Waiting in the on-deck circle: District IV L.L.'s take timeout

Waiting in the on-deck circle: District IV L.L.'s take timeout

The sign above the cone and the locked gates tell the story as Whipple Field, the home of the Smithfield Little League, is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 pandemic puts Little League season on hold

In a perfect world, families with young baseball and softball-playing children would have turned their attention from a festive Easter weekend to the opening week of the Little League season.

Opening Day parades and ceremonies throughout northern Rhode Island would be held at Little League ballfields over the next few weekends. Parks would be packed, team pictures would be scheduled, politicians and dignitaries would be throwing our first pitches, and national anthems would be played.

Unfortunately, the world is far from perfect right now. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has put everyday life on hold, ‘social distancing’ has become a common phrase, and families have spent the bulk of their time in the confines of their homes and nowhere near gatherings, such as the ones you’d find at a weekday game.

In early March, Little League International, which oversees more than 6,500 programs around the world, postponed the start of its season until April 6, but an email to league presidents soon followed and recommended that no play begin until May 11.

The popular MLB Pitch, Hit & Run tournaments that begin in late April have been canceled, and no word has been mentioned on the futures of Little League’s regional tournaments and the World Series that annually attracts the nation’s attention each August in Williamsport, Penn.

Late last week, the country’s American Legion baseball program announced that its World Series in Shelby, N.C., as well its eight regional tournaments, had been canceled. Will the Little League’s powers-to-be follow suit and pull the plug on its featured championship event?

“The good thing is that (Little League) is talking to the districts and the state coordinators,” said Ron Lopes, the administrator of the state’s District IV, whose leagues include Cumberland, Lincoln, Smithfield, Woonsocket, North Smithfield, Scituate-Foster, and Glocester. “They’re trying to come up with ways to keep the leagues engaged, as well as contingency plans for the season.”

“They’re also looking at tournaments (being played) on the state level, which is also a good thing,” he added. “But I don’t know whether or not they’re planning to cancel the World Series. As of right now, they’re not.”

While Lopes took some time last weekend to talk about the postponement of the Little League campaign, so did five of the district's league presidents: Lincoln's John Sharkey, Smithfield's Michael Guilfoyle, North Smithfield's Scott Sevegny, and two first-year presidents: the Cumberland Youth Baseball/Softball League's Michael Colucci and Woonsocket's William Berube Jr.

The five presidents were hoping to see their leagues hold their Opening Day ceremonies this month, but because of the COVID-10 pandemic, they were forced to postpone them. While Woonsocket has rescheduled its Opening Day to Saturday, May 30, the other four leagues have yet to confirm a date.

“We’re doing the best we can under these trying times,” said Sevegny. “We’re doing what we can behind the scenes, but it’s still very challenging. We were able to get in our tryouts, but we haven’t been able to get coaches together to draft teams. There’s still some work that we have to do.”

Little Leagues throughout the country have been hard at work these past few months getting ready for the upcoming season, and right now, they have their fingers tightly crossed that it will begin next month, or at least sometime down the road.

“I believe the next two weeks will be pivotal in determining the course of this season,” noted Sharkey, who has been his league’s president since 1995. “Little League currently has its target date of May 11 to resume play. I believe there will be a season, but it will probably extend into the end of July.”

But what if the leagues can’t get on the field on May 11? What if May turns to June -- or July? And are there any fears that a season will not take place?

“We, as a league, are staying positive there will be a season,” Berube replied in an email. “What that consists of will be determined by when this crisis is over.”

“I’m quite optimistic that there will be a full local season, followed by a (District IV) and perhaps even a state tournament,” Colucci reported. “We have everything in place to throw the first pitch as soon as the light turns green. We’re currently completing the selection of all our teams. Uniform and equipment orders are being held in abeyance, but ready to go when needed.”

“Currently, the board, coaches, and volunteers are focused on preparing to start the season immediately upon receiving permission to do so,” Guilfoyle reported. “Our approach is not if, but when, the season will commence. We have held a number of meetings virtually, as we are all committed to taking the fields as soon as such is feasible.”

“We’re hopeful we can get a season in,” Sevegny added. “It will obviously all depend on when everything returns to normal, and when that happens, we want to be up and running and ready to go.”

