When light rain turned a bit heavier at Sprague Park on Monday afternoon, members of the Narragansett Connie Mack baseball team kept on practicing for as long as they could.
They’re making up for lost time, after all.
Following a spring without baseball due to the coronavirus pandemic, high school-aged players have had the opportunity to get back on the field with summer teams. Post 39’s baseball staff, though not technically under the American Legion baseball umbrella this year, has spearheaded entries into the RI Elite 19-20 league – the replacement for legion – and the Connie Mack league. The Slocum Baseball Club in North Kingstown will also be part of the Connie Mack circuit.
Teams have been practicing for a few weeks, since the state moved to Phase II of its reopening plan. With Phase III starting this week, leagues have the green light to begin playing games.
“The kids are gung-ho,” said Slocum Baseball Club manager Arnie Sarazen. “You have to kind of reign them in a little bit and remind them about social distance and numbers in the dugout, things like that. But they’re just happy to play.”
Connie Mack teams were set for their season openers on Wednesday, weather permitting. Slocum was scheduled to face Chariho, with Narragansett going against East Greenwich. The two teams will meet on Monday at Lischio Field, with first pitch at 5:30 p.m. Connie Mack will play a 10-team regular season, with playoffs to follow. The RI Elite 19-20 League is expected to get started soon.
Teams have been assembled from the usual player pools, though even that part of the process was a little different this year.
“Coach Gary [Lessard] and myself, our normal routine during the high school baseball season is we get out to the various games in the spring to look at players who have expressed an interest or have been identified to us as someone we may want to reach out to,” said Pete Podedworny, manager of the South Kingstown Elite League team. “Because we couldn’t do that this year, it’s been a little tougher to come up with rosters.”
Travel team opportunities also remain, with schedules and travel plans adjusted to account for the pandemic. Players who are in the fold are often juggling work schedules, too.
“When you split the groups up, you start factoring in who’s working on a particular evening and it’s been difficult to make this come together,” Podedworny said. “But that’s what we’re working on right now.”
Podedworny and Lessard, longtime leaders of the Post 39 program, decided against putting a team in the junior division of the Elite League, opting instead to keep the Connie Mack program going strong. Rosters have been solidified for the two groups.
“We’ve had a pretty good relationship with Connie Mack,” Podedworny said. “We want to make sure the Connie Mack team is viable and survives this as well.”
Monday’s practice revealed some of the challenges of getting players up to speed. With rosters limited to stable groups of 15, the Narragansett squad had nine players in the field, one pitcher at a time warming up with a bullpen catcher, and the rest of the players taking live at-bats. After about 10 minutes of action, everyone would rotate.
It’s a little tricky, but practices are also proving necessary. Typically, summer teams don’t do much practicing. Players have been playing all spring and there are three or four games a week. That’s not the case this year.
“You’ve got a lot of high school aged players who have been stuck in a downtime scenario for a couple of months,” Podedworny said. “They haven’t had an outlet other than playing catch. The mind and the body get used to what you’re used to. As a summer team, we’ve been trying to give these players the preseason that they normally get with the high school. We’re trying to shake all the players out of that kind of downtime lull they’ve been in for the last couple of months, get the cobwebs off. At the same time, it’s trying to get them back to the basic fundamentals of playing a baseball game.”
There’s also the matter of regulations. Players can’t congregate in dugouts or share equipment. At Monday’s practice, a player who forgot his helmet used one that belongs to the team, then put his name on a piece of tape and affixed it to the helmet, so no one else would use it.
“By and large, the rules have been followed pretty well,” Sarazen. “So far, so good. Just have to keep our fingers crossed and continue to do the right things.”
And the hurdles are worth it.
For players who had no spring season, there will be summer.
“Absolutely worth it. It’s been great,” Podedworny said. “I think the kids are starting to come around now. They’re getting used to being back in this routine again. A lot of these kids, they’ve bene in this routine since they were 7, 8 years old. Little League, youth travel leagues, up through high school – they’re used to that schedule where, come March, they’re baseball-minded. It was taken away from them this year, but I think they’re getting back into the mindset where they need to be. It’s great to be back out there.”