STAMFORD — When recent Stamford High School graduate Billy DeVito was determining which baseball program to play with this summer, he weighed his two most viable options carefully.
“I actually thought I was going to play Babe Ruth at first and my mindset was going to Babe Ruth because I’ve always played it since I was 13,” DeVito said. “Then I figured out this team was going to be so good and the staff so good. That’s when I made my decision.”
“This team” is the Senior American Legion team, part of what has now become the go-to program in the city if you are of high school age and planning on or hoping to play college baseball. It is part of a seismic shift that has taken course in Stamford, and one that may undergo more changes in the future.
It now seems like another era when Senior Babe Ruth had the best players, and Cubeta Stadium attracted crowds in the thousands for regional and Babe Ruth play. Chris Sabia, now the Legion president, was a member of Babe Ruth teams in 1994 and 1995 that earned trips to the World Series.
Back then, no one ever spoke of Legion baseball in the city. Now it is a case of complete role reversal with the oldest age group.
When Sabia took over as Legion’s head administrator a decade ago, he said, “My motivation or my gameplan was not to compete with Babe Ruth, but to build a quality program. If you build it, the guys will come.”
While a battle may not have been overt, the bottom line is both organizations looked to attract the city’s best players, and right now Legion has them. Its senior team is the best representing Stamford at any time in recent memory. The pitching staff is led by Kevin Stone and Randy Polonia, who are headed, respectively, to Harvard and Connecticut, and are as good as any 1-2 punch around. Stamford has a deep staff that will serve it well come the postseason, backed by deep bats and solid defense.
It could have been an intimidating proposition for DeVito when measuring playing time. “I was going to be one of the best pitchers on Babe Ruth, but when I spoke to Coach Murray he said I’d be part of the staff,” DeVito said, referring to Legion coach Kevin Murray.
Capturing the thinking of Stamford’s best players these days, DeVito said, “I feel like Legion is more serious and Babe Ruth a little more laid back.”
Stamford currently is in first place in Zone 4, which it has won the last two years, with a 12-1 record, 1 1/2 games over Greenwich and 2 1/2 ahead of Stamford.
“I think one of the biggest things is our schedule, we play an All-Star team every night,” Sabia said. “Our schedule, if you are a baseball guy, is awesome.”
The baseball landscape in Stamford, as in most communities, has been shifting. Youth lacrosse, like the soccer boom more than two decades ago, is attracting many good athletes. While it will be a long time before Stamford’s high schools compete with teams from Darien, New Canaan, Greenwich and Ridgefield, it is attracting young players to the country’s fastest growing sport. That has been evident in recent years as Stamford’s Little League programs have been consolidating and there has been less overall talent at the high school level.
One counterbalance has been baseball facilities like Bobby Valentine’s Sports Academy, which offers the opportunity for year-round continuity and instruction by many of the area’s best former players.
Talk to Babe Ruth people and one of the criticisms of Legion is that coaches are paid. Sabia said that it costs about $1,000 per player to participate in Legion, which covers the coaching salaries, uniforms and travel. But in the current landscape it is a specious argument: the elite levels in almost every sport have become pay-to-play.
“What the people in Babe Ruth do is great for the city and a lot of people have given a lot of hours as volunteers,” Sabia said. “I have nothing but respect for that. There is a market for both.”
Indeed, Babe Ruth still has a lot to offer, and while Legion for the most part is now getting the best players, there is a lot to be said for a program that offers a secondary market for those to continue a sport they love. In fact, it is necessary for the long-term good of area baseball.
“I think we are at the crest of the wave,” Sabia said. “We are now reaping the benefits of what we’ve done. We have a great roster and our 17 and 15 teams are healthy.”
Don’t rule out more changes. AAU baseball is starting to grow, with a model that most closely resembles what the best summer lacrosse programs offer. And we have seen how those are thriving locally. Could some sort of consolidation ever happen, with baseball under one umbrella?
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. Most important is keeping a sport arguably best associated with the city flourishing, and Cubeta Stadium’s lights lit seven nights a week.
Right now, for the best older players, American Legion is best getting the job done.