Consistent New Orleans Boosters seek another national championship

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Joe Scheuermann

NEW ORLEANS – It’s business as usual for the New Orleans Boosters baseball team.

The flagship team of the Crescent City’s storied history of summer amateur baseball is about to seek its third consecutive All American Amateur Baseball Association championship in Johnstown, Pa.

The Boosters, who play their opener in the 16-team tournament Monday, won the title in 2019 and 2021, and the event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They have won four championships in five trips to the title game in the last six tournaments, giving them 17 overall titles.

But the consistency of the Boosters, who have the second-most successful program in the nationwide AAABA, belies the instability encountered recently by teams from other local summer leagues that feed the All-American League teams.

“The whole summer baseball culture has changed,” Brother Martin coach Jeff Lupo said.

A series of developments have forced coaches, players and administrators to adapt in order to maintain the high standards they have established over generations for funneling top-tier players to the Boosters and preparing the best of them for potential college and even professional careers.

Summer baseball has encountered internal challenges such as divergent ways of constructing teams and an increased emphasis on individual development at the expense of traditional team competition as well as external challenges such as COVID and seismic changes to college athletics.

Accomplishing the dual goals of individual player development and team success has become trickier as “travel ball” and “showcase” events have become more prevalent and popular.

“The biggest problem with summer baseball is the staples of summer for years and years – Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, American Legion – have been challenged by travel baseball,” said Joe Scheuermann, a product of the New Orleans amateur baseball system, former Boosters coach and long-time head coach of the Delgado Community College program that thrives off players from the New Orleans high schools.

High-school coaches have tried to maintain traditional teams and leagues in order to enhance the competitive edge of players and summer teams while also preparing their schools’ programs for the next prep season.

But navigating the landscape with the arrival of travel ball has forced an assessment of whether the manner in which business has been done for decades can remain viable without appreciable adaptation.

Players and their parents have gravitated toward expanding showcase opportunities in hopes of enhancing the players’ chances of landing ever-shrinking numbers of college scholarships and improve the prospects for an even longer-shot professional career.

“The focus clearly has shifted to the next level of baseball,” said long-time prep coach Joey Latino, who’s presently the coach of the Boosters.

Some “old school” coaches have remained faithful to an approach that has succeeded for generations except for making toe-in-the-water accommodations to the changing landscape, and some coaches have made a leap of faith and adopted hybrid approaches that embrace the new normal.

“We’re in New Orleans in the summer,” Lupo said, “and you can’t be a one-flavor snowball stand.”

Gibbs Construction Cardinals

Arrival of travel ball leads to ‘dual citizenship’

Since 1928, New Orleans has had an entry in American Legion Baseball in which more than 3,400 teams (comprised of players aged 13 to 19) from all 50 states and Canada participate under the umbrella of the veterans association from which the league derives its name.

American Legion Baseball has been a significant launching pad for players from all over the United States, including Hall of Famers such as Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Tony Gwynn and Reggie Jackson.

Local legends who played American Legion baseball include Will Clark, Mel Parnell, Rusty Staub, Mike Miley, Wally Pontiff (Sr. and Jr.), Harold “Tookie” Gilbert, James “Pel” Hughes and Lenny Yochim.

In recent years the New Orleans American Legion program has had to adapt to a series of challenges. High-school players, including graduated seniors, used to see summer competition, especially Legion, as essentially a second prep season.

“When I was growing up summer baseball was every bit as important as prep was,” Latino said. “It has been a part of the fabric of New Orleans baseball for as long as I can remember.”

That traditional approach – whereby a battle in June between sponsored teams was greeted as passionately by the players as a battle in April between the high schools from which the sponsored teams were formed – was a foundation to the evolution of summer baseball competitiveness in the Crescent City.

“I talk to people from other regions, and summer baseball is a little more relaxed there,” Latino said. “It’s about letting the guys enjoy themselves and have some fun. But down here it has always been awfully competitive.”

