After a spring that nobody will soon forget, baseball players around the country were left wondering when they would be able to step back onto the field. Major League Baseball was still in the middle of a negotiation dumpster fire, and the fall season for college sports was already in jeopardy.
Summer collegiate leagues around the country were forced to work hard with state health departments to get their players back in the stadium for a shortened season.
The Northwoods League and the Expedition League, which are both based in the Midwest, along with the Coastal Plains League, which is based in the Southeast were able to get a season in and gave players from Augustana the chance to play.
“Our season was delayed because the state of Minnesota would not allow gatherings of more than 10 people at the time,” Willmar Stingers Co-Owner Ryan Voz said. “After the state approved 250 fans, they also were hesitant to open up baseball. However, after much discussion, we found out that baseball was not prohibited, just not recommended. As of July 1, the question of baseball was more defined, and we began play.”
The Willmar Stingers are a member of the Northwoods League from Willmar, Minnesota. For the teams from Minnesota to be able to play in front of fans, each stadium needed to be separated into pods. Each pod could only hold 25% capacity and needed to have its own concessions along with an entrance and exit for the fans.
Along with stadiums being split into pods, the league itself was split up into regions to avoid all cross-regional travel. North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan all became their own leagues for the summer.
“We brought in hand sanitizer units [and] porta potties and cleaned the ballpark before each game,” Voz said. “Only two fans were allowed in the gift shop at a time, and all staff wore masks during the summer at the ballpark. The players were asked to socially distance and were required to wear masks on the bus ride.”
Augustana senior pitcher Tanner Brown chose Willmar as his home for the summer. He pitched over 24 innings in the month that he spent there.
“Playing this summer was different,” Brown said. “We weren’t allowed to hang out with each other outside of practices and games, but it was worth it to be able to finally play baseball again.”
Along with the off-the-field regulations, rules were put in place during games to avoid spread and promote social distancing. Player temperatures were checked when they arrived at the field, players stood six feet apart down the foul lines during the national anthem, coaches were not able to be on the mound for mound meetings and post-game celebrations were not allowed.
Senior catcher Will Olson was ready to play for the Sioux Falls Sunfish this summer. The team was expecting to play its inaugural season in the Expedition League at Ronken Field on Augustana’s campus, but due to the team deciding not to play the season, he had the opportunity to play for the eventual Coastal Plains League champion Macon Bacon from Macon, Georgia.
“The only time we could take off our masks was when we were on the field,” Olson said. “The stadiums were at half capacity, and we weren’t allowed to have any interaction with fans. We avoided all potential hotel stays and only went on day trips to away games.”
However, Olson was only able to play for a short time because on July 28, he tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was forced to quarantine for ten days,” Olson said. “The league ruled that every player who tested positive would be forced to pay out-of-pocket on a hotel room for the entirety of quarantine. Thankfully, my host family was nice enough to let me stay with them. They had a guest room and bathroom that allowed me to isolate myself.”
After Olson tested positive, the rest of his team was forced to cancel two games and get tested. With no positive tests, they were able to resume the season as scheduled a few days later.
“Down there it seemed as though COVID-19 was nonexistent,” Olson said. “Masks weren’t worn by anyone if it wasn’t required, but it was really good to be able to play baseball.”
While playing with the Pierre Trappers, senior pitcher Koby Bishop said that restrictions for his team were not as harsh.
“We just had to get our temperatures checked while getting off of the bus,” Bishop said. “But this only lasted for about the first week.”
Even with the loose regulations, the Trappers did not have any issues with the virus and were able to play a full season with a limited crowd.
“It was honestly one of the best baseball seasons of my life,” Bishop said. “We were back playing baseball when a large chunk of the country was still closed or canceled. It was cool to play a sport that has become your livelihood when it wasn’t necessarily the happiest time off the field. For me, it’s always easy to be happy on a baseball field.”
The way these leagues, along with professional sports, have handled the pandemic has paved a route for college sports to come back.