As youth baseball and softball players — along with their occasionally overzealous parents — have returned to fields across the District, Maryland and Virginia over the past two months, Fox and his fellow volunteers have navigated a lineup card’s worth of logistical hurdles, coronavirus protocols and local restrictions.
The result doesn’t look or feel normal — high-fives are out, and so is spitting, and the umpire is behind the pitcher, not the plate, in some leagues — but it beats the alternative of another spring without Little League.
“We’re making it work. The kids are having a great season. The coaches are having a blast,” Fox said. “It’s all working out, I think, better than expected.”
A recent national surge of coronavirus cases among children was linked in some cases to participation in youth sports, including an outbreak in Minnesota this year that was traced to 26 teams. The risk of spreading the virus is higher for sports that are played indoors and involve more close contact than baseball, according to guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nonetheless, the CDC recommends that social distancing be maintained in dugouts and whenever possible on fields and that equipment sharing be minimized.
Josh Cramer, president of Fort Hunt Little League in Alexandria, and his fellow board members kept in contact with state and county officials and held meetings every few weeks after the 2020 spring season was canceled to determine the safest way to get kids back out on the field in the fall.
The league implemented coronavirus protocols that included the banning of spitting and snacks, as well as handshakes, huddles and high-fives. Carpooling to games was discouraged. Baseballs and softballs would be sanitized frequently, and players were prohibited from sharing equipment, such as bats, batting gloves and helmets.
“We took a few extra steps to keep our players safe and our families safe, because the last thing we wanted to have to do was close down the season because of an outbreak,” Cramer said.
After returning and making it through the fall season without incident, Montgomery County Little League kept the same coronavirus protocols in place for the spring. The league’s roughly 1,500 players are not required to wear masks during play, but players must have their own equipment and each team is required to bring its own baseballs for use while in the field, according to Jason Orsin, the league president.
Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University, said personal items that come in contact with mucous membranes, such as towels and water bottles, should not be shared but there’s a low risk of the virus being transmitted by handling the same bat or wearing the same batting helmet as an infected teammate.
“I’ve told people not to lick their groceries, but they don’t need to wash their groceries,” Ray said. “… We’ve learned a lot about this virus, and it’s not one that’s transmitted from surfaces. Surface transmission is a low risk.”
The Little League officials acknowledged that many of the protocols are about providing parents peace of mind, and they’re wary of letting their guard down by loosening restrictions too soon. In a March Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 51 percent of parents said they were comfortable with their children participating in organized sports given the covid-19 situation.
“We want the parents and the community to see that we’re providing their kids the exercise and sport that they want but not putting them in a scenario where they could get sick,” Orsin said.
The leagues also have made efforts to alleviate financial burdens. Every family that registered for Capitol Hill Little League last year was given the opportunity to have registration fees refunded, deferred to 2021 or donated to the league. Fox, the league president, said about 40 percent donated the money, which the league used to cover its annual sponsorship budget.
“We did not want to ask local businesses for any money this year,” Fox said. “They’ve been put through so much.”
In Virginia, the Fort Hunt league established an equipment donation program called Dugout Swap. The program was an idea the league had planned to roll out last spring, but it has taken on added importance during the pandemic. As of last week, more than 500 items had been collected and more than 400 families received gear.
After 280 players participated in Fort Hunt’s 2020 fall season, nearly 600 registered this spring, including several from nearby Fort Belvoir, which canceled its season because of safety concerns.
“Our motto internally is to provide the most baseball for the most amount of kids possible, and I felt like that’s what we were doing,” Cramer said. “It’s a tremendous experience to see how happy some of these kids are to get their own bats for the first time. … I’m very proud of our league and our volunteers.”
Capitol Hill league players are encouraged to bring their own gear, but sharing equipment, which is disinfected between uses, is permitted. Players and coaches are required to wear masks on the field at all times, in accordance with guidelines established by EventsDC, which oversees The Fields at RFK Campus in Northeast Washington, and the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. Even the youngest kids have adapted well to the protocols, Fox said, but the league has been hampered by the city’s strict coronavirus restrictions and a scarcity of places to play.
Outdoor activities in D.C., including youth sports, were limited to 25 people or fewer when the Capitol Hill league was planning its spring season, forcing Fox to create smaller teams. That coupled with the fact that fields at D.C. Public Schools were not permitted for use this spring led the league to cap registration at 500 kids after a record 750 signed up last season. Teams that might have had two practices and one game, or one practice and two games, per week in previous years have generally been limited to two total games or practices per week.
“We just don’t have the field space, so every group has less time out there,” Fox said. “We lost about half of the fields we’re used to using, so we had to scale back what we could offer.”
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Little League, which serves children in the District’s Ward 7, hasn’t felt the same crunch for field space, but it’s roughly one-third the size of the Capitol Hill league and has played most of its games at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. League president Keith Barnes said registration numbers are slightly up from last spring as the league moves closer to its goal of 300 kids. The league added softball this year, with more than a dozen girls coming out for the first practice last month. Barnes attributed the uptick in participation to “cabin fever.”
“I have a lot of first-time players this year, so the experience level is way down, but it’s just good to be out there,” Barnes said.
One of the more noticeable on-field coronavirus-related changes in some leagues is that the umpire responsible for calling balls and strikes stands behind the pitcher’s mound instead of behind the catcher, as another means of social distancing.
“It’s tough for the umpire; it’s tough for the players,” Orsin said. “You just see it a little differently from behind the mound, and you want to get back to normal baseball and softball. Right now we’re not all the way there, but I can tell you that the smiles are there, the cheers are there, the families are there. I’m really happy about that.”
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