New Orleans has been the source of six of the 26 Louisiana teams that have reached the American Legion World Series, and Crescent City representatives have claimed two of Louisiana’s five national championships – most recently Retif Oil’s title in 2012.

“New Orleans is a big baseball town,” Gibbs head coach Danny Riehm said. “You see great high school baseball all over the Greater New Orleans Area. It doesn’t surprise me that when we go to the regional level or the national level and World Series that we’re one of the teams to watch.”

But a series of recent changes have forced Legion teams to evaluate their approach. The biggest change has been the presence of travel ball, which has been around for nearly 20 years.

Travel ball is a term that often is applied uniformly to a diverse collection of groups focusing on individual player development rather than competition for a team championship.

These groups generally offer services such as individual instruction, participation on teams that compete in a series of “showcase” tournaments at college ball parks with the promise that players are more likely to be seen there by college recruiters than they would be playing on a traditional summer league team.

And there are groups whose services include travel and the showcasing of players, but aren’t limited to either or both.

“I don’t think ‘showcase baseball’ is a good term,” said former Tulane and Mandeville High pitcher Jack Cressend, a one-time New Orleans Booster who runs Knights Knation Baseball in Mandeville, one of the more comprehensive groups in the South. “‘Travel ball’ is a very broad term.

“A lot of the Legion guys are anti ‘travel ball’ and throw everybody into one bucket.”

Cressend defined the Knights as “an all-encompassing baseball development program.”

“We’re selecting players specifically to be part of our program,” he added. “Our end goal is to help these boys play at the next level while helping them develop to be the best high school player they can be for their schools.

“We’re not solely trying to showcase players. Some organizations, I believe, are strictly showcase oriented.”

Whether a group is considered “travel ball,” “showcase baseball” or a “baseball development program,” the primary thing they have in common is that they promise high school-aged players and their parents that they provide a better opportunity for players to get a baseball scholarship to college than traditional summer league teams do – though no one can guarantee that, of course.

The success that travel ball groups have had in luring players – often the more talented ones – away from their school-based teams has forced the school programs to adjust.

American Legion and other local summer leagues generally have limited their games and practice to a Monday-through-Thursday schedule, freeing players who want to participate in travel ball to do so on the weekend.

Brother Martin’s Lupo called it “dual citizenship.”

Brother Martin baseball

The old world and the new world

The modified approach to scheduling is an example of how the old and the new have learned to co-exist.

In some cases it’s the only accommodation of the new, in others it’s just the first of multiple ones.

Riehm and Lupo have been at the forefront of embracing the new world in hopes of providing their players “the best of both worlds.”

The Gibbs Construction team morphs into a travel ball team to participate in weekend tournaments as a supplement to its traditional in-week Legion schedule.

Lupo’s team has gone full-blown travel ball by partnering with Cressend’s Knights, adopting the name “LAK Crusaders,” to participate in prestigious invitation-only tournaments, though it sprinkles in week-night games against former Legion rivals.

“We play at college ballparks on the weekends for the most part – at LSU, Tulane, UNO, Nicholls, Southeastern,” Riehm said. “The players love that opportunity to be at the Division I fields, play against select competition. And then we overlay Legion on that.”

Lupo and his staff continue to coach their team just as they would have had they stayed in Legion.

“We’re trying to help our kids see the advantages of being in a school-based program that still plays under the travel ball umbrella to help them develop,” Lupo said. “We get to coach them, nurture them and develop them and start building our prep team as early as possible.”

Whether coaches are trying to blend the best of two different worlds or live in just one, they all seem to agree with Lupo’s statement that “you’ve got to find the model that best fits your program.”

Legion coaches accepted the dual citizenship as a way to keep players that might have left their teams if forced to choose between Legion and “travel ball.”

But it doesn’t change the fact that several coaches see the concept of “travel ball” as fundamentally flawed in its approach to player development.

Delgado’s Scheuermann: “The number one thing I have against travel baseball is the competitive edge of it. There’s no team championship concept to travel baseball. The score is the last of their worries.”

