MERIDEN — Established in 1929, the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League has played through depression, recession and war.
Add pandemic to the list of crises that have been unable to sideline one of the nation’s oldest amateur baseball circuits.
The start of the season is arriving late thanks to the coronavirus, but a season there will be — the 92nd and counting — when the 2020 Greater Hartford campaign launches on Tuesday, July 7.
And back in the mix for an 18th consecutive year is a team from Meriden: the Record-Journal Expos.
In their fourth season under the R-J’s sponsorship, the Expos, led by player/manager Charlie Hesseltine, return to Ceppa Field when they host the East Hartford Jets on July 9 two nights after opening the season against Rainbow Graphics at Tolland’s Northwest Park.
A second Twilight team, Ulbrich Steel, will also be playing home games at Ceppa. So, between the two Twilight teams, Ricky Marrero’s Riptide youth program and Doug Wedge’s Meriden Cobras of the CT Elite Baseball Association (the fill-in for the cancelled American Legion season), the summer of 2020 won’t lack for baseball in the Silver City.
The baseball will, of course, look different. Greater Hartford Twilight, like other baseball organizations that have been allowed to launch under Phase 2 of Gov. Ned Lamont’s state re-opening plan, are following health and safety guidelines to guard against the spread of COVID-19.
Like fans in the bleachers, players will need to stay at least six feet apart when they’re not on the field. They’ll be using their own equipment. They won’t be exchanging high-fives. Disinfectant and hand sanitizer will be as ubiquitous as baseballs and gloves.
Balls and strikes will likely be called from behind pitcher’s mound, according to the guidelines of the Hartford Chapter of Connecticut Board Of Approved Baseball Umpires, which furnishes umps for the Twilight league.
There’s also a chance players might be wearing masks in certain situations on the field.
“We’re still kind of up in the air about playing with masks,” Hesseltine remarked. “There’s still some confusion in the guidelines about being six feet apart without a mask, say like a catcher and a hitter or a first baseman holding a runner on first.
“It’s stuff that we’re still going to fine-tune and figure out as to how we’re going to go about it.”
Given that baseball was in jeopardy of not being played at all in 2020, the feeling is players will go along with a mask rule if one is enforced.
Said Hesseltine, “All the managers in the league know the players aren’t really happy about the whole thing about us maybe wearing masks, but if they want to play and that’s what we have to do, then they’re going to do it.”
The Greater Hartford league typically starts in late May, so COVID-19 stole a good six weeks. Teams will play a 12-game regular season, then square off in the annual double-elimination tournament.
“It really cut our season in half, but I know everyone who’s playing this year in the league is just happy to just actually be able to play,” Hesseltine said.
All GHTBL teams are back save for Mallove’s Jewelers, which has opted not to play in 2020.
That leaves a league of seven. All are party regulars: the Expos, Ulbrich Steel, East Hartford Jets, South Windsor Phillies, Rainbow Graphics, People’s Bank and the defending champion Vernon Orioles.
The Orioles won last year’s playoff tournament after playing second fiddle to the Expos in the regular season. The Expos finished one game up in the standings at 19-5. Then came the playoffs. Vernon went undefeated while the Expos made an early exit.
The majority of last year’s Expos are back. It’s a true Meriden unit, stocked with former staples of the Maloney, Platt and Wilcox Tech programs.
Hesseltine, the veteran southpaw still going strong at age 35, will be rejoined by the likes of A.J. Hendrickson, Jonathan Walter, Kyle Hartenstein, Will Kszywanos, Matt Fusco, Jason Sulilvan, Joe and Mike Gulino, Sebby Grignano, Nick Foell, Jeff Massicotte and Jack Rich.
The last time the Meriden squad raised the championship flag was in 2014, when the franchise operated as the Meriden Merchants. The team was runner-up to the Orioles in 2017.
Meriden has been back in the Greater Hartford league since 2003, when former Maloney coach Howie Hewitt formed the Meriden ProCare squad, ending a Silver City absence of more than 15 years.