Major League Baseball’s Opening Day came and went Thursday with ballparks empty and fans forced to follow their beloved teams by watching old broadcasts replayed online or on television.
While the big leagues are on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is at least some optimism the 2020 MLB season may eventually get underway.
Here in southeast Idaho, high school baseball players await their fate with the season suspended until at least April 5. That’s the deadline set March 17 by the Idaho High School Activities Association after suspending all spring sports in an effort to help contain the spread of the virus.
With the state in virtual lockdown under the stay-at-home mandate for at least the next three weeks, the anxiety felt by high school players is understandable.
“It’s been rough,” Bonneville coach Ryan Alexander said. “I have 10 seniors in my program. They’re all super nervous not knowing if they’re going to lose their senior year.”
One of last spring’s top local storylines was the battle between the Bonneville and Idaho Falls baseball teams. The Bees and Tigers were both loaded with talent and eventually met for the 4A state championship game. Behind a dominant pitching performance by Bonneville’s Randon Hostert, the Bees claimed the title.
Not long after, players from both teams joined forces on the American Legion Idaho Falls Bandits, and completed a magical summer by becoming the first team from Idaho to win the American Legion World Series.
That feel-good baseball season may seem like a past lifetime for this year’s players.
“Last week and the week before it was a little crazy for everyone,” Idaho Falls coach Trent Johnson said.
The Tigers, who typically play their early-season games out of the region to escape bad weather, were planning on heading to Salt Lake City two weeks ago, but Johnson said he got a call from one of the coaches saying Utah was shutting down its spring sports seasons.
“That was the beginning of the waterfall for us,” Johnson said.
During the IHSAA suspension, teams are not allowed to practice or use campus facilities. Both coaches said they told players to work out the best they could to stay in shape and be ready if the season were to resume on April 6 or a short time after.
Contingencies have been discussed, including playing a shortened schedule that only includes conference games and a district tournament. The state tournament is scheduled for May 14-16 and, although the IHSAA does not sponsor the state baseball tournament, moving the tournament back would likely be problematic due to the timing of graduations and other senior activities already scheduled.
Alexander, who also coaches the American Legion Bandits, said contingencies are being worked out if the situation continues into the summer and impacts the American Legion schedule.
For now, it’s a wait and see game.
“My first focus, and I only have two seniors, but I know there are a lot seniors in the area … the seniors it’s kind of like they’re missing proms, they’re missing senior days, they’re missing their opportunity to be a guy and to have that senior platform season,” Johnson said.
“I hope no matter what ends up happening with the school, that in some form or fashion, my seniors get an opportunity to lace up the cleats again and go play and have that senior year.”
Junior and senior year is usually the time that college recruiters would be visiting campuses and talking to players and coaches. But with the NCAA season shut down and the new rule granting another year of eligibility to college players who lost their seasons, the recruiting process has become a bit chaotic, Johnson noted.
It’s not clear if there will be five years of eligibility for incoming freshmen or if rosters will be expanded or redshirt rules redefined to accompany essentially a fifth class of players. What will the community colleges do once the seasons resume?
“At the end of the day, baseball is a love and a passion, but it’s just baseball,” Alexander said. “There’s more serious things to be concerned with right now. We have to get through right now. And then we can get back to getting on the field and enjoying some summer days, hopefully.”