Ballgames are back! Ridgefield Little League playing, with precautions

Players raise their caps to salute one another before a recent Ridgefield Little League game.

Players raise their caps to salute one another before a recent Ridgefield Little League game.

Contributed photo / Ridgefield Little League

Players aren’t allowed to chew gum or give high-fives. Fans wear masks and bring their own blankets or chairs. Coaches sanitize baseballs with disinfectant between innings. And home-plate umpires call balls and strikes while standing six feet behind the pitcher.

No one is complaining.

“The great thing is that we are playing again,” said Bryan Ward. “The smiles are real and the baseball is real.”

Ward is president of the Ridgefield Little League, which began a summer program last week after canceling its traditional spring season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Seven Majors teams (ages 10-12) and six Minors squads (ages 8-9) are competing in an abbreviated 2020 campaign that began July 9 and ends with town championship games Aug. 15.

Discussions are underway to determine if district and state tournaments will follow in Connecticut this fall — those events are usually finished by early August. Little League International has already canceled its regional events (featuring state champions) and World Series (scheduled for Aug. 20-30 in South Williamsport, Pa.).

Baseball was among the sports allowed to begin June 17, when Phase 2 of Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont’s reopening plan went into effect. Phase 2 permits outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people.

The games do look different: No more than four people (three players and a coach) are allowed on the bench at the same time, and players not on the bench have to sit or stand in designated spots to follow social-distancing guidelines. Bleachers are not in use, concession stands are closed, and safety monitors (Ward and other league officials) check to make sure the numerous safety protocols are being followed.

“We’re all in this together ... that’s what we have been preaching,” Ward said. “If you want this for your children then you have to help us — don’t show up with a pack of 12 people to watch a game. Come with one family member or friend.

“On a few occasions I’ve had to remind players or fans to spread out a little,” Ward added. “But overall it’s been great thus far. From what I’ve seen at games, there haven’t been any conflicts.”

Spring lost

Along with the other programs in District 1 (and the rest of the state), Ridgefield Little League canceled its spring season once Lamont announced in early May that schools would remain closed for in-person classes for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year.

“We knew it was coming ... that we weren’t going to be able to play in the spring ... but it was still difficult to hear for the players, coaches and parents,” Ward said.

“We remained hopeful of playing at some point, however, so we [the Ridgefield Little League board] were preparing for a possible summer season once the spring was canceled.”

The preparation increased when COVID-19 cases began declining and Lamont announced his four-phase reopening plan.

“We’ve taken guidance from Little League International, the state and district Little Leagues, the state of Connecticut, and the town,” Ward said. “We couldn’t do anything until the town opened the fields.”

To gauge interest in a summer program, Ridgefield Little League emailed a survey to parents, asking if they would be comfortable having their kids play and if they would have their children participate.

“The overwhelming percentage of parents who responded said they would love for their children to play,” Ward said. “That was encouraging, and so we opened registration.

“We normally have eight Majors teams in the spring and we were able to create seven for this summer, with 11 to 12 kids on each team,” Ward said. “Minors has six teams and roughly 66 kids.”

Teams in the Majors Division are having one game and one practice during the week and one game on Saturday and Sunday; teams in the Minors Division have one practice and two games each week.

“From the survey, we found that parents were not as interested in having the really young kids play,” Ward said. “So we cut it off at eight years old.”

As part of its Return to Play Guidelines, Ridgefield Little League compiled a lengthy list of best practices and policies and a practice-and-game safety checklist. The documents cover everything from team drink coolers (not allowed) to hand washing/sanitizing (frequent) to baseballs (each team supplies its own and uses them when in the field).

“We wanted to be as thorough as we could,” Ward said. “There’s a lot of oversight, but I think the parents appreciate that. They can see that we are trying to keep everyone safe.”

Although the modifications are eminently visible, Ward says something more subtle is also discernible.

“The joy on the faces of not just the kids but the parents,” he said. “Everyone is happy to have baseball back. It’s just so great to see.”