College Summer Leagues Begin Unprecedented Season

Image credit: Opening Day in the San Diego League (Photo courtesy of the San Diego League)

Summer officially arrives Saturday and with the solstice and the season’s change, summer college baseball is also underway around the country. The summer ball ecosystem looks quite a bit different this year as leagues and teams deal with the challenges of operating during the coronavirus pandemic, but the games have begun in several leagues around the country.

Many leagues, including the venerable Cape Cod League, were forced to cancel their seasons entirely. Geographically large leagues that are pressing on, like the Coastal Plain League and Northwoods League, have split into regional pods, acknowledging the challenges of operating under a different set of laws and guidelines in each state. In a suddenly disrupted ecosystem, new leagues have formed to take advantage of local guidelines that allow for games to be played and to give players an opportunity to get back on the field.

Players, many of whom were eager to play this summer after losing three-quarters of their spring season, have been shuffled into different leagues due to the shutdowns and a desire to stay closer to home or school this summer. Those changes have dramatically changed the talent level of the leagues.

Put it all together and 2020 is a summer unlike any other for college baseball.

“In 20 years in the business, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Coastal Plain League commissioner Justin Sellers said.

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic’s grip on America, there was a cautious optimism among the leaders of collegiate summer leagues. The virus’ outbreak had led to the cancellation of the spring college season, but there was hope that the summer wood bat leagues would be able to play.

But some of that early hope began to fade when the Valley League on April 2 became the first summer league to cancel its season. The Cape Cod League, the premier college summer league, made the same decision about three weeks later. For the first time since 1946, there would be no summer ball on the Cape. At the time, it seemed unlikely there would be much, if any, summer baseball around the country.

But as states moved toward reopening, some summer leagues developed plans that would allow them to continue to play in 2020. The San Diego League went so far as to create graphics showing how many families could spread out socially distanced on blankets on a baseball field if it were a public park,

“Things looked bleak for a while,” Florida Collegiate League president Stefano Foggi said. “Even when we were restructuring, we wanted to have structure in place. To have all those pieces fall into place has been remarkable to see.”

The leagues that have been able to continue are mostly centralized, playing games in a small geographical area or even at just one site. This eliminates the complicated logistics of long road trips and greatly lessens or eliminates the need for host families.

The larger leagues—those that bring in players from across the country or are spread across multiple states—have found restarting more difficult. Even the Coastal Plain and Northwoods Leagues, which both deal with those challenges and are still playing, have had to make significant changes to create pod systems.

The Coastal Plain League is slated to open its season July 1 with its teams in Georgia and South Carolina playing in one pod. Its plans for more pods for its teams in North Carolina and Virginia are still in development, as those states continue their reopening plans.

Sellers said the league shifted to a pod concept last month, as it became clear that Georgia and South Carolina were on a faster track to reopening.

“We created a pod with those three teams and moved them to the next stage, while at the same time working with the remaining teams in North Carolina and Virginia, as well as their respective local and state governments to figure out ways we could safely open in a northern pod or two separate pods in that northern area. That’s still a process that’s still going on right now.

“It’s the only feasible way that we could see getting baseball going in our region because of the geographics in our league.”

Already, four teams in the league have announced they will not play this summer. One—Florence—plays on a college field and with the college closed for the summer, the field is not available. Two—Holly Springs and Tri-City—are located near large cities (Raleigh, N.C., and Richmond, Va.) which have the highest case totals and hospitalizations of any markets in the league, Sellers said.

It was important for the league to be flexible with its teams, Sellers said. Every team is independently owned and has its own challenges.

“These are unprecedented times,” Sellers said. “We stressed from the beginning that we’re going to do what we can that makes sense but we’re not putting the proverbial gun to anyone’s head and forcing anyone to do something one way or another. We have to get creative; we have to be respectful of everyone’s opinion and what their concerns are. They know their communities better than anybody.”

The Northwoods League is following a similar arrangement. It began its season June 15, three weeks after its scheduled Opening Day. It did so only in a pod of three teams in Bismarck, N.D., while its pods in Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan are waiting until July 1 to open their seasons. Some teams will still not be able to start on July 1 but may later join the season.

While existing leagues grappled with the challenges of opening a season amid a pandemic that upended their typical model, a few new leagues stepped into the void. In Indiana, the College Summer League at Grand Park was created with 12 teams and drew an impressive array of talent from mostly Midwestern colleges. The Honor The Game League was created with four teams in Mississippi by the organizers of the East Coast Sox, a prominent travel ball organization. It too drew strong talent from colleges in the area.

Both leagues play at a central location twice a week. Because they were created for this specific moment, they were certain they would be able to play, which helped attract college coaches and players to them.

The Grand Park League is organized by Bullpen Tournaments, which runs the massive baseball and softball complex outside of Indianapolis. Luke Dietz, who has added the title of league commissioner to his duties as Bullpen Tournaments’ director of operations, said when the Great Lakes League and Prospect League, two prominent leagues in the region, canceled their seasons, they started looking into creating a league. With Mondays and Tuesdays at the complex open, they were able to easily add a college league to the schedule. Initially, Dietz said they expected to have eight teams. Quickly, they realized they would have enough players to fill more teams, eventually landing at 12. The rosters include many players from the region’s powers like Indiana and Louisville, giving the league instant credibility.

The league’s Opening Day was Monday and Dietz has been pleased with the early returns.

“The kids were extremely excited,” Dietz said. “We were excited to see the success with everything we put into it with short amount of time we had.”

No matter where games are happening, changes have, of course, been made because of the virus. The San Diego League moved its home plate umpire behind the pitcher to aid with social distancing. Dietz said the Grand Park diligently is cleaning L screens, dugouts, bathrooms and other touch points. Foggi said the Florida Collegiate League tested all its players this week when they arrived for “spring training.”

Still, summer ball is starting even as case numbers increase in some areas of the country. It is something all the commissioners said they are closely monitoring. Whether fans can attend games or not varies by league and team. Some are playing without fans. Some are playing in front of a reduced capacity. At Grand Park, the stands are closed but fans are allowed in the complex and can bring their own chairs and spread out.

“We’re back to playing baseball and everyone is able to watch,” Dietz said. “But they’re doing it in their own chair.”

After a baseball-less spring, summer leagues are happy to be able to present that much. They are eager to embrace their role in bringing some normalcy back to the summer, where they can.

“Hopefully, what we see is being able to play baseball and fulfill that opportunity for players and coaches, it give some sense of normalcy for communities that are able to have some fans come to the ballpark and watch,” Sellers said. “It’s a process but we’ll take one day at a time and do our best to put on some type of season.

“I’d love to see us do what we do best, allow young men to come out and perform, us be able to offer some much needed relief and support to our community and, God willing, get through it with no major issues.”

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