For American youth, summer baseball is as American as apple pie.
And for four generations, the premier brand of ball played by teenagers has been in the American Legion program, where teams often draw from several high school varsities and competition for a coveted roster spot can be fierce.
Legion has even has launched a junior program in recent years to keep sub-varsity players pitching, hitting and fielding until their time on the big stage comes in a season or two.
Yet in Fairfield -- despite four high schools within its borders -- the once-proud senior Legion program is withering.
On most night's this season, Lt. Owen Fish Post 143 has had barely enough players to put nine on the field, and team has struggled to a 5-12 record heading into tonight's home game against Greenwich.
Head coach Jon Servilla -- a Sacred Heart University player barely older than his charges -- had just two players on his bench during a home loss to Stamford one night last week, one of them a pitcher wearing shorts and flip-flops.
A confluence of circumstances has precipitated the program's decline. They include the sudden death three years ago of a longtime coach, a change in Legion post sponsors, a highly competitive division, players on some nights having other priorities and -- most significantly -- the proliferation of AAU teams that play in showcase tournaments and siphon off some of the best players from Legion teams.
"Thirty years ago, there weren't all these travel teams," said Chuck Zadravec, whose son Steve plays for Post 143 and for Fairfield Ludlowe High School. "You went through Babe Ruth, then legion was the place you matriculated to."
Chuck Zadravec grew up playing ball in Black Rock, and AAU never was an option.
But AAU has dominated the high school basketball scene for decades. AAU has turned the high school hoops' off-season into a multimillion dollar business, with a national television deal and multiple national sponsors.
Because of AAU basketball's scope, the perception is that if a high school athlete wants to play in college, he or she should play offseason AAU. That notion has floated into baseball and to Fairfield County's AAU teams. More of them crop up annually, flooding the teenage baseball market.
In Fairfield, Trumbull and Bridgeport alone, four 18-and-under and 19-and-under AAU teams compete for players with legion squads.
"There are so many teams," Servilla said. "It's definitely taken its toll on all the leagues, and it hurts everyone in the long run."
Yet, Servilla -- a 2009 Fairfield Ludlowe graduate -- won a spot on Division I Sacred Heart's roster without playing a single AAU game.
Instead of paying steep fees, plus travel costs, to play AAU, he played for Fairfield's senior Babe Ruth team.
"In AAU, you pay for the uniqueness that money provides," Servilla said. "But if you're willing to actively put in the work yourself, sending tapes to colleges and making phone calls, coaches will recognize that.
"A talented baseball player is a talented baseball player."
Post 143 general manager Sarsfield Ford maintains the talent on AAU teams is no better than legion squads.
"It's not like AAU teams are elite teams," he said.
"We have quality kids playing," Ford said. "We've had some injuries and had to play some kids out of position.
"When we've had our full roster in place, we've won most of those games. The problem is, we haven't had it in place for more than five games."
And therein lies a 21st century baseball reality not unique to Fairfield. Post 142 has a 15-man roster, but one any given night, some players have conflicts with summer jobs schedules -- or decide to socialize instead.
The job issue put Post 143 behind in the count even before the first pitch was thrown.
Servilla was named coach over the winter. And as the season drew near, Post 143 had a 20-man roster.
But two days before the season opener, four kids -- all high school seniors -- quit. They needed jobs before trekking to college in the fall.
"It was tough," Servilla said. "We had four great athletes who had paid [their team fees] and had plans of playing."
Those four quit to work, but others drop out as a lifestyle choice.
"If one kid comes up to me and says `coach, I can't play because I have a graduation party to go to' it puts me in a tough spot," Servilla said. "If they want to enjoy their last summer as a high schooler, I can't take that away from them."
But those decisions also impact the players who make baseball a priority.
"It's frustrating," infielder Dario Pugliano said. "All 11 [core] guys care about the team, and we play like a team of 20, but it's frustrating because I know we could be better."
Throw in the uber-competitive Zone IV -- consisting of cities with multiple high schools like Norwalk and Stamford, and Greenwich -- and a shorthanded club like Fairfield doesn't have much chance.
"The competition level is pretty high," Pugliano said. "There are a lot of college level players."
Between poor breaks and AAU's proliferation, Post 143 has felt the wolves come knocking at its door. And yet, it still trudges along, still hoping for a bright future.
Pugliano played AAU for the Technique Tigers growing up. But the recent Warde graduate -- who will attempt to walk on at Sacred Heart -- prefers legion's lighter tone.
"I couldn't play baseball and have fun playing AAU," Pugliano said. "There's more balance (in legion.) You don't get beaten over the head with practice and games."
If you pressed Ford, he'd tell you American Legion baseball never has been Fairfield's forte.
"Fairfield's never been strong with legion," he said. "We've made the states twice in the last 20 years."
Both trips to the state tournament came within a three-year stretch between 2006 and 2008 under coach Ed Pikor. The former University of New Haven standout football and baseball player had big-league credentials having scouted for the Cleveland Indians and serving as an instructor for the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox.
But on Sept. 24, 2008 -- less than two months after completing a 19-10 season and guiding the senior legion team to its most recent state tournament berth -- Pikor dropped dead of a reported brain aneurysm at 56.
"That threw everything in flux," Ford said.
The program went months without a coach, before Ed Conway stepped in prior to the season's start. The senior club finished under .500 in 2009 and 2010 before Joel Barlow coach Jeff Rago took over for 2011. Fairfield finished 11-16.
While the senior club was struggling, Servilla was splitting junior legion coaching duties with Hunter Phillips in 2011. The rising senior at Sacred Heart University was chosen as the club's senior head coach for this season.
Servilla's a Fairfielder and has, by his own accounts, substantial experience in baseball.
"At this point in my life, I've been engaged in every aspect of the sport," he said. "It's been great to be involved, and I've enjoyed it."
Ford points to support from Fairfield Ludlowe coach Keith O'Rourke and the junior league's modest success. He boasted of the program's new sponsor and about how restrictions have mandated the team come solely from Fairfield as it tries reach the standard Pikor set.
"Last year we re-focused our efforts on trying to recruit kids in Fairfield," Ford said. "This is the first year we're starting to rebound."
But as more youth programs crop up and the AAU spotlight feeds parents and players hungry for college attention, the odds of a successful legion program looks ever more bleak in Fairfield.
But that won't stop Servilla.
"I'd hate to jump to a different team," he said. "I've developed a bond with these kids and I want to stick around and coach these guys."