|Return of Youth Baseball Seen as 'Good First Step'|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
02:02AM / Wednesday, June 17, 2020
|Youth baseball leagues are gearing up for play when the state gives the go-ahead for Phase 3 of the state's pandemic reopening. |
Dalton-Hinsdale held tryouts this past weekend; Pittsfield's leagues are holding them Saturday.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After waiting more than two months to get back on the diamond, area youth baseball players may finally get to hear their favorite words: Play ball.
Little Leagues in Pittsfield and Dalton and the Williamstown Cal Ripken baseball and softball league are making plans to get kids outside and enjoying the American pastime in the weeks ahead with the Little Leagues aiming to play house league games as soon as June 29.
That is the earliest the commonwealth might move into Phase 3 of the governor's phased recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. And while nothing is set in stone, league officials in Dalton and Pittsfield are getting the ball rolling.
The Dalton-Hinsdale League held its tryouts last weekend. Pittsfield's American and National Leagues will follow suit this Saturday at 9 a.m. at Clapp Park.
Games won't be possible until at least the start of Phase 3, but the Phase 2 guidelines currently in effect allow groups of up to 10 socially-distanced participants on a playing field. That enables teams to hold practices, Little League District 1 Administrator Bryon Sherman said on Tuesday.
While the leagues in the central part of the county are moving forward with hopes of a July-August game schedule, the Adams-Cheshire Little League and Great Barrington Little League each have decided not to hold a season this summer. Fortunately for those youngsters, Little League residency rules have been relaxed, allowing players from those towns the opportunity to play in Dalton-Hinsdale or Pittsfield, respectively.
"There has been a lot of discussion among the individual boards of each league as far as the safety -- which is the primary concern of all -- of the kids and the families," Sherman said. "We've taken polls of families, and the great majority wanted to get back to playing if it's possible and it's safe.
"Two leagues felt they needed to cancel the season. These are tough decisions. There's no right or wrong answer to this whole thing. Pittsfield and Dalton-Hinsdale will proceed, obviously following state and local guidance."
And they will follow the guidance of Little League Baseball, which earlier this spring announced the cancellation of regional tournaments and the Williamsport World Series but late last month provided leagues who want to compete on the local level a seven-page document outlining best practices.
Among the recommendations from the governing body: one umpire per game positioned behind the pitchers mound, cloth face coverings for players on the bench (and masks allowed for batters and fielders), no shared helmets or gloves, no sharing of snacks or water bottles, socially-distanced spectators and disinfecting "frequently touched surfaces daily."
Williamstown Cal Ripken, meanwhile, will be following the guidelines of Babe Ruth Baseball, which, for now, is not allowing its leagues to schedule games, regardless of what is allowed in their respective states.
But there will be baseball, Williamstown Cal Ripken President Chris Johnson said on Tuesday morning.
"It's not going to be just like Little League," Johnson said. "One of the big differences is we're not able to play games. It's really clear that it's a practice model with a focus on drills.
"We'll make it fun and make it competitive for them, but it's very clearly stated there are no games during this period."
Later in the summer, there is a chance that they may be able to schedule games against Cal Ripken teams from other towns, but that's "speculative," Johnson said.
For now, the focus is on what the league can offer to its players.
"We have a group of coaches who have been committed to Williamstown Cal Ripken over the years who are fantastic," Johnson said. "We have to take on kind of a new task in enforcing social distancing and masks. But we see baseball as an opportunity to work with kids.
"We feel like this is a good first step where we can be adults and leaders and coaches and show kids social distancing is important, masks are important, but you can still have fun and still be with your friends. This is a good space for us to help normalize this new level of health security and [personal protective equipment]."
Johnson said the Williamstown league is eyeing an early July start. Like his counterparts in Little League, he is keeping close tabs on developments in Boston, where Gov. Charlie Baker has been clear that data -- not dates -- will drive the phased recovery.
And like the Dalton and Pittsfield Little Leagues, Williamstown Cal Ripken is opening its doors to youngsters outside its town borders.
"I know North Adams had to cancel its Independent Youth Baseball season," Johnson said. "We could be an alternative for them. We know the situation over there, and we welcome them to come."
On Tuesday afternoon, Northern Berkshire Independent Youth Baseball announced on Facebook that it is moving ahead with plans for a "sandlot type" season in July for players 8 to 12.
For the county's two active Little Leagues this summer, the guest teams from Adams and Great Barrington will help fill out the schedule, and the players could end up playing alongside some new faces.
"We recognize that as things start to loosen up, people may go on vacation if they can," Sherman said. "All of the leagues have talked about the use of a player pool, if needed, to fill in spots. … It's been done in the past if there's a school event or something. It may be more prevalent this year due to the fact that we may be missing some kids."
Both Johnson in Williamstown and Sherman, who coordinates Berkshire County Little League, said
families continue to show strong interest in a return to the game. But officials throughout the county know there will be some who choose to take a season off for whatever reason.
Sherman said players whose families opt not to participate in this summer's Little Leagues will not lose their spots on a team. That's another reason to have those pool players available to fill out rosters.
"It's taken a lot of planning to get this work," he said.
And it is going to take a lot of work to make baseball a reality in a time when so much of the focus needs to be on protecting public health and preventing a resurgence of the novel coronavirus.
"We know the plan will be to take a break every 30 minutes, sanitize, wash our hands," Sherman said. "There will be protocols around every couple of innings getting a new baseball.
"It's going to be a challenge, and everybody is well aware they need to abide by these things. Both leagues that will be functioning have been trying to communicate with parents and families. We need cooperation from them as well in the process to make it work."
The work is worth it, league officials believe.
"Our board is made up of professional leaders, medical leaders and education leaders," Williamstown's Johnson said. "People on the board are very safety conscious. We quickly formed a consensus as a board that, based on the recommendations from Babe Ruth Baseball, we could put something together in the coming weeks.
"Our goals aren't as lofty this year. We're not trying to win the county. But we're going to give kids a chance to get together, have fun and be safe."
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