Like many businesses and organizations across the country, the sports industry had to shut down operations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. While professional sports have made their way back into our daily lives, this is not the case for youth sports and the young athletes who participate in them.
Some youth athletes had their senior year stripped away from them, while others had to say goodbye to their teammates and were forced to walk away from the sport they loved.
PONY (Protect Our Nation’s Youth) Baseball and Softball is a non-profit organization that assembles youth baseball and softball leagues and tournaments across the country. In California alone, there are over 150 PONY leagues. But with the ongoing pandemic, there are different challenges and obstacles that these leagues have to face and overcome in order to bring baseball back to youth athletes.
East Valley Baseball, a PONY League located in North Hollywood and run by president Frank Miceli, is still looking to get back on the field. According to the league’s website, East Valley Baseball does not have access to the fields until further notice due to COVID-19.
But when the time comes and they are able to return to the field, there will be plenty of changes and restrictions enforced by the Department of Recreation and Parks. Among the changes are limiting the number of teams and players practicing on the field at a time and limiting the duration of practice as well.
“One of the things that we were able to do in the past is we could have two teams at one-time practice that are on a field because every field at our facility has a batting cage. So you had one hour on the field, one hour in the cage,” Miceli said.
The league is planning to incorporate “training pods” once they are allowed back on the field. These pods consist of an hour of practice followed by an hour of cleaning. One of the new responsibilities coaches and managers now have is cleaning up the field and disinfecting various areas such as the bleachers, restrooms and dugouts.
While some leagues are conducting tryouts, others are holding practices and training to prepare themselves for when the state allows for further competition. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all leagues, as the Monterey Park (MPK) PONY Baseball League will not be holding fall ball this year due to the direct impact COVID-19 had on the league.
According to the president and founder of MPK PONY Baseball, Gerald Yee, the league’s operations came to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic.
“We stopped the games, obviously, because we couldn’t have kids out there. The city temporarily suspended our permit and we paid for those permits as well,” said Yee. “We also pay for insurance, which covers us for the whole year, [and] we paid our registration fees to Pony and USA softball. So all that is money that basically we’ve doled out.”
Usually, the league would hold its annual fundraiser which helps offset expenses toward equipment, gear and permits to operate. But the arrival of COVID-19 threw a wrench in their plans.
“Because we didn’t get our fundraiser, [it] really put us in a bind where we had invested all this money, but we weren’t getting any of it back at this point,” Yee said.
According to Yee, this resulted in the league operating in the red, and it almost had to shut down completely as a result.
In a last-ditch effort, Yee and the league sent out a message to all the parents who had previously signed up and asked them for donations to help out. Yee scheduled a day where parents came to pick up their kids’ team photo and an $11 refund, but to his surprise, many parents refused to accept the money.
“They literally said cut the check, I’m not going to cash it [and] just keep the money. So we ended up actually making a little bit of money, which [is allowing us to continue our operations].”
A total of 208 families came that day and donated their refund to the league. At the end of the day, Yee and the league gathered $2,500 from parents and supporters.
“That was a key piece to our survival, our existence, because the parents in the community really stepped up and helped us from a cost perspective,” said Yee. “We explained to them that this is their league too, [and] we want to try to get as much assistance as we can.”
Even though there is no fall ball for the MPK PONY this year, there is still work to be done, as Yee and the leagues’ board members attempt to plan for a spring season. However, there is still a lot of uncertainty at the prospect of a spring season for the league.
“Even if they come up with a [COVID-19] vaccine, people still might not feel comfortable coming out, and the vaccine might not get to the communities where we need it,” said Yee. “So we know it’s going to be six months … at a minimum before people can get back to normal.”
Both East Valley and MPK PONY Baseball, like many others, will adopt and implement temperature and health checks as part of their daily routine before allowing kids to take the field.
Before coronavirus, kids had no problems sharing bats, helmets and even catchers gear, but now with new safety protocols, the sharing of baseball equipment has to stop in order to slow the spread of the virus.
“We’ve been asked for kids not to share equipment. Kids are now responsible for those, and [the] equipment bag that we always give teams is about a five to six hundred dollar package,” said Miceli. “The unfortunate thing is the families are going to have to spend a little bit more.”
Another change that leagues will have to enforce is social distancing. There will no longer be a large gathering of parents at these practices due to safety concerns. Miceli stated his league will only allow one parent per kid at the field.
“That’s a tough one because those 3- and 4-year-olds, when it’s their first venture into youth baseball, grandma, grandpa wants to be [there]. Everyone wants to be there, and it’s just an unfortunate thing right now,” said Miceli. “Parents have to have proper protocols as well. They have to stay away [and] keep their distance.”
Like East Valley Baseball, MPK PONY Baseball has restrictions on parents as well.
“We’re gonna have to space out based on the guidelines. If it’s six feet and spaced out on that bench and then the rest, we’d have to create spots for them behind the dugout, which would mean the stands where the parents are at,” said Yee. “They’re going to have to be totally roped off and they cannot come down in that area. And parents are going to have to social distance away from where the kids are at.”
A possible solution Yee came up with is having a family box where kids will sit with their parents. Yee believes this will help coaches control the environment, and it allows families to keep an eye on their children and make sure they are not going over to other kids and breaking social distancing rules.
Despite the many changes and uncertainties surrounding youth baseball, coaches remain dedicated to giving kids an opportunity to play. Manuel Durazo, a coach in Valencia, California for the College Prep League, believes this is a personal calling for him.
“I see a group of boys that are dying for in-person social engagement,” Durazo said. “Kids that yearn to be back on the schoolyard surrounded by familiar faces, but given the pandemic, kids aren’t able to have that outlet.”
This is where coaches like Durazo come in.
“We are providing a safe alternative to school socialization,” he said. “I cannot imagine the anxiety and impatience that the common kid that doesn’t play sports is feeling.”
There is also a sense of trust that is built when it comes to parents and league officials. They have the responsibility of coaching and training the kids but also ensuring the kids’ safety.
“I think when this is all done, it’s going to improve all of the relationships between the league and the parents,” said Miceli.
The upcoming fall and spring seasons will be unlike any ordinary season anyone has ever been a part of. With new guidelines, health protocols and safety restrictions, leagues across the state will have to navigate and adhere to these new rules in order to provide a safe place for aspiring youth baseball players to play.