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Delayed, modified, canceled: The latest on Tucson’s Little Leagues amid the coronavirus pandemic

Delayed, modified, canceled: The latest on Tucson’s Little Leagues amid the coronavirus pandemic

'It wouldn’t be the same, but it would still be baseball,' one league president says

Sunnyside Little League

The powerhouse Sunnyside Little League, whose 12-year-olds, juniors and seniors won state titles last season, has canceled its season because of the coronavirus.

Carl Thompson views the current shutdown of youth baseball and softball in a way that’s easily relatable for anyone who’s played, coached or watched a game.

“The fields and the game we love will be there when get back from this ‘weather delay,’” said Thompson, the administrator for District 5, one of two Little League districts in the Tucson area. “As soon as we know the rain will clear, we’ll get back on the field.”

If only it were that simple.

We have radar readings to monitor actual weather delays. When there’s no longer lightning in the area and the fields have dried, the “Play ball!” signal can be given.

The coronavirus pandemic is a lingering storm that continues to hover over the world and affect all aspects of daily life. Even as restrictions are lifted and states, including Arizona, attempt to reopen, concerns and questions remain.

The majority of Tucson’s Little Leagues had just begun to practice when the pandemic suspended sports and society in mid-March. At that time, Little League International recommended that all programs halt activity until April 6. That date subsequently was extended to May 11. Little League International has left it up to local leagues to decide whether to start up again based on “the guidelines set forth by their respective state and local government and health officials.”

The guidelines set forth by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero apply to everyone, but Tucson’s Little Leagues aren’t in lockstep.

As of Wednesday, 10 of the 11 leagues in District 5 had decided to cancel their already-delayed spring seasons. Only Canyon View continued to explore the feasibility of playing a modified season.

In District 12, five of 12 leagues had decided not to proceed, including two of the district’s largest: Copper Hills and Sunnyside. The other seven were still figuring it out, with at least one, Rincon, determined to play if at all possible.

“It’s kind of a waiting game,” District 12 administrator Cindy Snow said.

But one with a time limit. The earliest leagues could resume play, as of now, is June 22. That date is based on two factors. The first is Romero’s extension of Tucson’s emergency declaration — including park facility closures — through June 8. The second is Little League International’s recommendation that leagues implement a two-week training period before playing games. The latter is part of the organization’s extensive “Season Resumption Guide,” which includes a variety of recommended best practices.

That shrinks the window for a summer season in most cases to about six weeks, from June 22-Aug. 1. Leagues can’t go too far past that date for several reasons. One is the need for a break before fall ball, which has become an increasingly attractive alternative for many leagues, especially after the decision was made to apply spring league ages to the 2020 fall season. (That’s a boon for 12-year-olds who otherwise would have aged out of Little League eligibility.)

Another is field availability. Youth football teams — assuming they’re able to start on time — typically begin practicing in mid-July in many of the same parks where Little Leagues play. Tucson’s summer weather also limits the options.

Any league that decides to play would have to adhere to social-distancing and sanitizing procedures outlined by the Arizona State Little league, of which Thompson is the chairman. Is it worth it to try? Would it be a rewarding experience for the participants?

The paths chosen by two of Tucson’s biggest Little Leagues show how difficult those questions are to answer.

“It just didn’t work out”

Sunnyside Little League’s 12-year-olds, juniors and seniors won state titles last season. The 12-year-olds and seniors were repeat champions. Those divisions would have been playing for three-peats this summer.

“I feel bad for them, their parents, their coaches, for me,” Sunnyside president Manny Rodriguez said. “Everybody, in all our divisions, had high expectations. It just didn’t work out this year.”

Little League International canceled all regional-qualifying events and World Series tournaments for 2020. Sunnyside’s board of directors decided last week to cancel the ’20 spring/summer season.

“Our priority is the health and safety of our players, coaches, volunteers and families,” Rodriguez wrote in a letter to the league. “To assure that, we feel it necessary to take this action for everyone involved.”

Rodriguez also wrote that the guidelines provided by Little League International and Arizona State Little League were “almost impossible to fully implement and/or comply with.” He discussed several examples in a phone interview with the Star, including:

  • Players not being permitted to exchange handshakes or high-fives. Rodriguez’s counter/concern: “You’ve got to tag them to make an out.”
  • Extending dugouts to allow for social distancing of players. Rodriguez: “They’re going to be in left field and right field.”
  • Discouraging the sharing of equipment — or, if it must be shared, disinfecting it after each use. Rodriguez: “Major-league boys (usually) have their own catcher’s equipment. Girls teams and minors on down (typically) don’t have their own catcher’s equipment or their own batting helmets.”
  • Enforcing social distancing and other safety measures with T-ball and coach-pitch players, who normally range in age from 4-8. Rodriguez: “You can’t even control them on the field. Wherever the ball goes, the whole team is on top of each other trying to get it.”

Rodriguez said Sunnyside’s seven-person board voted unanimously to cancel the spring season. The board includes two health-care professionals, he said.

Sunnyside is offering three options to families who already had paid their league fees: rolling it over to the 2021 season; donating the money to the league, which is a nonprofit organization; or obtaining a refund, less a $20 processing and administrative fee.

As for the idea of an expanded fall season — possibly starting earlier and including a postseason tournament — Rodriguez said he hadn’t thought about it much.

“It’s all day to day,” he said. “I think every league’s the same. If school starts, I’m comfortable doing Little League. If school doesn’t start …”

“Something normal”

Rincon Little League president Eddie Sapp is also the president of the Tucson Men’s Senior Baseball League and an assistant coach at Cienega High School. His stepson, Braeden Mondeau, 17, is a senior-to-be at Cienega and a college prospect. Sapp’s younger son, Braxton, 7, plays for Rincon Little League.

“We’re a baseball family,” Sapp said. “This is a shock to our system. Believe me, I’m going stir-crazy.”

Rincon is pushing forward with plans to play a spring/summer season. That decision is not Sapp’s alone.

When it began its season in early March, Rincon had 520 players registered for baseball and another 50 for softball. Sapp said only 16 families objected to the idea of playing a season — and three of those cited the summer heat, not the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Rincon’s 18-member board voted unanimously to try to play.

“Because of those numbers, we feel obligated to wait it out and see if we can get something in, even if we have to play a very limited spring season,” Sapp said. “For me and the board, it’s (about) giving the kids a safe place to play, being outdoors, having a return to something normal.

“It wouldn’t be the same, but it would still be baseball.”

Rincon has two advantages that many other leagues lack: (1) Its size allows for intraleague play, making it easier to enforce a consistent set of social distancing guidelines and other safety measures; and (2) the league already had started its season, with most teams having played two games. That makes the prospect of a six-week summer session a bit more appealing.

Sapp and the Rincon board still have concerns. They include field availability, enforcing best practices with younger ballplayers and obtaining sufficient supplies of sanitizing wipes and other cleaning products.

Sapp concedes it would be strange and hard to pull off — but is certain the kids would enjoy it.

“Their fun right now is sitting at home,” Sapp said. “Being out of the house, running around, cheering for each other, being a teammate again, I think it will make them happy. And I think they’ll listen a little more because they’ll understand what was taken away from them.”

Sapp is confident Rincon could create a schedule that mitigates families’ concerns about summer heat. Southern Arizona’s monsoons are a different beast — a variable as unpredictable as the coronavirus.

“We would deal,” Sapp said.

Some weather delays are easier to navigate than others.

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