It’s not the normal summer of baseball envisioned when tryouts were held last fall, but the Stillwater Area Baseball Association trying to make the most of a season hampered by restrictions due to COVID-19.

After the Gopher State League and Metro Baseball League canceled their traditional programs, the Stillwater organization announced it was canceling its summer season on June 2.

In response, the group launched a Summer Skills Program for players age 9-15 that began on June 17 and will continue through the end of July, with each age group meeting for practice sessions twice a week.

“It’s a replacement for what we lost,” SABA President Tim Carlson said. “We’re going to focus all of our attention on that.”

In the coming weeks there will be additional opportunities for scrimmages within each age group and within the association.

“We’re going to focus on the player development program,” Carlson said. “We’re planning a fun finish to the program, like a baseball jamboree or scrimmage fest to try and give these kids something memorable or fun to close out this program.”

The youth baseball association had 212 players signed up for the original summer program, which features an average of 35 games for most teams and over 40 for those who do well in the postseason. The number of participants dipped to 140 for the Summer Skills Program.

“There was some attrition,” Carlson said. “Some went to club and some are focusing on other sports.

“We love baseball and that’s why we’re part of this volunteer organization. It will be interesting to see if we get those 212 kids back or how many we may lose, but we won’t know until we have a normal season again.”

As for the kids who are still involved, the enthusiasm has been on full display.

“These kids have been away from being outside and on the field running around,” Carlson said. “There’s plenty of room on a baseball field to stay six feet apart. The kids are as happy as any season I’ve seen them before because they just want to get outside.”

Before starting up again, SABA introduced stringent precautions for participants based on recommendations from the Governor’s Office and the Minnesota Department of Health. SABA requires all players to take their temperature before attending practice and they are also asked a series of eight questions by coaches before taking the field.

Parents are also encouraged to remain in the parking lot away from the playing field.

“We want to be safe, it has to be safety first,” Carlson said. “It’s not what we’re used to doing, but that’s the requirements we signed up for. We’re honoring that commitment to the people who own the fields, which is the school district and the city.”

The biggest challenge in ensuring the safety is maintaining social distance, which isn’t a problem for most baseball activities but does require some diligence.

“The kids want to high-five each other,” Carlson said. “Keeping space has been the hardest part. There’s a lot more reminders with the 9-year-olds and social distancing than the 15-year-olds, who seem to retain it a bit better. Being on the field and playing under these guidelines is going to become a habit and those habits need to be formed with repetition.

“There’s that temptation to get back to how they’ve always acted and been around their friends, especially among the young ones, but they’re doing a really good job. The coaches are doing a great job trying to keep everybody separated. You have an acre of open space and our pod sizes are less than 25 so there’s a lot of room out there.”

Carlson also credited Stillwater Area High School coach Mike Parker with his support for the program over the years, and especially this season with all of the changes that have taken place.

“We’re going to continue to find safe ways to share our sport with as many kids as want to come out and work with us,” Carlson said. “Our connection with the high school program is awesome. We’re grateful for the support we get from Stillwater High School baseball.”

It’s not a normal summer, but the coaches and players are adapting. Challenges abound in athletics and the players and coaches are making the best of an unprecedented situation to ensure a positive experience for kids.

“They are called the boys of summer,” Carlson said. “We want to get them out there because that’s where they belong is out there.”

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@apgecm.com

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