The Barbers brings American Legion baseball success back to Portland
For teams north of Salem, American Legion baseball has mostly struggled or declined since the late 1980s.
With the Willamette Valley and Southern Oregon combining players from different schools to form star-studded ballclubs, teams that continue to rely on one school's talent alone have not stood a chance in the state tournament.
A new dawn has broken for teams from the metro area, though.
For the past two seasons, players from Cleveland, Madison, Reynolds, Portland Christian and Scappoose high schools have combined to form a Legion entry named The Barbers. Last week, The Barbers came within one game of playing for the state championship. The Barbers lost 16-5 to the Medford Mustangs on Sunday. Medford then fell to Salem Withnell 9-5 in the tournament finals at Eugene.
'A lot of the Portland schools don't combine,' Barbers coach Joe Duran says. 'So we're the first team to combine and play Legion.'
None of the high schools that feed into The Barbers is necessarily known for having powerhouse, high-classification baseball programs. When the kids came together, though, everything clicked for them to finish this season with a 37-16-1 record.
'The chemistry was just a perfect storm,' Duran says. 'I don't even know how to explain it. We jelled quick. Last summer was the first year of the ballclub. Last August, I started putting the team together. I knew we had 13 (of 18) guys coming back, and we went to state last year. I knew we were going to be good. The combination, this is a perfect fit.'
Duran, a social studies teacher and junior varsity baseball coach at Cleveland High, studied running a baseball team for years under veteran Wilson coach Mike Clopton. Duran coached The Barbers with a combination of Clopton's organization and his own unique ability to relate to players and motivate them beyond their potential.
'These kids were ready to run through the wall when the tournament started,' Duran says.
The Barbers began the tournament by beating Grants Pass 15-5. They then lost to Salem Withnell 10-0, but they came back and beat Salem Post 9 15-5 and Dr. Stewart's of Roseburg 7-5.
In the game against Medford to get into the championship round, nothing went right for the Barbers. Tied 0-0 in the fourth inning, Medford got an infield single, followed by a flair into left field on an 0-2 count. The Barbers then committed two errors - their first in more than 60 innings. Things unraveled from that point.
'The baseball gods just turned against us,' Duran says.
The Barbers' roster consisted of one college player, one underclassman and 16 recently graduated seniors, and the team found its success through strong pitching and good defense.
At the plate, middle infielder Dylan Abate from Cleveland batted .408.
In the state tourney, Cody Pollack from Reynolds pitched 14 innings and gave up only three earned runs. Nick Paxton, who goes to Mt. Hood Community College, had 13 hits. Vance Downey of Portland Christian High two home runs.
Many members of The Barbers played to prepare themselves for college baseball. Five players earned some sort of scholarship because of their play over the summer.
For Eric Lemieux, a two-time all state catcher out of Portland Christian, the summer was about playing baseball just one more time. After things did not work out for him on the Linfield College team this year, Lemieux joined The Barbers. In his second-to-last at bat of the tournament, he crushed a home run.
'He struggled this whole year,' Duran says. 'And he gets up in the state tourney and just hits a bomb. It was so sick. He was almost crying around the bases. You know when it's kind of your last hurrah? That brought a tear to my eye.'
Duran plans to coach the team again next year. He hopes to make The Barbers a staple of Oregon summer baseball.
'Next year started as soon as the (last) game was over,' Duran says. 'The coaches and I sat down and we wrote out the lineup. Who was coming back next year, what we need to work on. I'm looking at it like this: I want to make a strong team out of these Portland schools.'