Rummel coach Franz Cazeaux: “There ain’t no bunting in travel ball. They’re paying their money so they’re swinging. Just go play and showcase how far you can hit the ball.”

St. Charles Catholic’s Wayne Stein: “One of the negatives of travel ball is you play four games this weekend, and win or lose you’re playing next weekend.”

“You come watch Brother Martin play Jesuit (at Kirsch-Rooney),” Scheuermann said, “and there’s 2,500 people pulling on the nets, yelling and screaming, and tell me that’s not going to make this kid a better ballplayer when he gets to college – as opposed to go travel and play at LSU with maybe eight people in the stands.

“You play for the championship in American Legion or Connie Mack or the Babe Ruth World Series, that’s pressure. That’s stuff you can’t teach as a coach.”

The absence of a championship to seek can adversely affect players’ focus, several coaches said.

“That high school coach ain’t out there getting on your ass when you misplay a ball or you overrun a base and get tagged out,” Cazeaux said. “Or there’s no discipline in the dugout. You’re talking about whatever you want to talk about in the dugout.”

“Players are looking to see who’s in the stands watching them before they’re looking to see who’s pitching against them,” Scheuermann said.

Lupo acknowledged that “the competition for a championship part is valuable” but doesn’t see the choice in black-and-while terms.

“My players are competing to prepare themselves for next year and where they’re going to fit in the program,” Lupo said. “It’s a different form of competition. It’s an attempt to intrinsically motivate them to be the best version of themselves every game that we play.

“If each one of them makes themselves a better player then collectively I think we’ll be a better team.”

Lupo cited other advantages he sees in the travel ball format compared to Legion.

“When they’re out of town they’re not playing the same opponents over and over again,” he said. “I think that’s good for them and staying together in a hotel builds some team camaraderie.”

 

Learning to work together

Most everyone agrees that the better high school programs and the better “travel ball” groups have gotten better at working together in recent years.

“Neither of us is going away,” John Curtis Christian coach Jeff Curtis said, “so if we don’t work together, then it’s not going to work out very well for anybody.”

One of Curtis’ former players, LSU first baseman Cade Beloso, said he benefited from dual citizenship, spending his last two high-school summers with the Knights as a complement to his experience with the Patriots.

“I don’t think a coach should hold a grudge against you for wanting to go play travel ball,” Beloso said, “and a travel ball coach shouldn’t hold a grudge against you for wanting to go play Legion ball.”

Jeff Curtis said he’s comfortable with the balance he has been able to strike with the Knights and other travel ball entities.

“You’ve got to do what’s in the best interest of number one the kid and then number two your program,” Curtis said. “In the spring it’s the other way around.”

Everyone agrees on the importance of communication – between the player and his high-school coach and between the high-school coach and the travel ball coach.

Stein’s approach to balancing dual citizenship can vary from player to player. A proven player can afford to miss time to play travel ball more than a younger player still trying to demonstrate his value to the school’s program.

“If you’re a returning starter you can miss some for us,” Stein said, “but you’re going to have to miss some for them as well.”

The communication is especially important to avoid overworking pitchers that might pitch for a Legion team during the week and for a travel ball team on the weekend.

“The biggest thing is not to have a kid get injured because of a lack of communication,” Jesuit coach Kenny Goodlett said.

Several coaches drew a distinction between organizations such as the Knights and others with a narrower focus that offer weekend tournaments on college campuses where the “showcase” might come in the form of a graduate assistant filling in for the head coach as the evaluator – or in a mega tournament that draws dozens of teams and college head coaches who zero in on the top handful of players while the large majority of players toil in obscurity.

“There are some really good opportunities out there for kids,” Rummel’s Cazeaux said, “but way too many people have their hands in there making money off the kids and their families.”

A showcase event isn’t likely to benefit players who don’t have unusual skills to showcase, but sometimes parents aren’t the most objective judges of who has “showcase” skills and who doesn’t.

