Game off: Youth baseball leagues scrambling amid pandemic

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The end to months of fundraising, planning and practice ended with a press release and tears.

Mike DeLuca envisioned his youngest son, John, capping his baseball career the same way most 12-year-old All-Star squads from Monroeville, Pennsylvania, had for the last two decades: with a week spent playing teams from all over the country at Cooperstown Dreams Park in early August.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States and the shutdowns began. The sprawling complex near the Baseball Hall of Fame in central New York was no exception. Park officials announced in March they had canceled the entire 2020 summer tournament season.

When Mike DeLuca told his son, the boy cried.

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“It’s devastating,” said DeLuca, who is also the team’s coach. “But it also is a hard lesson in life and unfortunately thousands upon thousands of 12-year-olds are learning this lesson right now. It’s still a kids’ game. They should always play like the cliche says: Play it like it’s your last game, because you never know.”

No one does.

Youth sports leagues and businesses all over the country are scrambling, though baseball and softball are feeling immediate effects more acutely than most. Basketball and hockey seasons are over, their tournaments called off. Soccer runs year-round in many places. Football for many seems months away.

Baseball and softball had an estimated 4.5 million players between the ages of 6-12 in 2018, according to the Aspen Institute. Yet fields normally filled with the familiar “ding” of aluminum bats this time of year now sit silent — a particular sting as winter finally gives way to the warmth of spring.

“It’s like Mother Nature is mocking you,” said Lafe Hermansen, treasurer of North Shore Little League in the northern Seattle suburbs.

Hermansen’s sons, ages 14 and 11, are trying to fill the void with games of catch in the yard and batting practice in the garage. It will have to do for now even as their patience is being tested while they wait until at least May 11 — the date until which Little League International has (for now) suspended all league activities.

President Donald Trump tweeted he hopes youth baseball returns “soon.” Soon enough to salvage some semblance of a season? That’s where things start to get tricky.

Even if federal guidelines limiting crowd size are eased, it doesn’t mean teams will sprint to the field to play. Some leagues are already offering refunds to families wary of having their kids put back in a team setting.

Others are concerned about the potential financial fallout.

The cost for returning sponsors in the Capitol Hill Little League in Washington, D.C., is $800. Most are small businesses, many of which have been hit hard by the slowing economy. League president David Fox wonders if those businesses would be better served asking for their donations back.

“That $800 might go to pay and, quite honestly, should go to pay people who need it rather than a logo on the back of a T-shirt,” Fox said.

Which might produce a ripple effect a year from now. Capitol Hill LL needs to pay three different entities for field permits, an expensive proposition even for a league whose participation levels increased dramatically this year following the Washington Nationals’ World Series triumph. A drop in sponsorship could curtail momentum.

“We couldn’t do anything else,” Fox said. “Couldn’t do tournaments. Couldn’t do any fun activities. We were actually starting a pretty robust fundraising effort. But we can’t do clinics, can’t pay beyond fields and equipment if we lose 15% to 20% of our sponsors.”

The stakes are higher for Matt DeSantis, president and CEO of AC Baseball, which organizes baseball and softball tournaments in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and South Carolina.

With the calendar seemingly changing by the day, DeSantis and his handful of full-time employees are scrambling to find a way to accommodate more than 1,400 teams that registered to play this spring and summer. He hopes the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package helps him avoid layoffs.

DeSantis is offering teams scheduled to play in May the option to find a tournament later in the summer. While a Canadian club has bailed, no one else has taken him up on it.

“Nobody’s transferring. They want to play,” he said.

Tournament teams represent the committed, but the heartbeat of local youth leagues are the recreational players who might not play this year — and then never come back.

“These in-house kids, you go to them next year, they’ll be, ‘Hey, you dropped us last year,’” said Gary Sifkey, a board member with Montour Youth Baseball League in the Pittsburgh suburbs. “We’ve lost them to deck hockey, we’ve lost them to video games, we’ve lost them to soccer.”

Mike Glover, president of Central Perkiomen Youth Association north of Philadelphia, believes age 10 is the tipping point.

“When they get to 10, 11, the kids start to have choices,” he said. “There might be the most at-risk age group. In our case, the 12 year-olds, they want to play their last season. They want to see it through.”

Central Perkiomen holds a “bat ceremony” every spring to honor kids graduating out of the program. For some, it will be the end of baseball.

A week in Cooperstown was supposed to serve as that rite of passage for John DeLuca and his teammates. Though the park is offering a chance to come back in the future, by next spring the Monroeville group will be teenagers, too old and too big to play on fields designed exclusively for kids. They’re in the process of having their $17,000 entry fee refunded. Mike DeLuca found another tournament in South Carolina in early August. He’s holding out hope the lockdown will be over so he won’t have to disappoint his players yet again.

The coach and the father has already made one rule, however. No one is allowed to talk about Cooperstown anymore. What’s the point?

“We’re never getting back what we thought we were going to have,” DeLuca said. “We’re not.”

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AP Sports Writers Ben Nuckols and Tim Booth contributed to this report.

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