Bonkers for ball

Tom Stevens

PHOTO BY rachel bush

It’s been quite the year for local youth ball players. The Chico Softball Little League majors black team made it to the Little League Softball World Series a few weeks ago. Around the same time, the Chico Nuts earned a spot as one of eight baseball teams advancing to the American Legion World Series, held in Shelby, N.C. Neither team took home the title, but their players and coaches did come back with stories to tell. In the case of the Nuts, Tom Stevens, the team’s coach for the last 19 years (and current Chico American Legion Baseball director), is still riding high on the trip with the legion’s team of 17- to 19-year-old male players from the Chico area. Now back home, Stevens continues to oversee the operations of Chico American Legion while balancing his duties as a teacher and head baseball coach at Los Molinos High School.

What is American Legion Baseball?

American Legion is the oldest youth sports program in our country. It’s 89 years old. Our program in Chico is 77 years old, so there’s a lot of history. For the last 20 years, the premier team has been the Chico Nuts. We also have two teams of 15- to 17-year-olds, the Chico Suns, and a team of 13- to 14-year-olds, the Chico Rice. We’re successful not just in wins or championships, but in taking the players in this area and getting them onto the next level, from college to professional baseball. With the Chico Nuts, 87 percent go on to play college baseball.

Any college/professional players we might recognize who started with American Legion?

Currently, Luke Barker and Brad Lohse from Chico State. And Kyle Lohse is the starting pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.

What’s the recruitment process for the Chico Nuts?

We have intensive tryouts. But most of our kids have been playing on the younger teams their whole life, so we already know them. What matters is where you went to high school; a Chico State player who’s from Los Angeles won’t qualify. We are Chico’s homegrown team. All of our kids come from the area.

Can you tell us about your new program with younger players?

This past September, we decided that we wanted to do something for younger kids in the community, so we started a portion for 9- to 11-year-olds. They practice with us twice a week. As long as they’re committed and want to work hard, we’re going to find something for them. It has been so much fun. They give me a different perspective on why we are out here.

What was it like going to the American Legion World Series?

It was by far the most incredible athletic experience I’ve ever been a part of. The road to the World Series has gotten more difficult over the years, so it was quite an accomplishment. By the time we got to Shelby, we had only 13 players, because we lost a few to conflicts and injuries, but played against teams with 18 players. We lost 0-3 in pool play tournaments. It was a tiring month, but worth it. The stadium was incredible; we played in front of 10,000 people. They say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I hope it won’t be just once.