Jack Gontowski, a 2018 grad of Friends Select, delivers late in Mt. Airy’s season-opener Friday. Gontowski pitched well, and allowed one (unearned) and struck out seven in four innings of relief. (Photo by Jonathan Vander Lugt)

by Jonathan Vander Lugt

For years, Philadelphia has managed to fend off the notion that American Legion baseball was dying in urban centers. Everywhere else (and even within Philly to an extent), players were getting snapped up for private travel teams that play in showcase tournaments instead of against local rivals.

Due to a strong baseball culture in the northwest and northeast, teams have been able to hang around on both sides of the Wissahickon and Pennypack creeks, keeping the Philadelphia County American Legion league alive. Fault lines, however, have been present for the past half-decade.

Last year, the number of teams dwindled to four. After starting the season with six, the calendar turned to July with only Roxborough and Mt. Airy in the northwest and Loudenslager and N.E.O in the northeast.

This summer, the situation is even more dire.

“Loudenslager lost their coach, and they couldn’t find someone else to run their program,” said Mt. Airy coach Jeff Istvan. “There was no shortage of players. It’s a shame. That left only us and Roxborough, and I don’t know whether or not N.E.O. would have been able to field a team. We can’t have a league with less than four teams.”

N.E.O. couldn’t get a team together, and Roxborough was set to join the Greater Norristown American Legion Baseball League, while Mt. Airy would join the Lower Montco league.

Suburban Legion teams closely mirror high school squads, as their catchment areas are bound by local school districts. In the Lower Montco league, for instance, Fort Washington’s team is mostly made up of players from Upper Dublin High School. Mt. Airy’s opponent in its season opener Friday, the Morelanders, are essentially Upper Moreland’s high school team.

For Legion teams Philadelphia County, this poses as issue. Within the Philadelphia league, teams that were unable to field enough players from their own areas could roster kids from around the city, so long as they lived within city limits. Suburban leagues, like the Lower Montco league, aren’t allowing this. It will only allow teams to pull from a district of at most 50,000 people.

Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and Germantown are about 11.5 square miles combined. This is in line with norms from the rest of the Lower Montco league – Upper Dublin Township, for instance, is about 13.25 square miles.

Those two areas, however, differ drastically in population density. The northwest has about 110,000 residents, while Upper Dublin has about 26,000. They have an entire suburban school district – and with it, much more sufficient baseball infrastructure – to pull from. The Stars can only take from less than half of what most people consider the Northwest, and this doesn’t even count the extant northwest neighborhoods of Cedarbrook (where Mt. Airy actually plays its home games), West Oak Lane and Olney.

Roxborough, likely needing to pull from Manayunk and East Falls in addition to its own municipality, couldn’t figure out a way to get enough kids within these rules. Mt. Airy, for this year at least, could.

“We were lucky enough to have a lot of returning players because we had a young team last year,” Istvan said. “Apparently Roxborough didn’t, so we’re the only ones left.”

Center fielder Eli Meredith (far left) and second-sacker Jaron Ellison (far right, number 3) fist bump after Meredith’s catch to end the third inning. The pair went hitless on the day, though coach Jeff Istvan expects them each to be among Mt. Airy’s chief offensive producers for the summer. (Photo by Jonathan Vander Lugt)

The Stars kicked their season off with a 4-1 loss Friday, but aren’t discouraged.

“I think we’re ready to embrace the challenge,” Istvan said, of the more difficult league in which the team now plays. “We had a lot of games – probably as many as half – that weren’t competitive last year. This year I think every game will be like this one.”

Istvan’s son Sam, who went to Germantown Friends School and now plays baseball at Division III Haverford College, started for Mt. Airy. A classic crafty left-hander, Istvan struggled and allowed three runs through three innings. Friends Select grad Jack Gontowski was nearly airtight in relief, striking out seven while allowing one unearned run across the last four innings.

“I had some adrenaline going, so I had a little bit of extra velocity on my fastball,” Gontowski said. “I was locating my curve as well. I have a lot of confidence in that pitch and if you can throw it regardless of count, it usually surprises the hitter.”

The bats struggled to get going, and Mt. Airy’s only run came around when Chazz Person scored on Sam Istvan’s RBI single in the fifth. With two outs in the next at-bat, Colin Brown nearly tied it when he poked a ball down the line in deep right.

Alas, it had a bit too much slice and landed in foul territory. He would strike out to end the inning.

In the bottom of the seventh Mt. Airy had the tying run up twice, set up by Gontowski’s leadoff double ripped to deep center and a one-out Ari Cantor walk, but Nate Teagle and Sam Istvan couldn’t bring them home.

“Our biggest problem this year is trying to find who can produce runs in the middle of the order,” Jeff Istvan said. Thomas Primosch, Garrett Melby (both of whom are also GFS grads playing ball at Haverford College) and Tony Brown – Mt. Airy’s three best mashers from last year – all aged out.

“We’re trying to find guys who can do that,” Istvan continued. “I think that our pitching will be okay, and that our defense will be better than it was tonight.”

Mt. Airy made a handful of errors on the evening both in the field and on the basepaths – it’s obviously not ideal, but it’s also something it can iron out by developing better chemistry after a week or two.

And that chemistry will come, a confident Jeff Istvan asserted.

“There’s no doubt that the biggest reason the guys are here is because they enjoy it and it’s fun,” he said. “Gerry [Givnish] and I try to keep it that way. We try to keep practices relaxed and let them have fun during games.”

He went on, “With these guys– because they’re not a cohesive high school team – it’s special because they get to hang with a group of friends that they don’t usually see.”

Around the Area:

Most area seasons came to their finish over the past week. Penn Charter felled Germantown Friends, 10-0 in the opening round of the Pennsylvania Independent Athletic Association playoff on Wednesday before ending Springside Chestnut Hill’s season with a 12-5 win the next day in the tournament quarterfinal. The Quakers would go on to lose to Malvern Prep 10-1 in the PAISAA semifinal Saturday.

Germantown Friends All-League Selections:

1st Team: Alex Mirage (Sr.), INF

Honorable Mention: Johnny May (Sr.), C

La Salle College High School rolled past Archbishop Carroll in the Philadelphia Catholic League final, 10-1 on Saturday. The Explorers blitzed through the tournament with a plus-17 run differential in three games, and will open as the top seed out of District 12 when the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) 6-A tournament begins on Monday, June 4. They will host the second seed from District 3, which is comprised of teams in central-southeastern PA counties.

Information from TedSilary.com was used in this article.