Image credit: (Photo by Alyson Boyer Rode)
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with additional information.
California high school baseball programs have a path to begin playing again. Now, it’s a matter of watching and waiting.
California governor Gavin Newsom announced last week that high schools could resume playing outdoor sports as long as their counties had coronavirus case rates at or below 14 per 100,000 residents. In the California Department of Public Health’s most recent update released Tuesday, 33 of the state’s 58 counties had case rates below that threshold, allowing high school sports to resume in those counties.
The high school baseball season will now officially begin in mid-March in those eligible counties, with the exact date differing from region to region. The California high school baseball season typically begins at the end of February.
“We did probably six to eight different schedules to plan for so many different scenarios,” said JSerra High coach Brett Kay, whose school is in one of the counties under the threshold. “The fact (our kids) get an opportunity to play means everything.”
In Southern California, Los Angeles, Orange and San Luis Obispo Counties have moved below the threshold and are eligible to begin the high school season in March. Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties—which make up the rest of Southern California’s primary population base—remain above the threshold.
In Northern California, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties—which make up the bulk of Northern California’s population—are below the 14 per 100,000 threshold. Fresno, Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties are not.
For schools in counties that have not cleared the threshold, there is hope they will still begin on time. The state health department updates case figures every Tuesday. If current trends hold, most—if not all—of the remaining counties will drop below 14 per 100,000 by mid-March.
“We’re really close,” said Steve Madril, the coach of Martin Luther King High School in Riverside. “I think we’re confident next week we’ll get the green light.”
“We have our schedule and are ready to go,” said David Gallegos, the coach at San Diego County power Eastlake High School. “We’re just waiting for the go-ahead.”
Once a county moves below 14 cases per 100,000 residents, outdoor sports in that county will remain eligible to continue playing even if the case rate moves back up above the threshold at a later date.
The return of high school baseball in the California holds significant consequences for the draft. The state historically has the most high school players selected in the draft each year. This year is expected to be no different with 10 of the top 50 high school prospects in the class residing in California, more than any other state.
Scouts typically see those players throughout the fall and winter leading up to the start of the high school season. But with schools strictly limiting who was allowed on campus, the number of offseason tournaments and showcases limited by the pandemic and only a few teams playing winter ball, scouts have had far fewer looks at this year’s class.
“Normally starting in December we go out to tournaments (and) we’ll start seeing guys at scout team stuff,” one longtime Southern California area scout said. “Through that time up until about now you could see one of the better position players play 2-3 games a week if you wanted to. And this year it was zero. We didn’t get to see them at all.”
“If he was a guy you were kind of circling the wagons on, you’d probably have already seen that guy 4, 5, 6 times at this point,” one West crosschecker added. “Those guys typically would have been playing every weekend in some sort of scrimmage game and there’d be 10-20 scouts there for one of those games. But at this point, because of everything going on…it’s been a scrimmage game here or there, BPs, ground balls, things like that.”
Teams will still be subject to restrictions stipulated by state and local health departments. Schools will not be allowed to play doubleheaders and players have to wear masks on the bench. Schools can only play opponents from the same or adjoining counties. Districts, and in some cases individual schools, have set different limits on how many scouts and observers—if any at all—will be allowed to watch games from the stands.
The preparedness level of individual teams will differ widely, as well, depending on district and county restrictions. Eastlake, which features top prep shortstop Marcelo Mayer, has not been allowed to practice on its field the entire year and is hoping for approval to begin practicing March 1. King has only been allowed to play catch and take ground balls on its field since January while other schools in the same county, but in different districts, have been allowed to do so since the fall. And private schools have had a different setup altogether. JSerra has been on the field since the school year began last August and played in out-of-state tournaments throughout the fall and winter.
The plan for now is to have teams play anywhere from a 15-25 game regular season, followed by CIF playoffs. After nearly a year of no high school baseball in the state, that’s a welcome development for coaches and players everywhere.