“They’ve all got goggles on and think their kids are the best players,” Cazeaux said. “The ones I feel sorry for are the kids that have no shot at playing college baseball. They still go out there and pay their $3,200 or whatever it is, and there’s nobody looking at them.”

And “travel ball” requires other expenses as well.

“Traveling week in and week out becomes taxing – not only on the players, but on the parents,” Latino said. “There’s a financial burden when you’re staying in hotels.”

“If you’d take some of the money that these moms and dads have spent on travel baseball for five or six years of their career,” Scheuermann said, “they could pay for their college tuition.”

Most travel ball opportunities for local players have them playing on Louisiana college campuses on the weekend, though occasional events in neighboring states are sprinkled in.

Scheuermann said the assumption that players won’t get seen by recruiters if they don’t participate in travel ball events is “a fallacy.”

“The bottom line is if you can play they’re going to find you,” he added.

St. Augustine coach Barret Rey said players and parents have to weigh the travel ball and Legion opportunities and assess what their goals are.

“I don’t knock travel ball at all,” he said. “I think it’s very competitive and it gets guys playing and it gets them noticed. I think sometimes it comes down to a parent or a kid understanding what a priority is. At the end of the day we’re in this to win a state championship.”

Kenny Goodlett

Catching up with the times

The formation of the Gibbs team in 2016 was a byproduct of Riehm and his staff embracing another evolution of summer baseball – one that New Orleans Legion teams had long resisted.

Gibbs formed a de facto all-star team, taking advantage of an opportunity provided by schools taking multiple approaches to recently graduated seniors and their Legion teams.

Historically, seniors who graduated between the end of the high-school season and the start of the Legion season would have the opportunity to return for one last opportunity to compete for a championship with their high-school teammates before heading off to college.

But gradually some schools chose to focus instead on preparing for the next prep season and started limiting or even eliminating invitations for players who already had their diplomas.

Jesuit has continued to bring back seniors to play on its Retif Oil Legion team more frequently than has become the norm as most schools have generally emphasized preparation for the next school year.

“Our goal in Legion is to give our seniors an opportunity to come back and compete for a district and a state championship,” Goodlett said. “That’s part of our tradition.

“We want them to continue to give back to the school and it’s amazing how many kids want to continue to play for Jesuit and for Retif Oil and compete. It’s pretty cool to see because they’re invested and we’re just giving them an opportunity.”

This summer marks the 10-year anniversary of “a number of graduating seniors” returning and helping Retif Oil to win a Legion national championship.

“It meant a great deal to us,” said Latino, who was the Jesuit/Retif coach then. “It meant a great deal to the Jesuit community. And I think it meant a great deal to the city of New Orleans. That said something about how strong baseball is in New Orleans in the summer.”

It’s a feat that might not be seen again.

“I tip my cap to Jesuit,” Scheuermann said. “Jesuit went to the Legion World Series with one school, one team whereas some of these other programs are made up of four or five different schools and all older kids.”

And that brings us back to the exclusion of graduated seniors and the formation of the Gibbs all-star team.

“I’m not saying we haven’t allowed a senior here or there to come back and get some reps,” said Stein, whose St. Charles Catholic team won the Division I prep title in May, “but for the most part we want those at bats and those innings to be by someone we’re counting on for the next year.”

When graduated seniors that wanted to play one more season of Legion ball started being left off of their alma mater’s roster it presented an attractive opportunity for Riehm to adopt an approach that had become popular outside of the Crescent City.

Riehm scooped up graduated seniors who were essentially free agents and thus was born the Gibbs team that is based out of LaPlace. That produced a deeper, more experienced team that was constructed in a manner consistent with Legion teams from other areas of Louisiana as well as most teams the Cardinals are likely to encounter from other states in out-of-state playoffs.

“There was a void there and we thought that we could come in and fill it,” Riehm said. “Obviously it worked and we’ve kept over 120 seniors playing American Legion Baseball that if this team didn’t exist would have just been somewhere else. So I think that we have really contributed to the competitiveness of Legion Baseball. And I think a team like this brought a lot of excitement to it at a time when it really needed it.”

