WALLINGFORD — Every spring, many kids across Connecticut look forward to the start of Little League baseball season.
This spring, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that was put on hold.
But with activities such as youth sports included in Phase II of Gov. Ned Lamont’s state reopening plan, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, and with the launch of that second phase moved up from June 20 to Wednesday, it’s time to play ball.
That said, local leagues in Meriden and Wallingford will open by degrees, and with a bevy of new health and social distancing recommendations in place for players and spectators.
Wallingford Little League, for one, won’t be employing post-game handshake lines, dugouts or bleachers. Parents will be asked to line up along the outfield fence six feet part, while players will bring their own chairs and do the same along the first and third base lines.
“Depending on the governor’s recommendations, we may limit the amount of people to just one parent per player, as unfortunate as that is, if that is what we have to do,” said Wallingford Little League president Josh Carroll.
Ray Gomes, president of Yalesville Little League since 1996, said his league is following recommendations from the state of Connecticut, Centers for Disease Control and Little League Baseball.
“With all three of those resources, we’ve been studying them closely and discussing them at our meetings,” said Gomes, noting that those board meetings are transitioning back to in-person from online, a sign that restrictions are loosening.
There’s no doubt, like everything else, Little League baseball will have a new look in the era of the coronavirus. And that’s fine for league officials from Meriden and Wallingford, who want to help restore a sense of normalcy for kids in their towns.
“Wallingford Little League plays a vital role in our community. We help teach kids team-building, how to coexist within society,” Carroll said. “We teach them life lessons through the game of sport.”
Mike Duffy, president of the newly configured Meriden Little League, which has combined the former Ed Walsh and Jack Barry leagues, said baseball is important to the youth in his city because it teaches them lessons and values that other sports cannot.
“Baseball is unique because it is a sport of failure; the best hitters get out 7 out of 10 times and the best pitchers give up hits and runs,” Duffy said. “Baseball players not only have to be physically tough and disciplined, they have to be mentally tough and disciplined.”
Carroll said Wallingford Little League’s plan is to start with practices on June 20. Practices will continue for 2-3 weeks before any games are played to reduce the risk of injury.
Carroll noted there are additional health risks to playing in summer rather than spring: heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses.
To combat that, Carroll said, Wallingford Little League is looking to play games later in the evening. Catchers will be able to call time-outs for water breaks more frequently, as well.
“Now, since we’re playing in the dead of summer, we’re going to move games for our oldest division to Monday, Wednesday and Friday at night time to hopefully get them playing in a little bit cooler air,” Carroll said. “We’re also going to limit game times to an hour and a half if we have to, or even less.”
Another concern is protecting the arms of pitchers. Wallingford will implement pitch counts and extend required days of rest.
“Whatever the normal pitch-count rest is, we’re going to add an extra day to it, but we’ll max them out at 35 pitches to start,” Carroll said. “Towards the end of the season we’ll max them at 50 pitches, where it’s normally around 85 for 12-year-olds.”
Another challenge is scheduling. Chris Bishop, who handles that duty for the Wallingford Little League, was trying to get in as many games as possible during a condensed season, understanding that kids have other sports they want to play later in the summer.
Under normal circumstances, the Little League regular season would be ending about now, with All-Star play right around the corner.
“It’s about figuring out how we can fit in enough games before kids go off and do other things,” Bishop said. “The realistic thing is there’s a lot of kids who play football or soccer in the fall, and we have to respect that as well and understand that they want to play those sports as well. So we can’t go too late in August because of that.”
Most of the leagues have accepted that they will be playing fewer games. Wallingford is aiming for 12-15, then a league playoff. In a typical season, teams are scheduled for 21 games and, due to rainouts, usually get in 15-18.
South Meriden Youth Baseball, which is a Cal Ripken League, has its own unique circumstances to grapple with in these times of social distancing and limited crowd numbers. South Meriden plays at Habershon Park, a public facility.
“We have people walking through the park,” noted league president Dave Stimpson. “There’s tennis courts, basketball courts and people fishing in the pond. There’s playscapes, picnic areas. I hope they’re not policing how many people are in the park, because I can’t stop people from fishing or doing whatever they want.
“The pond is right after our outfield fence, so if there are parents in the outfield at the fence and then people fishing, it’s going to look like it’s all our people,” Stimpson continued. “My park, on a Saturday, there could be an extra hundred people there. Then you add our people, and it’s going to look like we’re overcrowding. It’s not a good look for us.”
It will be a season unlike any other. It was late to arrive; it will be difficult to stage. But there will be a 2020 Little League and Cal Ripken season, and in the eyes of local league administrators, that is paramount.
“I want these kids out there moving around, having fun, getting their normal lives back,” Carroll said. “Their lives all stopped on March 20th and nothing has been the same for them since then.”