Debt threatens future of American Legion Twins program
Since 1965, high-school-aged baseball players have been able to play summer ball with the American Legion Post 20 Twins.
Since 1977, Lance Coz - in addition to coaching through 2008 - has worked countless hours behind the scenes for the Twins, making sure logistics are in line and bills are paid.
At least some of that - and maybe all of that - is going to change soon for the program that won state titles in 1991 and 1995, had four players get drafted by Major League Baseball, and had two alumni play in the major leagues.
According to Coz, the Twins came into this season $12,000 in debt. This season, Coz said the program could accumulate an additional $10,000 to $15,000 in debt.
"A lot of people go under the assumption the American Legion always funds us at 100 percent," Coz said. "They have at times, and at times they haven't. This is one of those years where gaming is down for everybody."
When the program was $12,000 in debt after the 2010 season, the situation was nothing new. Coz said he typically ends up with some debt on his personal credit cards at the end of a baseball season, but the American Legion usually chips away at that debt and has it eliminated by the end of the calendar year.
That didn't happen in 2010. Coz said the American Legion wasn't able to start paying down the 2010 debt until June 2011. With the 2010 debt on the books as the 2011 season got set to start, Coz strongly considered ending the program.
"It was discussed," Coz said. "The parents voted up players fees and took other actions. I got soft-hearted and we had a regular season for two teams."
Coz isn't worried about the 2010 debt. The American Legion has told him it is good for that. What concerns Coz is the $10,000 to $15,000 of 2011 debt. He said he wants this season paid off before the end of the calendar year or the program's future is in serious jeopardy.
"We can't just keep rolling over debt like our federal government," Coz said. "If we do this season debt-free, we have a whole longer time period to prepare for 2012."
Coz said he generally gets a positive response from the community and player parents about continuing the program.
"It's all positive. Naturally, as we go along, we're playing baseball, and people forget about the bills," Coz said. "I never do. I wake up every day figuring out how to pay for this."
The ever-burgeoning sports scene on the Kenai Peninsula has made fundraising more difficult. Coz said many parents and players are involved with fundraising for high school baseball, basketball and football. That leaves no time for offseason fundraising for the Twins.
"In the old days, I could go out and get $1,000 pretty easily," Coz said. "Now that same person will give $100 and donate to nine other entities."
Further complicating matters is the desire of Coz to step back from the program a little bit.
"I constantly emphasize the fact we need to find a backup," he said.
Coz is particularly tired of fundraising. He said the American Legion also wasn't able to provide full funding in 1997 and 2000. In 1997, he did almost 70 days of fundraising to keep the program going. In 2000, the Peninsula Oilers gave the Twins some money and Coz also did fundraising.
"This year, I just didn't have 60 or 70 days," Coz said.
In addition to trying to fundraise all season, Coz also has been filling the hole left when John Butler, a longtime coach in the program, retired before this season.
"If we're not fighting debt, I don't mind serving in an advanced capacity," Coz said. "Right now, I'm averaging four or five hours a night with all the stuff that needs to be taken care of."
Members of the baseball community on the Peninsula said the end of the Twins program would deal a massive blow to baseball in the area.
John Kennedy played for the Twins in the late 1970s before playing baseball for Bemidji State University in Minnesota for three years. Kennedy has been a coach for the Twins in the past and also was the head coach for Kenai Central High School's first year of baseball this spring.
He said the Twins program, which played just 15 ballgames in Kennedy's day but now sometimes plays over 50 in a year, is invaluable for players that want to play baseball in college. Coz said 89 players in the history of the program have gotten some type of baseball scholarship money.
"High school won't do it," Kennedy said. "We play 12 games. I look at my situation when I went to Yavapai (Ariz.) Community College my first year. My coach said, ‘You've got talent, but you're from Alaska and you don't have experience. I don't have time to give it to you.'"
Beyond giving players a chance to get to college, Kennedy said the program instills important lessons.
"To become a better player takes a lot of discipline, hard work, repetition and practice," Kennedy said. "It's definitely worth its value there."
Kennedy said the death of the Twins program would also make it tough to build competitive high school teams because teams from Anchorage, the Mat-Su valleys and Fairbanks would be getting game experience throughout the summer.
Kennedy, who is serving as an assistant coach for the Oilers this summer, said he sees himself getting back into the program soon. He sees the extra fundraising and the reduced role of Coz as a huge hurdle, though.
"When I coached Legion, other than what the kids raised, I don't know where the money came from," Kennedy said. "That was Lance's thing."
Dennis Machado is the head coach for the Peninsula Oilers and the pitching coach for California State University Bakersfield. His staff was ranked 11th in the country this year.
"I wouldn't have done anything in baseball if it wasn't for the Twins program," said Machado, who played three years for the Twins.
After playing for the Twins, Machado was drafted out of high school by the Montreal Expos. He joins Dustin Krug, Chris Mabeus and Marshall Boze as alumni of the Twins program selected in the draft. Boze and Mabeus pitched in the big leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Machado also does recruiting for the Roadrunners. He said if the Twins program dies, not only will players not get drafted anymore, but players also will not play in college anymore.
"What they do at the high school level here - playing 12 games - doesn't come close to preparing somebody to play college baseball," Machado said.
He said the players he is recruiting are playing 120 to 175 games per year through various avenues in high school. That's why even with the Twins program and its effort to get players 50 games, most Twins have to go to a junior college before attending an NCAA school.
"The 89 kids that have come from the Peninsula and gone on to get money to play college sports, I'd put that number up against any sport there is on the Peninsula," Machado said. "It's a shame it's not funded accordingly."
But Machado said the Twins program is about more than getting players money to play college ball. Having coached Legion for four years at East High in Anchorage, Machado said the Twins program stands out for an atmosphere that is about developing young student athletes.
He said Coz has done more for baseball than anybody on the Peninsula, and it will be hard to replace Coz as he takes on a reduced role.
"I still use lessons I learned from Lance Coz 100 percent," Machado said. "How you go about your business every day, what his expectations are for us, that was the first real coach I ever had."
Machado said he would do what he could to make sure the program survives, and hopes the community follows suit. For starters, he would like to auction off a signed jersey from this year's Alaska Baseball League All-Star Game.
"I wish I was in a place financially where I could cut them a check and say, ‘Go play,'" Machado said. "As past players of the Twins organization, as we all get older and go down different avenues in life, I think we need to do what we can to help support the program and raise awareness of the program."
Soldotna's Jim Newby, a former coach with the Twins and a parent of three former Twins players, also was saddened to hear of the potential demise of the program.
Newby said three of his four sons had well over half of their college paid for by a baseball scholarship. Joey, who finished with the Twins in 1999, had a full ride at Colorado State University - Pueblo for his last two years of school. David and Eric, who finished with the Twins in 2001, also received college money from baseball.
Although Joey was not drafted due to injury concerns, he was signed out of college by the Oakland Athletics. He has now advanced to the Triple-A level in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization with the Albuquerque (N.M.) Isotopes, where he is 1-3 with a 3.69 ERA.
"It's just really sad," Jim said. "Lance ran a top-notch program of super integrity for the kids for so long."
Jim said Joey is intent on doing what he can to help the program.
Jim said he coached for four years and players still come back to tell him what baseball did for them. Jim said it is the attitude that the program instilled in those players that gives him hope.
"I've just seen so many kids have success because of that program," he said. "We always coached them not to give up. I'm not giving up and I'm going to count on them not giving up either. That's what we tried to teach."