.

"It's definitely a step up when it comes to the talent we see," he said. "It's definitely a good preparation for those of us who want to play college baseball."

Russ said Legion ball gives players a chance to witness what baseball is like beyond high school, having to play nine-inning games nearly every day and focusing on the sport.

"It's the closest thing you get to college baseball," said Russ.

Stack said facing talented teams creates a steep learning curve, especially for the young or first-time Legion players.

"They need to learn that you have to bring your A game every night," he said.

Another adjustment for Kannapolis has been playing in Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium, the Kannapolis Intimidators' minor league ballpark, but he can't complain about the opportunity.

"You won't play in a field this size very often," said Stack. "But it's been huge for this Kannapolis community, for these kids."

Players also have to get used to playing alongside rivals from the high school season. "Guys are a little tense around each other, but as the season goes on everybody jokes around and they get to know each other and start hanging out with each other off the field," said Stack.

That atmosphere is what keeps players coming back. Honeycutt, who's coming off his freshman year on the Montreat baseball squad, said although he had offers to play in a college summer league, he couldn't pass up a fifth season playing Kannapolis Legion.

"We have such a rich history that once you get into it, it's hard to get out of it," said the A.L. Brown graduate.

Both Cabarrus County teams have had up-and-down seasons. Concord (6-6, 5-5 in the Area III south division) has had to rely on its pitching, with Mount Pleasant's Anthony Allende and First Assembly's Stephen Gilmore leading the way with help from Ledbetter offensively.

Despite having college talent like Honeycutt, Belmont Abbey pitcher Taylor West and future Davidson lefty Rob Bain, Kannapolis (2-8, 2-7) has struggled to keep up offensively.

Concord swept rival Kannapolis with 14-1 and 6-5 wins this season. Both teams are preparing for the Area III playoffs, which begin July 8.