When the Gibbs team was formed, American Legion rules limited multi-school teams to drawing from a student pool no larger than 5,000. But that limit was raised to 6,000 last year and 7,500 this year.

“They are trying to make it easier for you to try and combine more schools and get better players to put a quality roster together because they know how many options are out there now at this level,” Riehm said.

Retif Oil baseball

The new kid on the block

Legion has withstood the challenge of travel ball and one could argue that the arrival of the Gibbs team has strengthened the league.

But locally, Legion encountered another significant challenge this summer.

The New Orleans wing of Louisiana’s American Legion league was gutted late this spring when nearly all of the teams from the Catholic League – the most successful high-school league in the state – chose to join the newly formed Crescent City Sports Prep Summer League (CCSL) rather than remain a part of American Legion Baseball.

The 11-team remnants of Louisiana American Legion, which once was comprised of 34 teams in two districts, had just three teams from the New Orleans area – a St. Augustine High School-based team, the Jesuit-based team (Retif) that was added at the 11th hour and Gibbs.

“American Legion has been the staple of summer baseball in this area forever and ever,” Scheuermann said. “To say there are only three teams in the city of New Orleans is heartbreaking to me.”

The other Legion teams are scattered among Abbeville, Gonzales, Lafayette, Crowley, Opelousas and Benton.

The CCSL featured Catholic League programs from Jesuit, Holy Cross, Brother Martin, Rummel and Shaw and they were joined by others from the Metro area – from Newman, John Curtis, De La Salle, Chalmette, St. Paul’s, St. Charles Catholic, Lutcher, Hahnville, Northshore, and Lakeshore – as well as Ascension Catholic from Gonzales.

The league featured several differences from Legion, including: the prohibition of recently graduated seniors; no roster limit; an absence of Legion’s cumbersome red tape; no time limit for games; and a fixed end to the season.

The roster flexibility was especially attractive to the schools that chose the CCSL over Legion, which limits rosters to 18 players throughout the country. The unlimited rosters and the prohibition on graduated seniors enhanced the coaches’ ability to evaluate players for their next high-school season.

“In summer ball for us,” St. Charles Catholic’s Stein said, “I want to be able to hit 10 kinds, sub a guy here and give him an opportunity to show me that he can play next year.”

The season climaxed with a two-day, single-elimination playoff at Lutcher that concluded earlier this month with Jesuit-based Retif defeating Curtis-based River Ridge in extra innings for the title.

The CCSL ended July 7 as scheduled whereas, the Legion state tournament ended July 18 with Gauthier Amedee eliminating Gibbs and Retif to advance to a regional tournament that begins next Wednesday.

That leaves little time for a break between a successful Legion post-season and the start of classes and especially the start of preseason football camp for dual-sport athletes.

“You want to be able to tell kids when they’re off,” Rummel’s Cazeaux said, “and in Legion you really couldn’t do that.”

Added Stein, “I didn’t want them to be so burned out that they chose just football or just baseball.”

A break is an important consideration for dual-sport coaches as well, especially Stein, who doubles as St. Charles’ head football coach and will be defending state championships in football and baseball during the upcoming school year.

As for the CCSL overall, the consensus seems to be that the inaugural season was a success and the league has room for growth for 2023.

Cazeaux, who was a driving force behind the new league, said, “We’ll probably get to about 20 teams next year.”

Trying to reach the next level

Summer baseball programs in New Orleans have produced countless players that contributed to several strong college programs throughout Louisiana. LSU has won six national championships in its 18 trips to the Men’s College World Series. Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette have both made two trips to the MCWS.

Southeastern Louisiana and Louisiana Tech joined LSU and UL in the 2022 NCAA Baseball Tournament.

But most of the players who participate in summer baseball in New Orleans will see their playing careers end when they enroll in college, though travel ball is designed to improve the chances of players being able to compete in college.

