The Spokane area has long been one of the strongholds for American Legion Baseball.
And partially because of that, one of the biggest baseball tournaments on the West Coast not only operates here, but has prospered.
The Fourth of July Wood Bat Classic is set for another run this long holiday weekend with both Central Valley and West Valley hosting a portion of the 40 junior teams in an event that began yesterday – July 4 naturally – and runs through Saturday at 14 sites stretching from the West Plains into Idaho.
Both junior and senior titles will be determined Saturday at Avista Stadium, home of the Northwest League Spokane Indians.
Photo by: Paul Delaney
The once sleepy little event that, just a half-dozen years ago or so, featured just 12 junior and 12 senior Legion teams has exploded in recent years, tournament chairman Mike Padden said, and now sees 70 teams visiting the area.
The Wood Bat had its origins in the mid ‘70s, Padden said.
“At times we felt we were constrained because we didn’t have enough umpires. The downturn in the economy meant more people wanting to supplement their income by wearing the blue,” he said.
Field availability has also been an issue.
“We’ve kind of had to bob and weave a little over the years,”
Padden said. Post Falls has been added as a senior site.
“As the reputation of the tournament has grown teams have come from further distances to attend,” Padden said.
This year’s field includes teams from Alaska, Southern California, a pair of Saskatchewan teams, “plus the rest of Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alberta,” Padden said.
What prompted the sudden growth?
“It was just hard to say no when other teams wanted to come in,” Padden said.
This year 22 of the 40 junior teams come from outside the Spokane area. In the seniors, 25 of the 30 are from outside the immediate area.
The pure nature of the Wood Bat Classic – the old crack of the bat that has disappeared at the high school and college level has been long gone since aluminum bats first began to appear in the 1970s – also helps attract teams.
The allure is Spokane is a great location geographically, Padden explained. Plus it has lodging that is both plentiful and affordable.
“We have a lot of hotel-motel properties who can handle large groups,” he said.
“I’m kind of an old-time guy,” Padden said. “I kinda joke ideally I’d like to see the games played in the day, wood bats and kids travel by train. There’s actually been a trend back to wood bats.”
So not only does that offer the visitors a nice break from the usual Fourth of July fare but it also means a bump in the local economy.
Sponsors like Brett Bros. Bats, the Spokane Regional Sports Commission and tons of volunteers help make it all happen.
“Normally, knock on wood, you can count on the weather,” Padden said.
The tournament is an opportunity to play teams they would never normally play. “
And getting a lot of games in a short period of time,” is another attractive part, Padden added.
Padden’s involvement in American Legion baseball goes back decades and he’s been the Wood Bat Tournament chair for the past six of seven years, the retired judge and current state senator said.
He has many memories of Wood Bat’s past, most good and some that left him scrambling.
One year the event was short when a team called at the last minute. Padden had an acquaintance from Newport cobble together a team. As luck would have it another team was found to fill the slot leaving Padden with a problem.
“They wanted me to dis-invite my team and I said no, I’m not going to do that,” he said.
“It meant jockeying the six-team pod, making it seven teams and playing an expanded schedule but it all worked,” Padden said.
Seeing local teams do well with the senior Bandits and Blue Devils winning the tournament has been a high point Padden said.
“The other neat thing is seeing some of these kids that play go on and play professional ball, some even make it up to the major leagues,” Padden said.
A few professional scouts and local college coaches use the tournament as a place to check out talent.
“These kids get a scholarship that they wouldn’t have had it had not been for the tournament,” Padden said.
One that comes to mind, Padden said was the New York Mets’ No. 1 draft pick, Brandon Nimmo, who played in Spokane for the Cheyenne, Wyo. Senior team in 2010. And Tyler Olson from Gonzaga, who was drafted by Oakland.
Fans will also find elite club teams sprinkled throughout the fields.
“We’re primarily a legion tournament but not exclusively,” Padden said, meaning there are some club teams involved. “We’ve always had a few, (but) we try to limit it to programs that are reputable,” Padden said.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.