It was the last week of May and Ronnie Carlson was sitting with his wife Trisha, ready to tell their 9-year-old son Ayden the good news.
Their county would be reopening that Friday after the coronavirus pandemic had shut down everyday life in the region for more than two months. Carlson, the president of the Nittany Valley Little League, knew the league would have to implement new health protocols for all participants to follow. But soon, baseball would be back in Central Pennsylvania.
“We explained everything to him,” Carlson said. “No bubble gum or sunflower seeds, no high fives, wearing a mask, having to sit at a particular spot on a bench or in a chair along a fence.”
Ayden’s response: “Dad, I just don’t think that’s going to be fun.”
The conversation the Carlsons had is one of many that are happening across the country between parents and kids, coaches and league presidents, district administrators and local townships. As some states are opening up, local Little Leagues are trying to resume or restart their seasons safely after shutting down for three months due to the pandemic. This comes several weeks after Little League's premier event, the World Series held in Williamsport, Pa., was cancelled for the first time in the event's 73-year history.
The game parents and players return to will be different than the one they’ve been around for decades. From league sizes to schedules to simple interactions with teammates, new health and safety protocols will alter the way kids play baseball and the experiences they have participating. And no matter what their states allow and the safety protocols put in place, some parents and leagues are choosing not to return at all while the world still grapples with a pandemic that has infected close to two million and killed more than 100,000 in the United States.
Many of these Little League participants are realizing that when they get the OK to play baseball this year, the challenges are only just beginning. Now, it’s no longer just a question of if they can start playing, but should they?
When Little League International canceled the World Series, it left open the possibility that local leagues could return to play this summer when their public health officials and local governments deemed it safe to do so. Little League distributed a season resumption guide that outlined what all the leagues should do before playing again. The organization also sent out suggestions of best practices for leagues to follow to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading the virus.
In most cases, leagues are using the resumption guide as a template to form their own mitigation plans. How directly they align with it depends on practicality and the local circumstances of each league.
Things won’t look too different when the Williamsport Area Little League plays its first games over Father’s Day Weekend, said league president Ron Diemer. Players will be sitting on bleachers instead of in dugouts when they are not playing, but family members will be allowed to attend, so long as there are no more than 250 people there at a time.
That’s not the case for Madison-Kennedy Little League, in Madison, Wisconsin, league president Chris Gingher said in an email. The 13-14 junior league teams started practicing last weekend, and the younger age groups will form teams next week and begin practices the following weekend. Madison County is still in its first phase of reopening, and no more than 15 kids and 50 people total can be at a field at the same time. As of now, no games are scheduled.
“Phase 3 is where we hope (fingers crossed) that we will be able to play games,” Gingher wrote. “However, phase 3 is not completed yet by the county. That would mean if all goes well we would be able to start at the beginning of July.”
Williamsport, Madison-Kennedy and Nittany Valley are all encouraging players not to share equipment, though there are times when that isn’t possible. Most kids have their own gloves, helmets and bats, but not always, and rarely do players have their own catcher’s equipment. If players do have to share equipment, it will have to be sanitized before and after each use. Players and coaches must bring their own drinks, and as of now, concession stands are closed.
Players are not allowed to give high fives or hugs. When they are not on the field, players have to wear masks and they cannot be within six feet of their teammates.
“They are some heavy guidelines,” Carlson said. “It actually got me to the point where I was like, Man, I don’t know if this is going to be possible.”
Participation is down across the board. Some parents understandably are not comfortable with letting their children play baseball this summer, while others told their leagues that a season beginning in June or July interferes with family vacations. Like Carlson’s son Ayden, some kids decided they didn’t want to play this year if they couldn’t interact with their friends the way they usually would.
In a normal year, Nittany Valley divides its players into two divisions: the minors, for ages 9-10, and the majors, ages 11-12. This spring, Carlson said the league was expecting there to be seven teams between the two divisions. But with fewer players this summer, the league had to combine the two age groups just to field three teams. Both Williamsport and Madison-Kennedy have had about 30 kids opt out. The leagues are offering refunds to the parents.
About 2,500 miles southwest, Martin Hoover is juggling the same problem as Diemer and Carlson. Hoover runs the largest Little League district in Southern California, which represents the 13 leagues in the San Bernardino area. Only two of them—Hesperia National Little League and Hesperia American Little League—are in the process of restarting their seasons.
The biggest obstacle for the other leagues is field availability. Hesperia is the only town in the district that has re-opened its parks. Apple Valley Little League was on track to get back on the fields in mid-June, though the town has since postponed when it will reopen the facilities. The City of Victorville, which has three leagues in Hoover’s district, is refusing to open its fields until June 30 at the earliest.
Each league is coming up with and submitting their own mitigation plans based on the Little League resumption guide. If the league presidents need another resource to help them draft their plans, Hoover has an easy solution: watch the Korean Baseball Organization.
“What they’re doing is the perfect example,” Hoover said. “Base coaches have masks on. Umpires have masks and gloves. Players who are actively participating, they don’t have masks, but when they’re in the dugout you can notice the players are wearing masks. They’re trying to maintain social distancing guidelines.”
Before leagues start practicing, Hoover said the managers and coaches will go through an educational process so they can get familiar with the new safety protocols. From there, he hopes the coaches will relay that information to the parents, who will help make sure everyone is following the social distancing guidelines.
Hoover said participation is down significantly from where it was in the spring, but he’s expecting that to rebound for the fall season, especially if there is no football or soccer for kids to play. Because of the warm weather in Southern California, fall ball lasts until the week of Thanksgiving, offering Hoover a nice fallback option in case some of his leagues cannot return this summer.
The nine leagues in Florida’s District 6, covering part of the Tampa region, will not be returning at all this summer. Instead, they are planning to have an extended fall season that would begin in August. Most Tampa leagues start in February, so all the local seasons are done at this time of year anyway.
“This is too new of a virus,” said Terry Thompson, the district administrator. “We haven’t had enough time for the doctors and the scientists to truly study it to know if what we’re doing today could impact us six months from now.”
Thompson has been involved with District 6 for nearly three decades. Nobody would know the practicality of getting kids to follow the guidelines more than her.
“If the main reason that little Chris is at the ballfield is to be able to get together with his friends, and I don’t know, make snot bubbles when they’re in the dugout, and then get his drinks and snacks from the team mom, he might not understand why he can’t still do that,” Thompson said. “Why take that chance? And why try to ruin that experience?”
That experience is more than just pitching and hitting. It’s cheering and celebrating with teammates. It's having spitting contests and dancing for no real reason. It’s inhaling handfuls of sunflowers seeds and getting hotdogs from the concession stand.
It won’t be the same, but Little League baseball will be back this year. For a lot of kids, parents and coaches, just knowing that is enough.
“These kids have been cooped up for three months,” Hoover said. “We want to get them out there on a ballfield somewhere. And the parents want to get them out on the ballfield for the most part. Even if we hold practices or fundamental training in June and July, that’s a big step forward.”