Little League seasons remain on hold as organizers, coaches and players hope to play ball in 2020

As fans eagerly await Major League Baseball’s safe return to play, another area of the baseball community is also navigating through uncertainties during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Little League Baseball remains hopeful for some some semblance of a season in 2020. But, like so many other sports leagues around the world, Little League has been forced to take a wait-and-see approach as the coronavirus shutdown continues and April turns to May.

The organization’s season culminates each August with the Little League World Series (LLWS) in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, an event that features teams from around the globe. It’s one of the biggest events in youth baseball and is currently scheduled for Aug. 20-30. As of now, the Little League season is postponed until May 11, and no decision has been made regarding the LLWS. 

This is the latest statement from Little League:

“Little League International continues to monitor the progression of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) outbreak both in the United States and around the world. Based on the guidance set by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Little League International Board of Directors and staff strongly advised all its local Little League programs to suspend/delay their Little League seasons through no earlier than Monday, May 11.

At this time, no decision has been made regarding delaying the start of the Little League International Tournament. It is our hope that local Little League regular seasons can continue, and we are working through all possible scenarios for the 2020 Little League International Tournament and tournament eligibility for our leagues and players in our various divisions of play. Our focus is on the safety and well-being of all Little League families around the world, and the hopeful return to Little League play.”

As the unknowns around this season continue to linger, Little League teams across the country are communicating virtually with players and their families. Joe Chesna, president of the 2016 LLWS champion of Maine-Endwell (NY) Little League team, has been sending out updates with information about every week to all of his players’ parents. 

“Our message to the parents and the community is we’re going to work with our school districts, work with our government folks and try to figure out the best way to make something happen,” Chesna said. “We’ve let them know that the dates might get flexible but we’ll really try to do something because they need that outlet.

“Little League’s been really great about disseminating videos and having speakers that they put on their website. I think that’s a way to help the kids that may not have the same expertise or instructional capacity at home but maybe watching a video could help them pick something up. So I think everybody’s trying to do the best they can do.”

Chesna is referring to the Little League’s “Pep Talks.” They are a series of videos that feature MLB players and managers sharing words of encouragement to young players who are anxiously waiting to get back on the ballfields.

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Amir Garrett challenged Little Leaguers to find ways to make improvements to their game. “I just want to challenge you guys to find a way to get better,” Garrett said. “Whether it’s working on your swing, work on your pitching, work on your ground balls. You can always find a way to get better and do something.”

1998 LLWS champion and Texas Rangers infielder Todd Frazier, Kansas City Royals manager Mike Matheny and Minnesota Twins outfielder Eddie Rosario were among the many others who have shared their own pep talks for Little Leaguers.

With kids quarantining at home with their families, Scott Frazier, manager of the LLWS reigning champion Eastbank (La.) Little League team, says that he’s been able to share practice tips in emails sent out to players’ parents. Eastbank has a training performance group that put together a two-week YouTube video series for players, to help the players work on their speed, footwork and agility at home.

Like MLB, Little League is trying to salvage a season while also working to figure out the many complicating factors that the coronavirus has brought to the forefront. Plus, there are logistical challenges and decisions that won’t be left up to Little League. Public schools, parks and baseball fields across the country are currently shut down indefinitely to help slow the growth rate of the virus.

Some states, like Virginia and Illinois, have already announced that their public school systems will convert to e-learning for the remainder of the year. Little League’s intentions may be for a season, even if it’s later in the year, but more complications will arise as 2020-2021 school year start dates vary across the country and pushing the season back could mean encountering scheduling troubles with facilities and fields that may have already had other events marked on the calendar.

During an appearance on ESPN’s SportsCenter on April 16, Little League President and CEO Steve Keener said: “Our highest priority is really trying to salvage some semblance of a season for the millions of kids who are home right now and very disappointed that they’re not playing Little League baseball and softball.”

