Road trips in Legion baseball make for memorable summer moments
“A lot of people fixate on the games but it’s the journey in between that’s meaningful. You see America’s curiosities along the way,” Libby coach Kelly Morford said.
MITCHELL — A road trip is synonymous with summertime.
And in American Legion baseball, it’s in lockstep with camaraderie, fresh opponents and a chance to see the country and play some baseball all at the same time.
For members of the Mitchell Post 18 Legion baseball team and the teams that roll through on Interstate 90 to visit and play, the road trips are part of their favorite aspects of playing summer baseball.
Thursday was a great example of the Legion road trip logistics meeting up in Mitchell. Post 18 took on the Libby (Mont.) Loggers and the Gillette (Wyo.) Riders in a split doubleheader. For both opponents, they were on their way to larger events and stopped in Mitchell to get a game along the way. Libby was headed to the College World Series this weekend, while Gillette is playing in the 35-team Dakota Classic in the Sioux Falls area, with at least four games on the schedule and more possible if they win their pool.
Libby and Gillette didn’t need to play on Thursday in Mitchell; they met up in Gillette on Wednesday for a seven-inning game before heading more than 400 miles east to Mitchell.
Mitchell coach Luke Norden said teams don’t end up in town by accident, with Mitchell benefitting as a town with a good reputation and the right location along Interstate 90.
“Coaches talk about where there are good places to stop if they’re going through, and it depends on where they’re going in a given year,” Norden said. “I like when teams stop in like that. We get a home game and obviously, it’s a unique experience for both teams.”
Libby coach Kelly Morford, in his 17th season leading the team from northwest Montana, said he had lined up a game in Gillette on the trip. After that, he asked his longtime friend Nate Perleberg, who coaches Gillette, about where the best place next to stop for a game was.
“And he said we had to stop in Mitchell because there’s a great field here,” Morford said.
Libby’s trip through Mitchell and to the College World Series has been years in the making. It was first scheduled for 2020 but the trip was canceled due to COVID. Now in 2022, it’s a trip of a lifetime for the Loggers, who hail from a proud baseball town of 2,750 people that is located more than 1,100 miles from Mitchell.
They’re visiting five states and playing games in three states on their Omaha trip, plus stopping in Denver to see the Colorado Rockies play the San Diego Padres. In a Facebook post, the team said their route is 3,142 miles round trip, with 48 hours of driving on the schedule between June 13 and June 21.
“Libby is quite a bit of a drive but we went for it,” Morford said. “As long as the bus keeps running, the boys stay ready to play.”
A good time on the road
Libby’s trip this year is in part dedicated to one of the godfathers of Legion baseball trips like these. Morford said he has dedicated it in memory of Jack Helber, an American Legion baseball coach who had more than 60 years of baseball coaching experience when he died earlier this year at age 81. Helber made a name for his Claremont (California) program — where he coached future baseball star Mark McGwire — in the 1980s and 1990s for driving all over the country to play in Legion baseball events and scheduling games all across the western U.S. Helber coached for a time in Morford’s hometown of Miles City, Montana, and was an assistant for the Loggers on Morford’s staff.
“A lot of people fixate on the games but it’s the journey in between that’s meaningful. You see America’s curiosities along the way,” Morford said. “To spend seven, eight or nine days with your teammates, you usually come out of it a different ball club.”
Libby tries to take a trip every year, with the College World Series trip now on the schedule for every three years to allow all players in the program to get to experience Omaha. Other recent trips have included going to Seattle to watch the Mariners and heading into Canada for a trip centered around the Calgary Stampede rodeo.
“I’ve been talking up the Corn Palace to the guys,” Morford said prior to Thursday’s game in Mitchell. “We know we will need to stop there after the game.”
Both Morford and Norden said they appreciate the chance to provide a new experience to their teenage ballplayers to see a part of the country they might not otherwise see.
“I’m surprised how many guys who said they’d never been to Devils Tower or had never heard of it,” Norden said. “I like going to places like that and the guys get an experience they’re going to remember.”
Mitchell’s Riley McGinnis and Seth Muth each said that the road trips involved with Legion baseball are among their favorite parts of playing for Post 18 each summer.
“I love it. You don’t know much about a lot of those teams but the ones that travel are typically pretty good and it’s fun to have that different challenge and get to compete and have fun,” McGinnis said.
Mitchell will pay back Gillette next week when they play in the Riders’ signature summer tournament, the Hladky Memorial Tournament over a handful of days. Like Gillette did this week, Mitchell will stop and play at Sturgis on the way and once they get to Wyoming, they will be in a pool with games against teams from Colorado, Montana and Washington state, all of whom will be mostly foreign in terms of tendencies and scouting.
“From our perspective, it’s good for us,” Norden said. “There are some things that we do where the other teams won’t know. We won’t know what the other team does, who their hitters are or what their tendencies are. It plays an advantage for us because they don’t know a lot about us and it generally works in our favor.”
McGinnis said his favorite trip has been the Veterans Classic in Rapid City, which is regularly in early June. It gives the Legion team a chance to bond early in the season and come together as a unit. Muth said his favorite has been the Gopher Classic, the 96-team competition in Minnesota, because of the quality of competition and because Mitchell usually tries to work in attending a Twins game.
“The team bonding and spending that time in the hotel and on the bus, it’s just great,” Muth said. “I think it creates a better team and we play better together when we’ve had that experience.”
“You get to wake up and have breakfast with your buddies,” Norden said. “You don’t really get to do that on a normal day. You get to stay in the room with them and the amount of time with them on the drive that you get to socialize and talk, that’s just an enjoyable part of it.”
For players like McGinnis, there’s no question that he will remember Legion baseball for more than just the wins and losses and the play on the field.
“It’s crazy how close you get over the years,” McGinnis said. “You just sit and hang out with each other for hours and hours and spend this time together. You make great friendships on these trips.”