On average whenever two summer teams are competing only one player from the two teams will wind up playing college baseball.

“That’s never changed since college recruiting started,” Scheuermann said.

Cressend said this year the Knights have had 106 players graduate to college programs of various levels, a record number for the 16-year history of the program.

“What a moment for us (when a player signs a scholarship). What a moment for the high school program and coach. And of the course the player and the family,” Cressend said. “That’s what really makes this worth doing.”

For the few players that do get a chance to play in college, participating on an all-star Legion team such as Gibbs also can help prepare them for the next level.

“One of the biggest things that we have to do is get guys that are used to be being superstars at their respective high schools to buy into, what can we accomplish as a team?” Riehm said. “They may go from being a three- or four-hole hitter and a go-to guy at a high school to being a pinch hitter, a pinch runner, a defensive replacement late in a ball game.

“What that does is really give them a chance to experience how the competition at the collegiate level is going to be in the summertime before they actually get to it. When they step foot on campus, every guy next to you being really good is not going to rock your world because every guy next to you all summer long is going to be really good.”

But getting from a high-school team to a college team has gotten more difficult since the disruption to college careers caused by COVID-19 led the NCAA to grant extra years of eligibility to players.

“College baseball is really stacked up right now because of COVID,” Riehm said. “It’s really hard to get a spot anywhere in college baseball.”

“Junior college is the way to go,” Cazeaux said.

Colleges that do have scholarships available tend to look into the NCAA transfer portal first, trying to find players who already have college experience rather than hoping high-school players can handle the more challenging competition.

“The transfer portal has changed recruiting at the college level more than anything else in the last decade,” Scheuermann said. “It’s out of control.”

Thousands of college baseball players have entered the transfer portal in 2022 alone.

Scheuermann and Delgado have benefited from the logjam at four-year colleges because players often see an opportunity at the junior-college level that they were unable to find elsewhere.

The coach said his phone started “blowing up” when college seasons ended and players realized they weren’t getting the opportunity that they expected.

That will benefit one of the more successful junior-college programs in the country, which has made three National Junior College World Series appearances in the last nine years.

But in the meantime, this summer baseball season is winding down and the Boosters’ version of travel ball has them heading some 1,100 miles north to the biggest showcase event of them all.

New Orleans Boosters baseball

The anchor in a sea of change

This is the 76th summer that New Orleans has had a team competing in Johnstown, dating to legendary coach Johnny Altobello of St. Aloysius, who coached the first team in 1946 and took teams to the AAABA event in 1947 and 1948, winning the ’48 title.

Scheuermann’s late father Rags succeeded Altobello in 1951 after the All-American League took a two-year hiatus for the Korean War, and the elder Scheuermann won his first title in 1953.

In addition to its 17 first-place finishes, New Orleans has 12 second-place finishes and an all-time winning percentage of 69 percent (363-249).

The Boosters’ consistency can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that, like any enterprise that has been successful for generations, the organization has utilized its tradition and former members to maintain the high level of performance.

“The reason it survives is because it’s funded by an organization called the New Orleans Boosters,” Scheuermann said, “which is made up of exactly that – former New Orleans players who boost the league.”

This is one travel ball group that doesn’t have to pay to play.

“The Boosters throw an annual fund raiser for the trip,” Scheuermann said. “Kids don’t have to pay to travel. That’s almost unheard of in this day and age.”

So amid all the challenges facing summer amateur baseball, the Boosters operate pretty much as they always have.

And the rest of summer baseball leagues, coaches and players in New Orleans keep adjusting to curveballs that get thrown their way.

“It’s fractured,” Latino said of the summer baseball structure, “but I think the level of play, the skill sets, the talent level is still as high as it’s been.

“I think summer baseball in New Orleans is going to survive all the uppercuts and the crosses. It’s resilient and it’s always going to be that.”

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Les East

CCS/106.1 FM/Daily Iberian

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…

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