Iowa High School baseball emerges from COVID-19 to get the green light

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 17: Baseballs are picked up on the infeild during batting practice between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Houston Astros at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. Astros won 12-2. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 17: Baseballs are picked up on the infeild during batting practice between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Houston Astros at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 17, 2019 in Anaheim, California. Astros won 12-2. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Grabbing all the headlines is the ongoing talks between MLB owners and players on when they are coming back. Lost among the shuffle is high school baseball.

"“Why do we remember the Boys of Summer? We remember because we were young when they were, of course. But more, we remember because we feel the ache of guilt and regret.”—Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer"

As MLB heads towards the draft date of June 10, “Victory” in a sense this summer will be defined not on the scoreboard but perhaps by merely starting and safely finishing this baseball season as we work to emerge as a nation from the shadow of the ominous quarantine.

As the baseball world works to get MLB back off the mat and we fill the void with Korean Baseball action on ESPN there was a glimmer of hope on the baseball front from the great state of Iowa on Wednesday.

Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds ended days of local speculation by announcing she was giving the okay for summer sports, specifically baseball and softball, to begin on June 1st throughout the state. Both the boy’s and girl’s athletic governing bodies quickly voted to clear the path to begin as well. This leaves each local school district to make its own choice on whether to participate in 2020.

Needless to say the majority of high school athletes, parents, coaches, and fans were very excited to get the news. The intent to save the ‘20 season had been a sports talk hot button and Reynolds pushed it. There are detractors of the decision to be sure and the concerns are legitimate. But it looks like Iowa will lead the way as a test case for re-activating high school sports across the country in the Fall.

Iowa traditionally plays baseball and softball in the summer months after school dismisses. It’s a unique situation that has allowed players and observers to hold out hope the season could be fit in unlike high school Spring sports seasons that were scrubbed by Coronavirus concerns from coast to coast.

Will there be speed bumps along the way? Almost certainly. For baseball, practice is scheduled to begin on June 1st with games commencing on June 15th. The state playoffs are scheduled in Des Moines from July 24th through August 1st. The schedule is, therefore, going to be very tight. It appears many teams will try to get close to 20 games completed in the regular season.

Will it be worth it? The work involved to carry out this season looks daunting. Crafting a schedule on the fly. Scheduling umpires and safe team transportation. Constant attention to socially distancing the players, monitoring individualized hydration, and repeated and diligent cleaning of all equipment. Controlling spectators take on new importance as bleacher seating will be limited or even eliminated. Umpires will also have some deep adjustments to make as well.

It’s one thing to pull off all the details. Schools just might do it. However some involved in the field might still get sick even if every precaution is taken. Is that worth it then? The nightmare scenario is COVID-19 infecting half a team. Or worse a fatality, or even a scary hospital stay, of a coach or player. This is the risk the state of Iowa appears set to take on. It can’t be dismissed entirely during the current euphoria of getting the word “go”.

However, it would seem baseball is one of the easier games to try to socially distance. If you’re going to try it, baseball might be your first pick. Personally I’d feel much safer, COVID-wise, on a ball field for the time being than I would in a movie theater or a bar. Indeed if any players get sick during the season they could just as easily pick it up at a grocery store, ice cream shop, or at any gathering place, kids will eventually find this summer. Baseball or no, it’s a safe bet, not all these kids were going to spend an Iowa summer locked away inside the entire time.

Keeping adults separated might be as difficult as anything. It’s easy to imagine scenarios where social distancing might be adhered to outside the fence initially…but then seeing spacing between friends gradually creeping closer and closer as the season wears on. I’d bet on it.

Umpires will need to adjust as well. Masks will likely be worn which won’t be comfortable in the summer heat. There has been plenty of speculation about the need to keep the plate umpire a distance away from the catcher and batter.

Some umpires want to move the plate umpire behind the mound and call balls-n-strikes from out there. It has strengths and weaknesses. Taking the umpire out to the mound will make all calls near the plate difficult. More importantly the plate umpire typically makes fair/foul calls on the lines and from the mound many hotshots will be guesswork.

Also don’t forget the age and physical health of many umpires might also have them in a demographic where the COVID risk is greater. A COVID diagnosis suddenly makes the $120 umpire fee for a doubleheader look paltry.

On a personal level it should be noted I’m a high school umpire as well as for 14U travel baseball. I will not be taking part this year. It’s complicated. I feel the sport can be played fairly safely and risks can be limited. I’d be happy to work under the COVID concerns but for one thing.  I have a son about to turn 10 years old with special needs. We don’t know how he’d fight off COVID-19. So, to me, there is no point in taking the risk of added but unnecessary exposure this year even if it’s a small risk. I imagine many others will wrestle with similar decisions. I’ll miss it greatly but I’m happy to wait until 2021 to return to the field hopefully armed with more information after seeing how things go.

In the meantime baseball fans in Iowa can look forward to the action. The local Kids of Summer will be in action. Seniors will get their deserved last go ‘round, which is very nice. Games will be played. Memories will be made.

We can all come together and hope it goes well. Pray the talk is about strikeouts, doubles in the gap, and hot weather instead of illness and regrets.

“Field of Dreams” is set here in Iowa. In some respects all the little ballparks across the state coming to life will be like the players in the movie walking out of the cornfield to play the game we all celebrate. Let Terrence Mann finish:

“….they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”