MERIDEN — It’s go-time for the CT Elite Baseball Association, the indepedent league that’s been set up as a one-year stopgap to fill the breach for American Legion baseball.
Meriden, Wallingford and Cheshire all have entires in the CTEBA, which features a total of 82 teams across four age brackets across the state.
Among the locals, coach Doug Wedge’s Meriden squad, going by the monniker “Meriden Cobras,” kicks off the campaign this weekend with games at Newington’s Alumni Field.
“There was a lot of work put into this to make this come off,” said Wedge, who was among the first to talk about staging an independent league when the national and Connecticut American Legion organizations cancelled the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic back in mid-May. “The teams that are in this really want to play.”
The CTEBA is being overseen by former director of Connecticut American Legion baseball Craig Zimmerman along with fellow state Legion officials Tim Vincent, Jeff Clarke and Chuck Berry. That group started hosting weekly Zoom meetings in May to work out the wrinkles for the league that opens play this weekend.
As Wedge said, “These four guys really took the ball and ran with it.”
The CTEBA follows the Legion model. Along with employing the same rules, such as wood bats and pitch counts, the state is grouped into divisions that roughly mirror Legion zones.
Meriden and Cheshire are grouped in Division 1 with Avon, Berlin, Bristol, Newington, Simsbury and West Hartford. Wallingford is in Division 2 with Branford, East Haven, Hamden, Madison, Milford, New Haven, North Haven, Orange and West Haven.
Teams will play into August, with a playoff tournament to cap the season.
The age brackets are the traditional ones for Legion ball — U19, U17 and U15 — with a new U14 loop added to the mix.
Meriden and Wallingford both have teams in the U19 and U17 brackets. Cheshire is fielding just a U19 squad.
The only area team not involved is Southington. When the official Legion season was cancelled and with so much uncertainly about the summer swirling, Post 72 coach Marc Verderame and Southington High School coach Charlie Lembo recommended Legion-aged players in their town find a roster spot on travel programs.
By the time the CTEBA became reality, Southington didn’t have enough players to field a team.
“All those juniors and seniors, we told them to find new AAU teams — whoever’s playing, wherever you can, if we even have a season,” said Verderame, who in lieu of doing Legion this year will coach the Southington Shock in the Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League (see related story). “At that point, we didn’t even know if baseball would even be a thing this summer.”
Once Phase II of Gov. Ned Lamont’s state reopening plan went into effect last week, outdoor activities like baseball had the green light to resume. Baseball will resume, however, following state-issued health and safety guidelines.
In the CTEBA, players will wear masks whenever they’re not on the field. Benches and equipment will be sanitized before games. In Meriden and Wallingford, players will be spread out and seated in their own chairs when they come off the field.
Small, sensible steps, say baseball people, for a big payoff.
“Our kids are excited to be playing. For them, it’s a little bit back to normal,” said Chris Bishop, president of the Wallingford Cardinals, that town’s youth baseball umbrella organization. “Obviously, we still have restrictions on how we can do things, but at least it’s somewhat of a resemblance of normal. It’s definitely a different world, but not anything that is over the top at all.”
Echoed Wedge, “In the big picture of it, it’s not a hardship to do all this stuff to get a chance to go out and play baseball.”
Wedge noted that the CTEBA season helps compensate for the lost high school season, especially for the senior players. It also provides a stage for underclassmen to be seen by college coaches.
To get his Meriden players ready for the upcoming season, Wedge scrimmaged the Record-Journal Expos of the Greater Hartford Twilight League on Monday night. The Expos roster is filled with former Meriden Legion players.
Once the young kids got the stars out of their eyes, Wedge said, they held their own.
“You can tell they missed playing baseball. Something that might have been taken for granted in past years, they now have a full appreciation of it,” Wedge said. “They almost lost a whole season. It’s bad enough losing high school. They could have lost eveything. We made sure that didn’t happen. As long as the virus kept cooperating — as much as a virus can cooperate — we would do everything in our power to have a season, and we did.”