NEWBURYPORT — As Massachusetts moves ahead with its re-opening process, local baseball players and coaches are finally making preparations to be ready for the two words they've been waiting months to hear — play ball!
Starting this week, those who operate outdoor sports facilities will be permitted to reopen to adult sports and supervised youth sports leagues, summer sports camps and other athletic activities provided that safety guidelines are implemented and followed. Certain indoor facilities may be opened to supervised youth programs as well, but not for adult athletic activities or unsupervised youth activities.
While games and competitions for contact sports won't be permitted until Phase 3 — which could begin on June 29 at the earliest – leagues can begin holding practices as soon as they are able to find a place to play. The biggest hurdle for local leagues now is getting approval from local communities to use the fields, but once those agreements are reached, league organizers are optimistic that play could resume within the next week or two.
Assuming there is no spike in coronavirus cases and Phase 3 is able to begin in three weeks, organizers are growing increasingly optimistic that their seasons could begin around the Fourth of July.
"I'm thrilled, if you'd asked four or five weeks ago I'd have said 50/50 at best," said Jeff Wood, who manages the Rowley Rams of the Intertown Twilight League, the oldest amateur baseball league in America.
The ITL, which was established in 1929 and has an unbroken streak of 90 consecutive seasons held since its founding, typically begins its season after Memorial Day, takes a short break around July 4 and then concludes in mid-to-late August. Wood said that if all goes well, they will start on Monday, July 6, and play the second half of the season as scheduled.
Tim Southall, who serves as commissioner of the Intertown Babe Ruth League and as head coach of the Newburyport Post 150 Legion team and the North Shore College League's Rowley Nor'easters, said his leagues are all eyeing similar timeframes.
While the American Legion announced that it won't be sponsoring any summer baseball this year and has canceled its tournaments, the local District 8 organizers are planning on holding a season anyway as an independent organization known as the Essex County Sr. and Jr. Baseball League. Southall said they have received substantial interest from players, enough that they intend to field an extra team to accommodate everyone.
"We'll have the senior team and three junior teams," Southall said. "We usually only have two junior teams but there has been so much interest."
Newburyport Post 150 general manager Mike Quinn, who also serves as District 8 chairman, said they are eyeing a 20-game schedule to run from late June to late July. Depending on local coronavirus-related conditions in each community, some teams may be forced to play mostly road games, and he said that there also likely won't be playoffs and they probably won't make up rainouts.
Youth baseball leagues are also moving forward with plans to resume play.
The Newburyport Pioneer League announced in a post on its website that it has received approval from the Board of Health to move forward with practices starting on June 15. As part of its COVID-19 safety plan, the league said it has purchased contactless thermometers for all coaches in the league so temperature checks can be conducted before team activities. All players will have assigned seats in the dugout based on batting order and will be spaced out as much as possible, and all players and coaches will be provided with a bottle of hand sanitizer for the season.
Most of the other rules are designed to encourage and facilitate social distancing and minimize the sharing of equipment, including the baseballs themselves, and additional measures will be taken to help ensure spectators are able to safely watch the games as well.
The Inter-Town Baseball League has unveiled its own safety guidelines, most of which are similar to those being employed by the Pioneer League, and says on its website that it hopes to play a 12-game season, followed by the playoffs, starting after July 4 and ending in mid-August.
Craig Genualdo, vice president for Amesbury Little League and athletic director at Hamilton-Wenham Regional High School, said their leadership is meeting with Amesbury officials this week and hopes to have a concrete plan finalized within the next few days. Typically Amesbury Little League's season runs from April to June and the all-star season would be starting right about now, but with the Little League World Series and the regional and state tournaments all canceled, their goal is now simply to put together a regular season so the kids will have a chance to play.
"Our focus is to get as much baseball for as many kids as possible," Genualdo said.
One consistent message from league organizers to players and parents has been the importance of recognizing that things will be different this season, and that everyone will need to do their part for the season to be a success. In its message to families on its website, the Inter-Town Baseball League's Board of Directors encouraged everybody to follow safety guidelines, and that failure to do so could put the season – and people's health – in jeopardy.
"We need the help and support of all our families. We will not be successful if parents are not willing to help us enforce these rules with their players and willing to follow these rules while attending games," the ITBL Board of Directors wrote. "If a coach or league official asks for your support during a game either moving to a new area or asking for more social distancing or mask wearing, we ask that you please be supportive of these volunteers who are trying to ensure that our season is successful."