Nottingham Little League’s AJ Cimino connects with a pitch. Photo by Michael A. Sabo.
By Rich Fisher
Aug. 6: A summer without little league baseball in Hamilton Township would be like a hot dog without mustard – simply unheard of.
In a town where four organizations win District 12 and Cal Ripken titles with regularity, little league baseball courses through Hamilton’s very veins. So much so, that a deterrent like Covid 19 isn’t going to silence the sounds of young voices on the diamond.
It may have altered things, but couldn’t shut them down.
The Hamilton Little Lads, who thrilled the township with a World Series run last year, did not have a regular season but will be hosting a Cal Ripken state tournament starting Aug. 12.
HTRBA, Nottingham and Sunnybrae have all enjoyed regular-season baseball this year. Nottingham and Sunnybrae plan on participating in September’s 12-year-old District 12 tournament and HTRBA is still deciding.
“Collectively it was about making the kids happy,” Sunnybrae President Chris Drudy said. “There are countless hours by all of us at the field. All of our volunteers and coaches get the importance of a season. Whether it is one game or a full season, we owed these kids our very best and I think we did that successfully.”
The Yardville gang began on July 6 and played a 10-game regular-season along with playoffs. The season was condensed, “so people could enjoy August before summer ends. We had our kids pitch divisions primarily on weekdays and offered coach-pitch and tee-ball on weekends.”
Nottingham and HTRBA are still playing their regular seasons. The Square boys will end Aug. 17 before a week of playoffs, while the Mercerville maulers will run through the end of August.
“We are incredibly happy to get the kids out and playing ball,” HTRBA President Rob Allen said. “We aren’t keeping standings; we are just playing baseball.”
Bob Montague, who can safely be termed the face of Nottingham Little League, began playing in 1961 and is in his 36th year as a manager. He has seen a lot, but never seen anything like this.
“I never saw it coming,” he said.
But Montague, President John Cimino and the NLL board were not going to let Sayen Park go quiet.
“The kids and parents are so happy that we’re playing,” Montague said. “Myself and everyone else in the league are dedicated to these kids playing, and more importantly, playing safely.”
Therein lies the key to it all. Could kids play safely; and did their parents even want them playing?
“That is a personal decision that every family needs to make,” Allen said. “Parents that are keeping their children home and out of the public are doing what they think is best for their family.
“If we didn’t feel we could pull off a season safely we would have canceled. But we think we have a good plan that follows the CDC, State of New Jersey and Hamilton’s guidelines so we went ahead and asked whoever was comfortable to come out for the summer. Those that felt that their children can be kept safe while at HTRBA are having a fun time.”
Prior to every HTRBA game or practice, managers check everyone’s temperatures. A fogger with disinfectant was used after games to clean common areas and the players sat in the bleachers as dugouts were shut down. Players had to wear masks before and after games, but not during. Spectators were required to social distance. An 11-page document was handed out to discuss all the precautions that were taken, including all the standard questions asked about travel, fever, contact with others who had Covid 19, etc.
As far as Sunnybrae went, Drudy said the decision to play was easy.
“We kept in close contact with our families,” he said. “We understood from the beginning people were going to be on both sides of this discussion. Some are ready to play baseball when there is snow on the ground while others weren’t comfortable being together in crowds for many different reasons. My personal drive came from seeing how my kids were being impacted. Having my youngest cry at bed every night because he misses his friends and school was enough for me to understand everything possible to orchestrate a season.”
So rules were put in place that included questionnaires, temperature checks, social distancing or masks for those who could not social distance while spectating. Coaches had to wear masks if they were in contact with a player during a game. Most games were on the larger Field 1 to allow distancing in the outfield. Bleachers were shut down and dugouts were expanded; with players moving into an adjacent area of the dugout to allow adequate space. Volunteers circulated to enforce social distancing and emails were sent to parents reminding them of expectations.
It was a little nutty, but the players loved every minute of it.
“Kids are adaptive and resilient,” Drudy said. “They just want to play baseball. I think if we asked them to wear propeller beanies and a clown nose they would. It’s kind of fun how they are finding ways to celebrate home runs. Overall I couldn’t be more proud of each and every one.”
Montague feels the same way, and noted that Nottingham has done pretty much the same things as its sister leagues in making the ball field a safe space. Also, there is only one umpire and he stands behind the pitcher and never touches the ball, and the parents mostly stand in the outfield.
When deciding whether or not to play, there was one sticking point.
“With the heat being the way it is, we all voted that we would not have a season if they had to wear masks to play,” Montague said. “That was for safety reasons to prevent against extreme heat exhaustion and chance of injury in the field while wearing a mask. The coaches all wear masks around the players. We also knew going in, if any players come down with virus, then we would shut down. We polled each parent to see if they wanted their kids to play and they overwhelmingly said yes. Our parents have been great with everything we do.”
For the most part, everyone has done what is necessary to provide safe fun for all involved.
“The kids have been good,” Allen said. “I would like to see more adults with masks, but I haven’t seen anything that would cause us to question starting back up again. Any issues that came up with the new rules have been addressed. It is an education.”
“The kids and parents are so happy to be playing,” Montague said. “Everyone in the league is dedicated to these kids playing; and more importantly, to their safety.”
Drudy summed it up by saying, “Everyone has been super appreciative and glad to abide by the rules. Everyone understands how precious this time is on the field, as it could be gone tomorrow for many different reasons. A lot of the kids don’t play travel baseball or all-stars. This is it for them so we need to do the very best for them as we can. It’s just awesome to see kids being kids again.”