In a normal season, the Idaho Falls Bandits would have already started defense of their American Legion World Series title, hoping to ride the wave of success generated by last year’s magical summer.
But this is far from a normal season. With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on the sports world at every level, it wasn’t even guaranteed American Legion teams would play this summer due to restrictions and guidelines to combat the pandemic.
“There was a time when the ceiling was falling in around us and we wondered if we could pull it off,” Bandits coach Ryan Alexander said.
The good news for the Bandits and other area American Legion teams is that the season is indeed going forward. There will be modifications and schedule adjustments, but teams are expected to play around 40 games beginning the weekend of June 13, which is, not coincidentally, the first weekend of Phase 4 in Gov. Brad Little’s plan for reopening the state and loosening restrictions if certain criteria and benchmarks are met.
The key part of Phase 4 is that gatherings of 50 or more people are allowed as long as appropriate physical distancing and precautions are observed. For American Legion, that means fans can attend games and teams can practice as full squads. The 10-person rule currently has teams practicing in smaller groups.
While myriad of details are still being worked out before play actually begins, Mike Whyte, President of Post 56, which includes the Idaho Falls teams, said there will be two major modifications to the upcoming season.
First, the Bandits will not play in their usual district, but instead compete essentially on their own, scheduling games against tougher competition and playing teams from surrounding areas that don’t have travel restrictions. Alexander said scheduling was indeed a challenge, but necessary since the Bandits’ schedule, which typically includes big tournaments in San Diego and Arizona, among other places, had to be altered.
The second big change this summer is that the number of American Legion teams has been expanded. In an effort to allow players who missed their high school seasons to compete, Whyte said all schools in Post 56 can field three teams. The AA squad would be high-school level players, with the A teams being JV. There is also an opportunity for eighth graders to play on a B team.
“We’re adding essentially five teams,” Whyte said.
That was also one of the reasons the Bandits will play independently, Alexander said. The additional teams are more than enough to make the district competitive and fill a schedule, but the Bandits plan to play a higher-level schedule. They won’t challenge to defend their district or state titles. The American Legion regional and World Series tournaments have already been cancelled.
The Bandits plan to host their own invitational tournament this summer at Melaleuca Field, Alexander said. The season opens with a doubleheader June 13 at Melaleuca against the Wyoming state champions out of Cheyenne. Alexander said the Bandits could play 20 games at the field with the season stretching into mid-August.
Chukars president and general manager Kevin Greene said the stadium is being prepared for the American Legion season, but the teams will be responsible for meeting COVID-19 requirements for social distancing in the stands and how they handle concessions and any other issues that arise.
While professional baseball is on hold, including the Chukars, there have been rules floated about how the game will look when and if it starts up this summer. No spitting? No high-fives? Masks in the dugout?
Whyte said specific rules for the American Legion season are still being finalized to follow state and local guidelines.
“The best we can do is keep everybody informed,” he said.
After such a memorable summer becoming the first team from Idaho to win an American Legion World Series title a year ago, Alexander said it’s nice to have those memories, but it’s time to move on.
“This obviously wasn’t what we anticipated or what our ideal was,” Alexander said. “We would have liked to defended, now we just have to defend 12 months later and we’ll keep the title one more year, which is about the only positive, I guess. In 2021 we’ll give ourselves another chance to make a run and go defend and be the second team from Idaho to win the championship.”