If all goes as planned, a Kalispell Lakers pitcher will nod at his catcher, take a deep, cleansing breath, rear back and snap local sports back to life on Saturday night.
Baseball is on the verge of coming back, bringing with it both an escape from the coronavirus pandemic and a handful of glaring reminders that things are not back to normal just yet. Teams have been practicing for weeks with a hope that games could be just around the corner, and, barring an unexpected change in state or local regulations, the Lakers and the Whitefish-based Glacier Twins plan to open the 2020 season at Griffin Field at 7 p.m. on May 23.
High school sports across Montana were abruptly ended in mid-March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the start of the legion baseball season was postponed earlier this spring. Hope for an amended schedule emerged in late April when Gov. Steve Bullock announced a phased reopening of the state, but that hope initially appeared to have been dashed on May 11 when the American Legion’s national organization announced it had “shut down all sponsorship and national involvement in baseball for the 2020 season.” Six days later, though, the Department of Montana American Legion Baseball was formed with the national office’s blessing, and a full season is starting to take shape.
The decision by the national organization to walk away means there will be no regional or national tournaments this year, but otherwise local operations remain mostly unchanged. The insurance policies once coordinated at the national level were made available to individual clubs by the same carrier, and with the state now permitted to use the American Legion moniker there should be no visible differences in how teams are identified.
There will be plenty of differences in the fan and player experience, however, as clubs follow the same phase one regulations that apply to businesses like gyms and restaurants. Stadiums will operate at 50% capacity, while teams will implement strict social distancing measures for fans. On the field, equipment will be regularly sanitized, players will be spaced out inside dugouts (and in some cases spread beyond the dugouts), team water jugs and seeds will be outlawed, umpires will be encouraged to wear face coverings and teams won’t shake hands before or after games.
Schedules have also been altered. Montana teams typically play in a conference that includes clubs in Canada, and as long as the international border remains closed, those teams will not be a part of the league. Teams also regularly travel beyond state borders or welcome out-of-state opponents, and Montana’s 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers has nixed those games for the time being.
Still, state chairman Ron Edwards said all of Montana’s clubs in Class AA, A and B are attempting to field teams in 2020, and the Lakers (AA, A and B), Twins (A, B) and Libby Loggers (A, B) all plan to field their full complement of teams. Edwards also said state tournaments in Class AA and A have been scheduled, with the AA tourney Aug. 5-9 in Helena and the Class A series Aug. 6-9 at a to-be-determined location.
For now, the Lakers and Twins plan to play three times this weekend, Saturday and Monday in Kalispell and Sunday night in Whitefish, while the Loggers plan to begin their season against the Twins on May 27. But all three clubs understand that in the age of coronavirus, plans can change at any moment. The decision to play ultimately rests with local health departments, and the Flathead City-County Health Department had not given the final go-ahead to valley teams as of May 18, although Lakers Board of Directors President Toby Liechti said the health department has so far been “receptive” to his organization’s plans. And any future re-tightening of virus-related restrictions would almost certainly bring the season to a premature end.
Regardless of what happens now or later this summer, Liechti said the last few weeks have offered everyone in the baseball community a reminder of seasons past.
“Whatever this looks like, whatever happens, we’re going to take what we can get,” he said. “But the boys are ready to go.”