Normally at this time of year, Little League fields throughout East County would be packed with players and spectators.
But this is not a normal year.
Far from it in all regards amid the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
But life remains resilient, and it is starting to reemerge, at least in phases.
That includes youth baseball.
Many of California District 41 Little League’s individual leagues have reopened for practices in recent weeks amid a day-camp format following strict San Diego County health guidelines.
There are no actual games being played, but kids are back in a familiar environment with their friends.
That is powerful medicine in these uncertain times.
Posts on the District 41 Facebook site are filled with optimism and gratitude that serve to shine a ray of hope over an otherwise dark landscape.
Kristin Gaspar, who represents District 3 on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, went to bat for youth sports in spearheading a grassroots movement to get kids back on the practice field. She solicited input from league presidents and directors from a variety of youth sports throughout the county to develop a comprehensive set of safety protocols that would place a return to the practice field in a day camp setting.
She presented both the city of San Diego, and ultimately Governor Gavin Newsome, with a set of guidelines that conform within safety parameters of existing COVID-19 (coronavirus) protocols.
Her efforts were rewarded on June 5 when Gov. Newsome released guidance for a return to day sports camps.
“We did it, San Diego!” Gaspar exclaimed in triumph. “Our mighty team of parents, coaches, professional athletes, and volunteers stepped up to the plate, on to the pitch, into the end zone, and out on the court like big time lobbyists.”
It was a victory but there is still much more to be done.
Area leagues must follow guidelines set by the state of California, County of San Diego and Little League Baseball.
At present, the format is limited to a day camp practices to comply with local health guidelines and safety protocols. That includes social distancing on the field and sanitizing equipment and mask requirements. Coaches screen players for any COVID-19 symptoms before practice starts.
No more than 12 players can be in one group at one time.
Leagues have had to reopen fields amid requirements from the local jurisdictions they fall under, including the local city, county, various school districts and parks and recreation departments.
District 41 leagues include Alpine American, El Cajon National, El Cajon Western, Fletcher Hills, Jamul, Julian, Lakeside American, Lakeside National, Mountain Empire, Rancho de Oro, Rios Canyon, Santee Pioneer, Santana National, Singing Hills and West Hills.
“At Fletcher Hills Little League, we’ve done all the things required of us by the county to get the kids out on the fields and playing baseball, but it has come with some challenges,” Fletcher Hills Little League President Erik Weichelt said. “With 70 percent of our league returning to play, we’ve had some busy fields and it’s awesome to watch.
“Yet, there’s been some pressure to get moving on from practice to games from both coaches and parents, which is totally understandable. Thankfully, the managers and coaches have stepped up to get these kids out of the house and playing ball a couple times a week, even though games are uncertain.”
Weichelt said another challenge is that most leagues will have field allocation challenges starting on Aug. 1 at which point they have to share with another fall sport league for field usage, limiting time to proceed to games.
“Luckily at FHLL, we have sole field allocation at both our facilities, but it’s the kids that play other sports besides baseball,” Weichelt said.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but seeing the kids out there playing baseball is well worth it.”
California District 66, which serves parts of East County, has had a slower timeline in the effort to return to the practice field.
“We probably have one of the most diverse field ownership mixes,” said District 66 president Rolland Slade, who was recently named to the Little League International Advisory Board to represent the West region this fall. “We have leagues that play on fields owned by cities, school districts, the County of San Diego and privately.”
Slade said four of the district’s 10 leagues will not be have a 2020 season: Lemon Grove, San Diego Southeastern, Spring Valley and Twin Hills.
He said the other six leagues are waiting for authorization to return to the fields they rent from either a city (San Diego and National City) or school district (Grossmont Union High School and San Diego Unified School District).
“At this time, we are looking at combining for August practices and September and October games,” Slade said optimistically.
California District 42, which serves South County, has mirrored California District 41’s return to the practice field.
Safety remains first and foremost for players and volunteers alike.
“It’s mandatory for coaches to wear masks around the kids,” Sweetwater Valley Little League president Arturo Maldonado said. “No one is allowed in the dugout. The kids have their equipment placed away from the dugout but spaced out for social distancing. There are sanitizers in the dugout. That’s the only time kids are allowed in the dugout — to use the sanitizers.
“There are signs put up all over the field for social distancing. Parents have to stay in the parking lot. No one is allowed to share masks or equipment.”
While there are no organized scrimmages or games, the emphasis is on having fun with peers.
“We’re not changing the rules of the game but abiding by social distancing,” Maldonado said. “We’re not allowed to play games right now. It’s only practice.”
But it’s something, and something definitely therapeutic for the kids.
District officials are hoping that the health situation improves enough to allow for actual game play. But that OK would have to come from the governor and then amended by any city or county health guideline protocols.
If a return to game play is possible, it’s likely to be in some condensed format, including Tournament of Champions and All-Star tournaments.
Little League baseball fields could stay open into the fall, if needed.
A legion of volunteers has put in an extraordinary effort just to get to this stage and should be commended.
This has meant restricting access to the facility, including one-way entrance and exits to the grounds (similar to what is happening in grocery stores). There are required COVID-19 symptom postings and safe distancing rules. There are now team check-ins to allow for symptoms screenings for all members of the team.
Hand sanitizing stations are located throughout each facility. Coaches are masked and instructed to give players frequent sanitizing breaks.
Equipment is sanitized and rotated out as much as possible.
Most dugouts are closed off and players’ gear are placed outside of the dugout, spaced out to support social distancing. All bleacher areas are closed off for seating. If established, there are separate spectator areas.
Fields and practice sites are cleaned and sanitized after each team has used the field and before the next team takes the field, in addition to regular cleaning and sanitizing of restroom areas.
“Our leagues are taking extraordinary efforts to ensure a safe and healthy practice environment for our players, coaches and parents,” District 42 administrator Ernie Lucero said. “As we progress through this learning period, we hope it becomes a safe habit for everyone that continues into the game play phase when approved.
“We are hoping to again play our regular season with actual games and umpires when it is safe and appropriate to do so. All of us miss watching our kids play Little League baseball.”