SLABA: Local Youth Baseball Organization Thriving
Area St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association team the American National Eagles plays home games at the Hazelwood Sports Complex, and draws Hazelwood School District players.
There was once a time around St. Louis when American Legion baseball was the standard for summer action on the diamond.
With the rise of traveling “select” teams over the past decade, Legion baseball has lost some of its luster. Despite these select teams drawing more and more players, often for a hefty fee, one organization that remains as strong as ever is the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Association.
“The talent level is as high as it’s ever been,” said Bill Becher, the director and head coach of both the American National Eagles 17- and 18-and-under teams. “It’s just spread around over more teams.”
The Eagles, a team that calls the Hazelwood Sports Complex home field, draws players from the Hazelwood, McCluer, Parkway North, Ritenour and Pattonville school districts. Becher has been involved in SLABA for 34 years, spending his first 25 years with the Johnny Mac Thunder in South County.
SLABA was established in 1987 to provide St. Louis-area high school players and younger teams with maximum exposure to the toughest competition. This was accomplished by affiliating with nationally recognized and sanctioned youth baseball programs.
SLABA currently has national affiliations with PONY Baseball, Inc., the American Amateur Baseball Congress (AABC) and the National Amateur Baseball Federation (NABF). The league sends teams from each of its age groups to various postseason tournaments hosted by these affiliations throughout the country. The PONY and NABF affiliations give teams an opportunity to play in national playoff tournaments.
Membership is limited to organizations which are assigned specific boundaries based on two public high schools in their area. SLABA organizations draw players from two base school districts, private school players and players ages 13-to-18 from “open” school districts.
The league has 10 teams: Jefferson County Barnstormers and Blazers, South-West Stars, American National Eagles, Eagles West, Lincoln County Raiders, Stallions, Johnny Mac Thunder, St. Louis Tigers and Meramec Valley Travelers.
SLABA Baseball Serves as Path to College, Pro Ball
Former SLABA players include St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan, a Hazelwood West High School graduate. The former Florissant resident currently resides in Maryland Heights. Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who is a graduate of Lafayette High School, also has SLABA roots.
Perhaps the most prominent local player who played SLABA baseball is another Lafayette graduate, Philadelphia Phillies all-star first baseman Ryan Howard.
The 18-and-under postseason awards are named after several SLABA alumni, including the Kyle McClellan Pitcher of the Year, the Ryan Howard SLABA MVP and the coach of the year award named for Jim Medlock, a former insurance agent who founded the American National Eagles in 1975.
Howard played three seasons for the Ellisville Redbirds from 1996-1998 before moving onto Southwest Missouri State. The Phillies drafted Howard in the fifth round of the 2001 draft.
A close friend of Medlock, who passed away in 2005, Becher took over as the Eagles director in 2006. Despite wearing many hats, Becher said the preseason scheduling meeting makes his job easier.
Becher’s 18-and-under team has an 18-20 record during what he calls “an up-and-down year.” His “make-shift group” of 17-year-olds is 1-7 this season. The coach says both teams are better than their records. He took his teams to Evansville over the Fourth of July weekend as they prepare for the season-ending SLABA tournament, which begins July 15 at the Hazelwood Sports Complex.
“Baseball has really changed in St. Louis,” Becher said. “Kids are bigger, stronger and faster than they were 30 years ago. But there are less kids playing baseball, especially in North County.
“There is a lot more competition with select teams. There is a lot of talent, but with so many teams, there isn’t as much talent on every team.”
Grayling Tobias, a native St. Louisan and McCluer graduate, coaches the South-West Stars.
“I wanted to give back to an organization that’s been so helpful for me. If I didn’t play in SLABA, I don’t think I would have had the success that I had. I feel like I have an obligation to help other players get better through baseball and help them become better citizens.”
Tobias is a member of the St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, as well as the University of Missouri-St. Louis and McCluer Halls of Fame. He was part of the 1977 UMSL team that reached the NCAA Division II College World Series, and he played in the Detroit Tigers organization.
During his SLABA days, he played for Medlock, who is largely considered the founder of the league.