Baseball: Little League World Series-Caribbean Region vs Southwest Region

The Little League World Series is an iconic baseball event held every summer in Williamsport, Pa.
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The Little League World Series runs in August, but qualifying for the event is a weeks-long process that includes teams from Australia, Curacao, Italy, Japan, Mexico and beyond.

“We really just want to get kids back on the field playing as soon as we can, but, in order to put on the World Series in its traditional format, we have to have regional tournaments that start in mid-July internationally, we have to go through an exhausting visa-application process to get teams here,” Keener said. “Whether it’s really appropriate to bring people from all over the world, all over the United States to central Pennsylvania so soon in mid-August for this event, these are all the things we are considering right now. But it is a logistical challenge obviously.”

At the forefront of every Little League season is the motto, ‘The road to Williamsport.’ Just getting to Williamsport and taking part in the LLWS qualifies as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for players. Walking away as champions would just be the cherry on top.

“We had our opportunity to make it to Williamsport last year so we got to experience it, but any kid that’s 12 years old, that’s just such a huge dream for those guys,” Frazier said.

“[The LLWS] has nothing to do with winning or losing, just being there, being a part of the festivities, the facility, it’s so first-class, the purity of the game is unmatched anywhere. It has nothing to do with us winning. If we would’ve went 0-3, it wouldn’t have mattered, honestly, we still would have had a phenomenal time.”

Just once a year, Williamsport becomes the center of the baseball world. The Little League World Series drew nearly 300,000 fans during last year’s tournament. The LLWS has introduced fans to barrier breakers like Mo’ne Davis and Maddy Freking and produced many heartfelt moments.

“I’ve traveled to all 50 states, I’ve been to 45 countries, a lot of events and it’s one of top three coolest things I’ve ever done in my life,” Frazier said.

Travel youth baseball clubs, some of which are not affiliated with Little League have also already begun to experience the fallout from the pandemic.

Christophe Bakunas, a coach for the Chicago Warriors, a 12U travel team, was disheartened to have to tell his team they would be forced to halt all practices. 

“I was so looking forward to it and the boys [this year] are really, really good,” Bakunas said. “We were having such good practices this year and the team is so fun. …You could see it week by week, how much stronger and more confident they were getting and then all this COVID stuff comes on.”

Bakunas’ Warriors team was registered for the Cooperstown (NY) All Star Village tournament this summer. It’s a facility for baseball players, ages 10-12, where they spend the week with their teammates on-site while competing with other teams across the country. It’s unlikely that Bakunas’ team will get to make the trip now, but the tournament hosts still have yet to make the official announcement for a cancellation.

“It’s such a unique and special experience to go with all of your buddies,” Bakunas said. “Any time that you travel together and you’re in a tight community, you become really, really tight with them because you get to experience their personalities 24 hours a day. What an opportunity to craft for these young boys. It fosters your love for the game, creates a lifelong memory and [now] that’s probably not going to happen.”

Along with his involvement with the Maine-Endwell (NY) Little League team, Chesna also coaches his son’s 11U travel baseball team. They’ve already been notified of multiple spring and summer baseball tournament cancellations, including the renowned Cooperstown Dreams Park tournament, which boasts alumni like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and David Price, and sits about just five miles from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, which has been closed since March 15.

Now, since most baseball tournament organizers are facing no other choice but to postpone or cancel altogether because of the coronavirus risk, young baseball players won’t just miss out on the bonding experience with their teammates, but they’ll also miss out on forming a deep bond with the sport of baseball.

Youth baseball is one of the few times baseball is in its purest, most simplistic form. Just kids having fun, playing a game they love.

“This is at the heart of what you do in the spring, it’s just kind of a rite of passage for kids,” Chesna said. “[Youth baseball] is really about the community folks. There’s lots of parents whose kids have aged out from playing, and a lot of people who like to go watch a fairly simplistic game, with no frills and no crazy prices. Just go to watch.”

For right now, everyone in youth baseball is hoping for some kind of summer familiarity in 2020.

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