The national baseball organizations reveal their plans for getting back on the diamond in 2021.
Like all team sports, baseball was certainly not spared the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result the main governing bodies of youth baseball had their collective hands full trying to bring a sense of structure to their turbulent world of recreation and travel baseball last spring and summer. Groups such as Little League, PONY Baseball & Softball, Babe Ruth Baseball and Dixie Boys Baseball have managed to move forward with some guidance from USA Baseball.
“Each youth and amateur baseball organization has its unique profile and associated challenges as it relates to the COVID pandemic, so there really is not a one-size-fits-all solution,” says Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball. “That said, we have had regular communication with our national member organizations, exchanging information on best practices as directed and guided by the CDC, as well as local and federal agencies.”
It’s fair to say that the governing bodies of youth baseball did not have a pre-determined playbook response to the arrival of a global pandemic.
“This past year has been unprecedented for our organization, but more importantly for our millions of children and volunteers who take part in our program each year,” says Stephen Keener, Little League president and CEO. “However, as difficult as this past year has been, we continue to be impressed by the dedication and commitment from our millions of volunteers as they continue to battle the challenges this pandemic has brought.”
“COVID-19 had an impact on the world of sports, from the professional level down to the Babe Ruth League ballfields,” agrees Steve Tellefsen, executive director of Babe Ruth Baseball. “Many of our leagues had an abrupt halt in the middle of March. Our leagues had hoped to hold opening ceremonies in early April, but those plans had to change due to quarantines and social distancing.”
“It was a very unique spring and summer for amateur sports, especially children wanting to play baseball,” adds Abe Key, president of PONY Baseball & Softball. “We decided to shut down our leagues in April. We had no World Series events last year for baseball or softball.”
Making the Best of It
As bad as the pandemic was in 2020, the national baseball organizations all made extreme efforts to make the best of a bad situation.
• “Although a number of our leagues were unable to return to in 2020, many were able to find alternative ways to continue to offer the Little League experience such as our newly launched Little League Sandlot Fun Days and other flexible playing options once it was permitted by their local, state and federal health and government officials,” says Little League’s Keener.
• Babe Ruth Baseball also had a never-give-up approach to the pandemic. “As an organization, we are extremely proud of our dedicated volunteers who did everything possible to have a season when it was safe to do so,” says Tellefsen, whose group will be celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2021. “They could have just packed it in for the year, but they did not. It was not about finishing the local league season and selecting the All-Star team. It was about providing a healthy educational program for as many kids as possible.”
He says that many leagues that reopened made the decision to play as soon as restrictions were lifted for outdoor sports. Even though some of the local restrictions were challenging, Babe Ruth teams were committed to following them and keeping the players safe. “Getting kids to adhere to safety guidelines was a group effort, split between parents and coaches,” Tellefsen points out.
• PONY Baseball & Softball left it up to its local leagues to make the best decisions for their programs.
“Toward the end of the summer, we encouraged many of our local leagues to play some type of regular season, safely,” says Key. “Some were successful and some were not.”
• Dixie Boys Baseball realized that at some point competitive baseball could be played safely during the pandemic.
“We put numerous protocols in place and had a plan of action for various start dates for a 2020 season,” says J. Sandy Jones, commissioner and CEO of Dixie Boys Baseball. “We resumed play on June 15 and adhered to all of the recommendations of the CDC. Each of our state programs were at a different place with their state mandates and we published weekly updates, while strongly encouraging the leagues to follow their states’ mandates.”
Maintaining this local compliance allowed almost all Dixie teams to offer at least an abbreviated season, but the group did experience a 60 percent decline in team participation numbers for 2020. As a result it conducted only 12 of the normal 48 state tournaments that would normally be held during a particular season.
The world of youth baseball lives in hope that 2021 will see an improvement over 2020.
“Little League International continues to evaluate the impact of the coronavirus as it looks ahead to the 2021 season with the goal of returning its leagues to the baseball and softball field for both regular and tournament season opportunities,” says Keener.
“As it has from the beginning, Little League highly encourages that each league and district adhere to the guidelines set forth by their respective state and local government and health officials in terms of public gatherings, organized youth sports and sporting events when determining how and when to return to Little League activities,” he adds.
The existence of Babe Ruth Baseball programs in local communities means more than just a place for children to play baseball.
“Through this pandemic, we all realized how important our community-based programs are to neighborhoods and believe this spirit will carry over to the 2021 season,” says Tellefsen. “Whatever normal is for 2021, we will improvise, adapt and overcome.”
The Babe Ruth League Alumni Association has established a “Stronger Together” Pay It Forward campaign to raise funds to assist kids and leagues in need with registration costs and/or operating expenses for the 2021 season. “Our collective efforts will hopefully help us solve the challenges being felt in communities throughout our nation,” he adds.
PONY Baseball & Softball is also more than willing to do what is necessary to bring the youth baseball experience to children around the country.
“There are many variables to consider, such as monitoring the vaccine and parental comfort levels,” says Key. “We may have to make some modifications to our program.” In fact, PONY is looking at three different programs for 2021 — a full competition with a World Series, a regular season with no post-season or a hybrid version.
If Dixie Boys Baseball could actually execute at least a scaled-down baseball program in 2020, it feels it can certainly do the same in 2021.
“I envision that in 2021 we will take the protocols that we developed for 2020 and amend them based on available science,” says Dixie’s Jones. “There remain many unknowns and we will address the safety and welfare of all participants, spectators and umpires based on the input of the experts. We take this responsibility very seriously.
“We recognize that in 2020, local communities made some tough decisions that impacted their local baseball programs,” he adds. “It is important that in 2021 we provide the necessary resources and support for these communities in this the COVID-19 era.”