Despite the high school and Legion baseball seasons getting canceled earlier this spring due to COVID-19, Stillwater-area players will have an opportunity to return to the diamond for baseball this summer.
Stillwater is one of several area programs slated to participate in the East Metro Summer League, a collection of 14 teams scheduled to play at least 20 games starting early next week.
“All the teams are really excited and I know the seniors are really excited,” said Stillwater Area High school coach Mike Parker, who will also coach the top summer team. “Also, we want to welcome people who just want to see some baseball. I think it will be some pretty good baseball and they’re welcome to come out.”
In most seasons for Stillwater, only a few of the recent graduations take part in the Legion season. There is a higher participation rate from among those players this year after they missed out on a high school season that held great promise. The Ponies had a strong cast returning from a team that made its second straight state tourney appearance a year ago — after winning the Class AAAA state championship in 2018.
“Our top seniors are all playing,” Parker said. “We’re lucky they all wanted to play. These are kids that missed out on their sport and are dying to get in there and play hard. They don’t want it to just be fun, they’re craving real baseball because they missed out on that.”
The majority of teams participating in the East Metro Summer League are from the Suburban East Conference and the Metro East Conference, in addition to Eagan. Some notable teams which didn’t sign on for the summer league were White Bear Lake and Forest Lake from the SEC and Hill-Murray, South St. Paul and St. Thomas Academy from the Metro East.
The scheduled is not completely balanced and Stillwater will face traditional SEC rivals Woodbury and Mounds View more often than some of the others. Many game days will feature doubleheaders. Parker said they are also planning to add games outside of that when possible.
Stillwater is scheduled to open the season by hosting Tartan in a doubleheader on Monday, June 29 starting at 4 p.m. The season will conclude with a postseason tourney.
“We’ll take the records and go by winning percentage and put into the championship bracket of a single-elimination tournament,” Parker said.
Stillwater will field a total of three teams with a total of 48 players, including four freshmen. The Ponies had 13 seniors on the roster this spring and nine of those are planning to play for the top-level team. There will also be a JV1 and JV2 teams that are scheduled to play 20-plus games this summer.
“All our high school coaches have volunteered to coach in the summer so we’ll have two or three coaches with each team,” Parker said. “They’re looking forward to coaching baseball, just like the kids are looking forward to playing.”
There will be some notable differences for players and conducting games, but nothing that should detract from the baseball experience, Parker suggested.
Each team will use their own game ball, taking it off the field with them after each half inning. Umpires will not handle the baseballs. After the third out is recorded, players will also need to wait until the defense is off the field before assuming those positions.
A limited number of players are allowed in the dugout at the same time, so players will be spaced out accordingly. Postgame handshakes are also out.
“The game is not going to look that different,” Parker said. “Baseball is a good sport for social distancing in everything we do, other than a couple plays a game. Especially for practices, it sets up well for social distancing.”
It was just announced that fans will be allowed, but are required to stay six feet apart and wear face masks.
“Yesterday it was no fans and today we can have as many as we want,” Parker said. “It changes every day.
“We will extend the dugout down the line, so most of the fans will be in the stands or down the line, but nobody near the dugouts.”
Some of the graduated seniors have been practicing since June 7, but the rest of the returning players could not partake until June 15 when the MSHSL’s summer coaching waiver period began.
“They’ve been working on their own a lot,” Parker said. “Most of their arms are ready to go. They’ve been working hard in our practices because we want to find out how good we can be. That was an awfully good team (expected this spring) and hopefully they have a good summer.
“We haven’t had very many practices so we’re walking that fine line between teaching the game because we didn’t have a chance to do that, and just having fun. It’s going to be a cross between summer baseball, which is fun, and school baseball, which is more serious. We just hope we can find some balance between that and finding time when you’re playing this many games to correct mistakes or break bad habits.”
Senior state tourney
In addition to the East Metro Summer League, there will be another opportunity for recent graduates as CHS Field in St. Paul is slated to host a state tournament in late July through early August for players in Minnesota. Details are still emerging, but Parker said it will be another great opportunity for players to compete at a great ballpark.
“It’s only for 2020 grads,” Parker said. “Every high school will be invited and the 32 who can come up with teams will play in it.”
Because most teams will not have enough seniors to fill an entire roster — Stillwater included — neighboring communities will combine for the tourney.
“It’s a pretty neat deal for the guys,” Parker said. “Most of the teams will combine and we’ll probably combine with Woodbury.
“That’s just a great situation for kids to play on that field, because that was their goal to start the season and now they’re getting that chance.”
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org