Baseball COVID-19 Softball Youth Sports

Youth Baseball & Softball Leagues Preparing For Return

The world of recreational sports won’t get back to normal in one fell swoop because COVID-19 closures will likely end piecemeal. Events that are amenable to social distancing will have an advantage, and those activities could include youth baseball and softball. Some local leagues are already getting prepared for an adjusted return to the diamonds.

“If we get the green light we just want to be prepared to do it as safely as possible,” Uptown Long Beach All-Star manager Jeff Champlin said.

Uptown LB and other local youth leagues have already reached out to members and the city’s Parks, Recreation and Marine Department to gauge the interest and the possibility of returning to city facilities this summer.

“We’re just brainstorming as much as we can in terms of how we create social distance out on the field,” Champlin said. “From hand sanitizer and hand washing stations to managing the seating of the bleachers, managing equipment, not sharing equipment, masks for the players, masks for the coaches… Everything is on the table.”

Uptown LB sent out an anonymous survey last month to approximately 400 families who enrolled in the spring league. The questions revolved around possible solutions to COVID-19 concerns to ensure everyone’s safety.

“About 70% of the league members are interested in resuming play,” Champlin said. “And if they said they weren’t, the dominating reason right now is fear of the virus… It’s definitely at the front of everyone’s minds right now. But there’s a lot of interest in getting people back out there. Kids want to play, and a lot of parents want to see their kids out there with their friends again.”

Uptown LB isn’t the only league preparing for an adjusted return. The Babe Ruth League is the governing body for other local leagues from places like El Dorado Park, and they released a statement last week.

“It is the goal of Babe Ruth League, Inc. to achieve a complete 2020 local league season so everyone can participate in the game they love,” Babe Ruth League President & CEO Steven Tellefsen said in the official statement.

“It remains our hope that once permission is granted by state and local health officials, we’ll return to our community fields and play as much baseball and softball as we can for the remainder of the 2020 year,” Tellefsen wrote. “We’ll be encouraging our commissioners to extend local league play into the summer and fall months in order to permit a full season for everyone.”

Unfortunately, Long Beach PONY and Long Beach Little League won’t be able to compete in All-Star tournaments after both World Series events were cancelled last week.

“It’s logistically impossible,” Long Beach PONY President Ken Jakemer said. “These teams are spread out across the country and each of those states will have different restrictions. Some are locked out until September because the fields are school-related facilities. They’ve told us to play if we can, based on our local government guidelines and restrictions.”

“I don’t think anyone wants to get super aggressive and go against what the health directions are at this time,” Champlin said. “So we want to be cognizant of that but, again, that was the whole reason for the survey … to find out if we should even put the energy into this. And I think the resounding answer has been ‘yes’.”

However, some leagues have families who don’t want to return no matter what, and they may be offered partial refunds or credits to play in another season.

“Getting this feedback I think is invaluable,” Champlin said. “I think if other leagues are not doing that, I would encourage them to do the same. I think it’s really going to drive a lot of decisions… Just knowing where people’s concerns are to making sure they have a good experience and we plan accordingly.”

Jakemer said he is concerned that his older PONY players who are going to high school next year won’t come back for a condensed season this summer.

“If we come back in a timely manner, hopefully we can form a team or teams to host local tournaments at our place,” Jakemer said. “We’ve got a new snack bar and we want to make some money off of it.”

The closures couldn’t have come at a worse time for Uptown LB, with the league coming off its most successful summer. There were more players at Cherry Park than ever before, and Champlin helped take an All-Star team to Hawaii for the Pacific South West Regional in Honolulu. He said the All-Star success, the move to Cal Ripken leagues and the improved coaching have all factored into the Uptown LB growth.

“It was just getting the name of the league out there and showing everybody that we can play some ball here in North Long Beach,” Champlin said.

Instead of resting on its laurels, the league has improved its facilities during the hiatus. Coaches Tony Gastelum and Josh Harmon have been keeping the three fields at Cherry Park ready for action by working on them every weekend. They were also able to laser level the baseball and softball diamonds.

Once leagues return, they’ll be faced with a lot of scheduling issues, but Champlin said Uptown LB is suited to play a condensed schedule because of the lights at Cherry Park and the ability to play on Sunday.

Although the crack of the bat and cheers from the bleachers will make every park feel normal again, not everyone will feel comfortable enough to return.

“We actually have a coach who runs a bio waste business and he’s basically said, ‘Look, I’m in the thick of it, and I just I don’t want to coach my team because I don’t want to put the kids at risk’,” Champlin said. “So there’s just a ton of layers to this. We’re going to have to get really creative with how we can budget games and practices.

“The fields and everything looks really great… The only thing that’s missing is the kids.”

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.