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July 15, 2014

Two drop out of AAABA tournament

JOHNSTOWN — The All American Amateur Baseball Association Tournament figuratively hit into a double play on Tuesday.

This twin killing hurts.

The 70th annual AAABA Tournament will proceed beginning on Aug. 4, as scheduled. But two traditional tournament franchises will be missing, including 29-time champion Baltimore, the defending champs, and Maryland State.

On Tuesday morning, Youse’s Maryland Orioles officially announced the Baltimore team wouldn’t defend its crown this year.

The news sent shockwaves through AAABA circles, via the Internet, social media and good old-fashioned, long-distance phone calls.

But the day wasn’t over yet. Tuesday afternoon, Maryland State announced it would not field a tournament team this year.

Instead of an expanded 18-team bracket to commemorate the 70th anniversary, the tournament now will go back to the traditional 16-team bracket.

“We’ll make it work,” said national AAABA President George Arcurio III, who also is president of the Johnstown Oldtimers Baseball Association which sponsors the tournament.

“Hopefully we will be back to normal next year,” Arcurio said. “We’ve got to start looking for some franchises and get back up to where we were.”

The AAABA Tournament has dealt with adversity through the years, overcoming the aftermath of the 1977 Flood, raising funds through recessions and difficult economic times, and dealing with franchises coming and going.

But losing the all-time winningest franchise in tournament history during the 70th anniversary year hurts both in the bracket and psychologically.

“It’s normal for the national tournament committee and AAABA to roll with the punches,” said Altoona’s John Austin, a AAABA national vice president. “We’ve got good people in positions on the national tournament committee, and they seem to be able to figure things out when we are down and out with situations like this. We’ll have our 16-team tournament and go from there.”

Baltimore could not meet a recently implemented rule requiring teams to have 10 players from their home state on the roster, Baltimore General Manager Dean Albany said.

“It’s a shame. It’s the 70th anniversary,” Albany said. “It’s no fault to anybody in Johnstown or the tournament committee. They’ve done their jobs right. We’d rather do it this way than try to come up to Johnstown with an illegal roster.

“We love the tournament. We want to be at the tournament,” he added. “I’m not saying we’re never coming back.”

16-team bracket

Initially, tournament officials considered adding a second Altoona franchise to fill Baltimore’s spot in the 18-team expanded bracket. But after Maryland State left, the committee decided to go back to a 16-team tournament.

Without Baltimore, New Orleans is the only team remaining from what once was known as the AAABA Tournament “Big Four.” The Detroit and Washington, D.C., franchises each had dropped out of the tournament previously.

Baltimore is 269-89 in 66 tournaments. The franchise previously only missed three trips to Johnstown in 1975, 1999 and 2009.

Baltimore (29), New Orleans (13), Washington (10) and Detroit (seven) hold the top four spots with a combined 59 AAABA Tournament titles.

That means the rest of the field has combined for 10 titles all-time.

“To be honest, it shocks me very much,” said AAABA Executive Director Bob Wolfe of Baltimore’s situation. “Dean called me and they had multiple problems with players being hurt, with several of them being drafted, and three of them are signed. He is down to about seven players he could bring (from Maryland).”

Last year, the in-state, 10-player rule was announced after the 2013 winter meetings. Because most teams already had recruited players in the fall and winter, setting their rosters, the rule was waived for one year.

Albany said Baltimore had no problem with adhering to the rule and noted Youse’s Maryland Orioles even recruited extra Maryland players to assure compliance. But a series of events gradually depleted the number.

“We started out with 13 or 14 Maryland kids,” Albany said. “Then, (last year’s tournament MVP Ryan) Ripken signed (a professional contract). Another kid signed (after being drafted).

“Our catcher had an injury. Another kid had an injury. The University of Maryland shut down a couple of our pitchers.

“They gave us the rules in advance. They did it right,” Albany continued. “We tried to get Maryland kids. By doing that, I had to turn down kids from Mississippi and Florida State. In the Ripken League our record was something like 14-18. But we won the City League.”

Major League ties

Albany said he had been speaking with Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, a AAABA Tournament alumnus. Albany said Showalter and other major leaguers, past and present, fondly recall their Johnstown experiences.

“I was talking to Buck Showalter and I told him we couldn’t go,” Albany said. “He said, ‘Why? What do you mean you have to have 10 kids from Maryland?’ We all played in this tournament. We loved the tournament.”

Wolfe said the news probably won’t sit well with other AAABA franchises, even though their odds of winning just increased substantially.

“All us little guys sitting on the side, there are very few franchises in the AAABA that feel that this would be good riddance,” Wolfe said. “The majority of the franchises feel Baltimore is important to the class of the AAABA Tournament. It’s a sad time that they can’t be here.”

The tournament’s long-term future also might be impacted. Baltimore’s presence provides prestige and adds to the legitimacy of an event seven decades old. As Arcurio puts it, “We need to get these guys back in here next year.”

Albany said such a scenario isn’t out of the question.

“We don’t have anything but praise for this tournament,” Albany said. “They’ve done everything first class, and they’ve treated us great. I feel bad for Mr. Arcurio. He does all of that work. The Oldtimers have treated us great.”

Maryland State’s situation was different. Charles Blackburn, who heads the franchise, said Maryland State easily met the in-state roster rule.

“We use local, state ballplayers,” Blackburn said. “We don’t go outside the state of Maryland for ballplayers. Maybe that’s something we need to do.”

Tough breaks

Blackburn, who became emotional when informing AAABA officials of the news, said a series of unfortunate circumstances led to the cancellation.

“We had a team that was supposed to come but they didn’t fulfill their obligations as far as the administrative stuff,” Blackburn said. “They didn’t give us anything as far as players’ names and they didn’t finalize their roster. We eliminated that team and went through three or four other teams. Those teams couldn’t go because they didn’t have enough ballplayers.

“They were going back to college or to the beach or this or that. In my 50-plus years, I’ve never had anything like this. I had to do the right thing and call Bob Wolfe and let them know in advance. It’s a disaster this year. On top of that, we’ve had a terrible year with a late winter, lots of rain and make-up games.”

A Class of 2010 AAABA Hall of Famer, Blackburn has been a leader in the Maryland State Baseball Association in the AAABA since 1959.

“We’ve been with the AAABA since 1944,” Blackburn said of the franchise. “I’ve never had a problem getting a ballclub. This just hit me all of a sudden. I’m just so embarrassed.

“I don’t know what’s going on in the new generation of baseball players, but apparently there is something going on in this country that is not good,” he added. “I’m hearing the same type of stuff from places all over the United States. You’re seeing the end product of the travel teams where you pick and choose where you want to play on the weekend. They feel no obligation or commitment, and that’s kind of scary. That’s what our society is coming to.”

Blackburn, like Albany in Baltimore, hopes Maryland State will return to the AAABA Tournament in 2015.

“We want to come back next year,” he said. “We’re going to make some changes locally.

“We’re not going to let this knock us down. We’re going to get back up. The game will go on. I wish everyone up there luck."

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @masty81.

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