Normally at this time of year, Little League fields throughout South 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 42 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.
“One-hundred percent,” acknowledged Sweetwater Valley Little League President Arturo Maldonado. “The kids have enjoyed it. It’s getting them outside. Keeping them cooped up in the house without activities and their friends can do more harm than good sometimes.”
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.
District 42 has had to reopen its fields amid requirements from the local jurisdictions they fall under, including the cities of Chula Vista and Imperial Beach, county of San Diego, various school districts and parks and recreation departments.
Sweetwater Valley Little League, which sits on county land, has reopened in three phases.
The first phase brought players in the Major, Intermediate and Junior divisions back to the field.
The second phase brought players in the Minor A and Minor B divisions back to the field.
The third and most recent phase has re-introduced the Cap and T-ball divisions.
T-ball teams have been impacted the most district-wide, since with younger ages parents are understandably more cautious and it’s harder to maintain social distancing discipline.
“We probably have about 37 teams,” Maldonado said. “We got quite a few kids returning (under the regulations). There were obviously some players who didn’t return and that’s their families’ decision.”
Safety remains first and foremost for players and volunteers alike.
“It’s mandatory for coaches to wear masks around the kids,” 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.”
Hitting and fielding are some of the activities day-campers are currently engaged in. But there are no organized scrimmages or games — at least yet.
The emphasis is on having fun with their 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.
East County District 41 is paralleling District 42’s timeline but it’s uncertain if tournament play beyond the district level may be possible this summer.
Little League baseball fields could stay open into September, if needed, however.
The district’s legion of volunteers have 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 the 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 ever mindful of those who have been impacted by this virus and have been working hard with all of our leagues in District 42 to implement safety protocols that follow state, county and local guidelines.
“All of our District 42 staff and league presidents have been meeting weekly via Zoom to discuss the best approach that incorporates all of the guidelines to get the kids back playing on the fields. At this point most of our nine little leagues have started practices but no actual games are taking place. It is of the utmost importance to all of us that we ensure health and safety for all of our participants at this stage.”
District 42 Safety Officer Ray Diaz is meeting regularly with the safety officers of the individual leagues, visiting each field and offering guidance and recommendations to ensure that the protocols are being adhere to.
“We all understand that, despite all of the precautionary measures being taken, we’re not 100 percent immune from this terrible virus,” Lucero pointed out. “However, should a positive case of COVID-19 present itself, we have established protocols to curb further infection.
“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.”
California District 66, which serves parts of South County, including National City, has had a slower time in the effort to return to the practice field.
“We probably have one of the most diverse field ownership mixes,” said district 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 City Unified School District).
“At this time we are looking at combining for August practices and September and October games,” Slade said optimistically.
Local PONY programs have returned to the practice field. Both Chula Vista South and Chula Vista North are once again filled with happy kids.
“We are just practicing for winter ball,” CV South president Omar Castro said. “We are not allowed to play games until we get the go ahead from the city of Chula Vista.”
“All Chula Vista sports are in the same boat, day camp practices until further notice,” Chula Vista North president Larry Denson said. “Kids that attend are happy to be out on the field.”