PLAY BALL! Little League gets waved home. Here’s what it might look like out there on the diamonds

Aptos Little Leaguers get a jump on preparation for a season that appears to be coming together.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The spring and summer rite of youth for many finally will transpire in some form all around Santa Cruz County. And that’s big news after seeing it disappear in 2020 just as the coronavirus was being understood by medical experts.

This year there will be no crying in baseball ... because there will actually be baseball.

When the state revised its youth sports guidelines last week, Little League coaches, parents and kids breathed a sigh of relief that the pastime their springs and summers revolve around will not disappear like a Clayton Kershaw curveball.

Last year’s disappearing act left parents and kids glum, and fields all over the county eerily quiet and bereft of the smells of BBQ and sounds of baseball. This year’s version may still leave some wanting for a more traditional version — including that wafting BBQ smoke.

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“It won’t be what we’re used to, but the kids will be out playing,” said Gene Carlisle, administrator of District 39, which includes Aptos, Capitola/Soquel, Live Oak, Pajaro Valley, San Lorenzo Valley, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Watsonville American.

That assessment mirrors what many youth sports — from rec leagues to competitive clubs to high schools ... from soccer to water polo to lacrosse — are dealing with right now. But at least the state’s new guidelines have provided more hope and reason to get creative.

In the current purple tier, as a moderate-contact sport, small Little League cohorts can partake in practices only. However, if the county soon moves to red as expected, it will open up full rosters and seemingly normal competition except for the necessary safety precautions.

As Carlisle points out, the district “just makes the recommendations,” and it will be up to the individual leagues to establish and police their own COVID-19 safety protocols.

Aptos Little Leaguers prepping for a season that's drawing nearer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Some parents may be hesitant because of COVID, but there’s gonna be a lot who want their kids to get out, play sports and socialize a little bit,” Carlisle said. “It’s tough when you’re sitting around doing nothing.”

Here’s Carlisle’s interpretation of what it will look like, based on guidance handed down by both the California Public Health Department and Little League International.

  • Pre-practice or game assessments: Health screenings and temperature checks will be administered.
  • No dugout use: Players and coaches will stand six feet apart behind dugouts rather than sit inside them.
  • Masks will be on: The guidance provided by the district is for masks to be worn at all times by all individuals participating, even with heavy exertion as tolerated.
  • No sharing of equipment: No bats, gloves, batting gloves or other equipment will be shared between teammates.
  • Sanitation of equipment and dugouts: Carlisle said there will be “sanitizer everywhere” for keeping equipment clean and that parent volunteers would be sanitizing the dugout area after practices and games.
  • Umpires won’t be touching the ball: The sight of an umpire grabbing a new ball from their waistline pouch and throwing to the pitcher won’t be happening for a while. Managers will send a new ball into play as needed.
  • Social distancing in the stands: Carlisle says several local fields have the ability to livestream games, so they’ll encourage the adults to stay home and watch from there when possible. Other fields, he says, will employ ”an honor system” whereby parents and grandparents try to minimize their numbers, wear masks “and if you’re in the stands, stay at least six feet apart.”
  • Maybe no snack shack: Carlisle said he’ll be missing the smell of the BBQ and grabbing sunflower seeds as much as anyone if those important fundraising traditions can’t safely be restored immediately. “It’s not something we’ve made plans for,” he said.
  • But hopefully tournament and all-star play: Carlisle said they hope to get a delayed and shortened 12-game regular season of play in and then “if the virus keeps trending in the right direction” there will be as normal of a postseason structure as possible.
Getting in shape for the season ahead in Aptos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Carlisle knows what he talks about when he says the No. 1 goal is “making sure no one gets sick.” The 68-year-old contracted COVID-19 in December and says of his experience “I wouldn’t wish that on my own worst enemy.”

Play ball, but as safely as possible, will be the mantra.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s changes Friday enable “moderate contact” sports — baseball, softball and lacrosse — to be cleared...

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