Tom Petty once sang that “the waiting is the hardest part,” and both presidents know that has been the case with their leagues, especially in the contact that they have had with their respective boards of directors, coaches, and parents.

“I know that there are some parents who are chomping at the bit and would really love to get out,” said Sevegny. “Our coaches are really anxious to get out, especially after the winter we had. It was very mild, and everything was playing into our favor in being able to have a good start to our season, but unfortunately, everything got derailed.”

Before the announcement that halted the season until May 11, Guilfoyle noted that a group of his board members “developed a safety protocol amid the COVID-19 crisis” that included:

• Encouraging players not to shake hands after a game, instead opting for an elbow bump,

• Having ample supplies of anti-bacterial gel in the dugouts,

• Not opening the concession stands,

• And asking managers to disinfect helmets and other team gear after each practice or game.

“The safety of the players and volunteers is paramount,” Guilfoyle reported. “While the COVID-19 situation continues to unfold, we are committed to providing kids and families something to look forward to and enjoy when safe to do so. This has been a trying time for many. For many, hope is something that provides the motivation to endure another day.”

And everyone’s hope is that practices start on the second Monday in May, and if that does happen?

“I think it’s important to get a 12 to 15-game regular season completed for all of our kids and then perhaps conduct a short tournament season,” Sharkey said.

“I have a feeling that the regular season is going to move on into the football (season),” answered Lopes. “It’s going to have to go into the fall because they’re going to have to take the break for the all-stars – if there’s a World Series – and then start up again.”

And if baseball and softball does take place in September, and even October, “you have a lot of competition during that time,” said Lopes. “You also have soccer and football, and you’re probably not going to get half the kids that you would normally get during the regular season.”

While the postponement of the season has been a hot topic in the area, so has the subject of the all-star tournaments, and for very good reason. Only three times since 1996 had a league other than Lincoln or Cumberland won the Major Division (ages 11-12) District IV title, and while Cumberland had won four state titles in the 2010s, Lincoln had claimed eight from 1999-2013.

As for the regional tournament in Bristol, Conn., eight Rhode Island teams since 2001 have won New England titles and advanced to the World Series, with Lincoln doing so in 2001 and 2004 and Cumberland American achieving the feat in 2011 and 2014.
But will there be regional tournaments or a World Series this summer?

"There’s simply too much at stake for the kids and Little League itself (to not have summer tournaments),” Guilfoyle said. “We are confident that once it is safe and feasible, there will be summer tournaments.”

Colucci, who has been involved with the CYBSL for 20 years, said that prospects “are nil, but that would free up local leagues to play their regular seasons much later into June and using July and early August for district and state play,” he added.

Another topic that a few of the presidents touched upon were the 12-year-old players who were going to lose the experience of their final Little League seasons.

“A group of impactful and dedicated coaches and I have been coaching many of these kids since they were five years old,” noted Guilfoyle. “All of them are looking forward to competing in the recreational and summer tournament season. For seven years, these kids have spent nearly every summer together learning, playing, and developing a lifelong passion for the game.”

And how have the players handled the postponement?

“I’m disappointed about the season being postponed, but I’m still confident we’re going to have a baseball season,” added Tyler Guilfoyle, who played on Smithfield’s District IV Major Division ages 10-11 championship team last summer. “I have been working hard in the garage, hitting off the tee with my brother. I am itching to get back on the field because I love the game of baseball.”

“The older kids (who are ages) 11-12 are bumming, especially the kids who are in their last year of eligibility,” offered Sharkey

While the league’s activities have been put on hold, the Smithfield president noted that the members of the league have been active on social media as a way to stay engaged.

“We’re going to share a video featuring the 12-year-old players who will each recite a line from the “People Will Come” speech in the movie “Field of Dreams,” he remarked. “We invited all of the 11-year-old families to participate in a virtual crosstown catch that will also be posted to social media. And with regard to our other players, we’re inviting each of them to hold a sign that, when combined into a video, will read, ‘Stay inside so that all of us can play baseball this spring,’ and ‘so that our mom’s can start yelling about bad calls again!’”

As for baseball in general, “as we shared with families when we announced the first delay of practices, the kids need it as much as the families do,” offered the Smithfield president. “Little League and other youth sports organizations will be key to the normalization of our lives following the pandemic. Once deemed safe, there will be a Little League season in Smithfield – that is our commitment to the players and their families.”