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Play ball? No simple call for most youth organizations

Storm Club baseball team pitcher Ethan Johnson throws a pitch during their game against Dayton Impact as baseball action started up again just after midnight Tuesday morning, May 26 at West Side Little League fields in Hamilton. The two games started at 12:15 a.m. and didn’t finish up until after 2 a.m. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
Storm Club baseball team pitcher Ethan Johnson throws a pitch during their game against Dayton Impact as baseball action started up again just after midnight Tuesday morning, May 26 at West Side Little League fields in Hamilton. The two games started at 12:15 a.m. and didn’t finish up until after 2 a.m. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

West Side wasted little time getting its season going

West Side Little League wasted no time getting its season started. Ohio permitted youth baseball and softball leagues to start play Tuesday, so at 12:15 a.m., with no previous practices, other than what the kids may have done at home, the league kicked off the season under the lights in Hamilton.

“The atmosphere was wonderful,” said league president Josh Davidson. “People were playing baseball. Fans were cheering. Kids were happy.”

That’s not the story everywhere. Many leagues have resumed play. Some are still figuring out if they will play and how they will adhere to the state guidelines if they do. Some decided not to play this season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was a difficult decision for a number of reasons. The state’s guidelines — some mandatory and some recommended — for the resumption of adult and youth baseball and softball called for physical distancing, no shared water stations and no high fives among other things.

» EARLIER COVERAGE: Rules for return to play

That announcement May 15 initially included mandatory rules about players and coaches and spectators wearing masks when not on the field of play, but those rules were later changed to recommended rules.

Mike Lykins, of the Northridge Baseball Association in Springfield, said his league decided not to play because of a number of reasons.

On April 22, the league posted a message to Facebook that read, “With a sad heart we have decided to cancel the 2020 Northridge Baseball season. We have held on to hope up to now. This decision was not made lightly, but with our top priority being the safety of our kids and families, this decision had to be made with all the uncertainty at this time. Please stay posted to our page for more details to come for refunds.”

The league started issuing refunds in early May, still not knowing whether anyone in the state would be able to play or what restrictions might come with a return to play. When Lykins saw the list of rules and recommendations, he felt the league made the right decision.

“It just would have been a logistical nightmare,” he said. “That’s why we unfortunately had to shut it down.”

Jim Murphy, president of Patterson Park Youth Baseball and Softball in Dayton, said the league cancelled the season for players 12 and under. A statement on the league’s website read, “Our board of directors has carefully studied all the (Ohio Department of Health) guidelines. We endorse those guidelines fully, and tried to devise safe ways to conduct baseball and softball in compliance with the guidelines, but the complexity was just too great.”

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Murphy said it would have been just too hard to get the younger players to follow all the guidelines issued by the state. Also there are more kids per team in the younger age groups.

“We had anywhere from 70 to 110 kids in each age group under the age of 12,” Murphy said. “The concept of having that many teams and that many kids on four fields, it was just too much to comply. We weren’t going to be able to guarantee effective social distance and avoid equipment sharing. The third thing, the biggest deal breaker, was who was going to enforce that. We were going to have an officer of the day with the authority to enforce (the guidelines) at every session every day of the week.”

When the league looked at its manpower, it realized that would have been difficult. Murphy said the league tried hard to come up with a solution. In the end, it decided to let the 13-and-over teams play, and they returned to practice this week.

“They were excited,” Murphy said. “They showed their enthusiasm by complying with all the rules and regulations.”

John Gray, of the Riverside Amateur Baseball and Softball Association, said the league’s board met throughout the spring, trying to figure out what to do. On May 17, the league updated its website to say practice would resume May 26.

“We weighed all options heavily,” the league announced, “as we all have children in the program, and while not the most ideal situation, we are committed to ensuring our kids have an opportunity to learn and play the games of baseball and softball. We couldn’t be more excited to get the kids back outside, seeing their friends, and playing the game we all love!”

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Gray has coached for 20 years and knew how important it would be to get kids outside after two long months living under the stay-at-home order.

While that same thinking certainly played a part in many leagues' decisions, West Side Little League has a unique history that made its decision to play an easy one. There will be no Little League World Series this year or even a state tournament, but the district tournament the West Side 12-year-old team has won 35 years in a row is still on for now.

Winning that is important to West Side. That’s one reason it started playing as soon as it could Tuesday. The league bought masks — branded with the league’s logo — for all players and coaches and also is offering them to families for $4.99.

Wearing them is just a recommendation now, but West Side’s initial plan for returning play — put together before the state released its own guidelines — called for mandatory mask wearing.

“As the guidelines became more loose, we adjusted accordingly,” Davidson said.

The league was willing to do whatever it took to play.

“At West Side, the heritage, just the storyline of who we are and what we represent, we’re a little different,” Davidson said. “We’ve been playing for so long, we weren’t willing to give up the season.”