Cameron Smith is entering his fifth season playing American Legion baseball for Rock Hill Post 34 and he’s starting to feel old.
He’s one of just two college players on this year’s roster, which is younger than in years past. An auburn-tinged beard surrounds the edges of his face - no gray yet! - and he lived on his own this past school year. He is getting old.
“I’ve always been the youngest guy on the team,” he said, shaking his head.
Smith and former Rock Hill High catcher Brandon Banks are the two veterans on Jeremy McCoy’s 2017 Post 34 club. They’ll try and get the program back to the state tournament for what would be the third time in four summers.
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“We’ve got pitching for days, we’ve got a couple of hitters on this team, pretty solid defense,” said Smith. “I think we have a very good shot.”
“We’re gonna go as our arms go,” said McCoy. “Everybody knows that with nine-inning games, pitching is what keeps you in the games.”
The consistency required to make the American Legion baseball state tourney is a fleeting and difficult thing to wrangle. Fickle weather, a constantly shifting schedule and spotty player attendance mean that McCoy and his players always have to be on their toes. Post 34 (3-1) swept Chester last week, but never had more than 12 show up for a game. Jobs, vacations and all kinds of other commitments get in the way but the season keeps plugging on. So do the players, who suit up with Post 34 for a number of different reasons:
Rob Hughes is committed to Furman but is still playing showcase baseball throughout the summer. Why, if he’s already headed to Furman and playing for Post 34?
“It’s more about getting on the pro circuit and seeing what pro scouts I can impress, see if I can go higher than college ball,” said Hughes, who had a strong spring pitching for 5A state champs Northwestern.
He’s one of several college prospects playing for Post 34, including his Northwestern teammates Wesley Sweatt, Coby Boan and Jordan Starkes.
Hughes can play both legion and showcase thanks to changes in American Legion rules. Instead of making baseball players pick one or the other, which invariably would have left legion programs short of players, the governing body is allowing kids to play both. Hughes was glad he can still play legion ball while trying to better his future prospects on the weekend.
“It’s a fun experience,” he said. “You get to play all the time, loose atmosphere and just more baseball to play, more fun to have.”
Hughes was quick to add that American Legion baseball gets serious in the postseason and that, unlike showcase or high school baseball, there is a World Series to win in legion.
“It’s looser in the beginning, but in the end, the stakes are higher,” he said.
Former Rock Hill Bearcat Brandon Banks had a little bit of arm trouble during his freshman season at Limestone so decided to play legion ball and not take up a college summer league roster spot in case he ran into more serious injury problems. A catcher and first baseman, Banks is one of a handful of returning players from last season’s team. They’ll try to recapture the spirit that the 2016 team had in reaching the state tournament.
“We had fun playing together,” he said, grinning. He didn’t divulge any more than that.
Smith has played with teammates like Andrew Shipman and Daniel Lipe since he was nine years old. Legion rosters are populated by guys like Lipe and Spencer Bala, a pair of South Pointe Stallions that in all likelihood won’t play any more organized baseball beyond high school. They’re having fun, but also soaking up the memories, the jokes in the dugout, the invented games to pass the time during a sudden thunderstorm delay, and the car rides to games with teammates and friends.
“Legion ball just helps strengthen the friendships,” said Davis Goodyear. “And get new ones.”
In between the guys playing for the final time and the college-bound players getting some needed repetitions, there are others like Goodyear. This summer is his first season playing American Legion baseball. He said he would have played anyway, but had a carrot dangled in front of him when McCoy called the coach at Anderson University, where Goodyear is headed this fall, and asked if he’d be interested in checking out the recent Northwestern graduate. The coach agreed.
Goodyear had a big senior season in helping the Trojans to a state championship. He hit over .400 and opened the possibility of playing beyond high school. Legion baseball puts him in the shop window for at least another month.
“I thought I’d get the experience. A lot of guys say it’s a lot of fun,” Goodyear said. “Even if I was over with baseball after high school, I wouldn’t want to give it up just yet.”
All of those sentiments were commonly held by Post 34 players. One more commonality: they want to win.
“I thought this team has a very good chance,” said Smith, the resident old head. “So I thought, ‘why not?’ Go one more time and see if we can try and win state.”