MUNCIE – On the eve of Muncie Post 19 Chiefs’ postseason tournament, one of the men who helped reincarnate the program is absent. Dennis Conwell, an assistant coach, is at his wife’s side after she had surgery earlier in the day, and he’s missing a rescheduled game at Francis Lafferty Field at McCulloch Park on Wednesday night.
Post 19’s manager, Morris McCreery, can’t believe it.
“She had a gall bladder taken out,” he says. “She said (to me), ‘You’re not taking him to the ballpark tonight.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You need somebody to hold your hand?'”
A father is allowed to joke like this with his daughter and son-in-law. Shortly after, seated in the third-base dugout with general manager Scott Brown, the pair get serious about Conwell. The team folded in 2013 shortly after longtime manager Bobby Graves died, unable to raise funds.
“If it wasn’t for (Dennis),” Brown says, “we wouldn’t be here right now.”
After two empty summers, Post 19 is back. The Chiefs are 17-4 heading into Friday’s four-team, double-elimination tournament in Centerville. If they win that, they qualify for the state tournament in Terre Haute.
But just getting the team going again is a win for three men who have known each other for more than 20 years. Their next challenge is making sure the team doesn’t disappear again.
Putting it together
Graves led the Chiefs to two American Legion state championships in his 19 seasons. McCreery was his bench coach in 2010, his final season. After that he went to coach legion ball in Richmond with Conwell for three years. Conwell married McCreery’s daughter, Misty, more than 20 years ago.
“It works out great. He’s one of my best friends,” Conwell says. “Actually, he is my best friend. We talk enough about baseball that everyone in the family gets tired of hearing about it, let’s put it that way.”
Adds McCreery: “He could go in one room to make out a lineup, I could go in another room to make a lineup, and we’d come out and they’d be almost identical. We’re on the same page.”
The other member of the trio is Brown, who is Conwell’s stepdad. Together, they thought it would be a great idea to do something like this. Brown took care of the business side, pitching local businesses to help raise funds. He lauded the assistance of Muncie Mayor Dennis Tyler and city parks superintendent Harvey Wright.
In many cases, teams pay a fee to use the park, but the Chiefs aren’t. Amvets Post 12 provided a bus, and the Chiefs just have to pay for gas. Saving on those expenses has allowed the Chiefs to hand out meal money on road trips.
While Conwell handled all the logistics such as lining up umpires, sending group texts to all of the players and just “keeping everyone organized,” as Brown puts it, McCreery was in charge of personnel. The 70-year-old McCreery, who had esophageal surgery in February, spent the spring going to local high school games, “freezing my (butt) off,” and approaching players about joining the team in the summer.
He wanted strong players up the middle, like Frankton shortstop Blaine Reed.
“He’s a magician,” assistant coach Aron Hacker says. “But he won’t be here tonight, (he’s) working.”
Less than 20 minutes later, Reed walks into the dugout in his uniform to a bunch of screams from teammates.
“Hey, Blaine Reed is here!”
Reed didn’t think he’d be able to get out of his shift at Chik-fil-A in time for the first pitch, but he found someone to cover for him at the last minute, and he showed up to the park about 25 minutes before the first pitch in his uniform, ready to play.
That’s the essence of legion baseball, a much more informal counterpart to the high school season. If you can make it, great; if you have to work, then that’s fine, too. The coaches aren’t going to micromanage every minute detail. Those who want to get better, will. Those who treat it like summer vacation, won’t.
“It’s been really laid back,” says Pete Wissel, who starred in the spring for Blue River. “They treat us like adults. Now that we are adults, it’s all up to you. It’s up to you to get better. You show up, the best guys play, and I like that.”
The team is made up of players from seven schools. In addition to local players in Blue River’s Tommy Vanhook and Wissel, Central’s Corey Bell and Joe Gallatin, Cowan’s Isaiah Covington and Kasey Henderson and Monroe Central’s Kaiser Phillips, there are players from Anderson, Frankton and Shenandoah – quite the melting pot.
“The first day we were introduced,” says Henderson, a center fielder and left-handed pitcher, “then we just started talking and having fun. We grew as friends.”
McCreery is careful not to single out any player, whether it be at the plate or on the mound. Balance, he says, has been key. Led by Anthony Fuller (.406 batting average), Gallatin (.388) and Wissel (.382), the Chiefs have 10 players hitting over .300.
Wissel is balancing playing with the Indiana Blue Jays and the legion squad, and the fireballer has only been pitching with his travel team and hitting with the Chiefs. He’s the exception, though, not the rule.
A lot of the top high school players choose to play travel ball rather than legion. For players that are high school juniors or younger, McCreery understands it because there are better opportunities to earn scholarships. What he doesn’t understand is once a player commits to a college, why continue playing travel ball when it can cost several thousand dollars and the legion team is free?
In the future, he’d love to lure players the caliber of Yorktown’s Jacob Preston and Clay Dungan, Cowan’s Luke Miller, Delta’s Tate Stone and Wapahani’s Zack Thompson. To make it more appealing, McCreery wants to play in more tournaments next summer because that’s where more scouts hang out.
The first season back has been great, by all accounts. The looming question is this: Can Muncie Post 19 Chiefs be sustained?
“The kids have been great,” McCreery says. “And everybody’s helped. It’s not just been me, it’s been a whole bunch of people involved who really worked hard to go out and get this thing going again. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
Contact sports features writer Ryan O’Gara at (765) 213-5829. Follow him on Twitter @RyanOGaraTSP.