July 15, 2020

Overcoming Hurdles On and Off the Field, WWP Babe Ruth Starts Regular Season Play

BACK IN THE SWING: Anders Hedin makes contact last week in opening day action at Hilltop Park for the Orange team in the WWP Babe Ruth League. Overcoming hurdles on and off the field to get its summer season up and running during the COVID-19 pandemic, the league features four teams and will play a 10-game schedule over five weeks. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

It would have been easy for the WWP Babe Ruth League to throw in the towel on its 2020 season.

With schools going to virtual learning in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the spring sports campaign being subsequently canceled, youth sports leagues were struggling to get their seasons up and running.

The Little League World Series, the signature youth sports event of the summer, was canceled, among many others.

But sensing that players and their families wanted and needed an athletic outlet, the WWP Babe Ruth League pressed on, aiming to put together a summer season.

“A big motivating factor for the WWP Babe Ruth Board to try to make some kind of season happen was hearing the growing concerns from parents that the kids were heavily focused on their remote learning and playing video games and they were not getting outdoors to exercise,” said league president Jon Durbin.

“After witnessing this in our own families, and hearing from so many others, we continued to keep the possibility of playing alive, while also beginning to think hard and concretely about what it would take to make the playing environment as safe as possible if we did return to the field.”

Overcoming some hard challenges on and off the field posed by the pandemic, the league attracted 65 players and started play last week.

“We basically had to pull the whole season together in the ten days leading up to the first week of practices because we had held off on submitting a lot of paperwork, ordering uniforms and equipment because we just didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Durbin, of the league which plays its games at Hilltop Park and Smoyer Park in Princeton and at Ciuffani Field in West Windsor.

The first step in the process was making sure that there would be players who would be willing to participate.

“One of the earliest challenges was keeping the families interested; as time went on and we got into early May everyone got really worried and even if we can put something together, are they still going to want to play?” said Durbin.

“We stayed in regular touch from late March into early May, contacting them every two-three weeks to let them know that we had not canceled and were keeping the possibility of play open. Another important planning step and keeping families interested was measuring family interest in playing this summer through our two surveys in late May and mid-June. In late May, we had 34 out of the 64 families say they were highly likely to play if we offered a regular season in the summer. In the mid-June survey that jumped to 54 families that were committing to play. We shared the results with all the families each time to give them confidence that there was more than enough interest to play.”

Drawing enough players to form four teams, league officials decided to hold games and practice on weekdays, leaving the weekends open for other baseball programs.

“What’s significant about playing a regular season in the summer is that we typically only offer all-stars in the summer because a lot of kids either make alternative plans in the summer or the stronger players play for their club and travel teams in tournaments every weekend,” added Durbin, noting that the teams will play a 10-game schedule over five weeks.

“So those players are only interested in playing all-stars in the summer with us, not a regular season. So it was great that so many kids wanted to play a regular season with us and two-thirds of those will play all-stars with us too.”

Once the scheduling was squared away, the league had to formulate safety protocols that would satisfy New Jersey guidelines.

“The state required “Back to Practice/Game Plans” from every league submitted to each municipality that you host games in,” said Durbin.

“In formulating our plan, we borrowed standards from the National High School Federation, Babe Ruth Baseball, The USABL, sister Babe Ruth and Youth Leagues, and we looked at the State Guidelines for baseball and softball in states that re-opened earlier like Nebraska and Missouri.”

Utilizing those resources, the league came up with a comprehensive proposal that was approved by the towns involved.

“In the end, the final plan we submitted well exceeded the state minimums,” said Durbin, noting that the families had to sign COVID-19 waivers for the league and the two municipalities.

“It included expanded dugouts, masks to be worn in the dugout areas, the home plate umpire to call balls and strikes from behind pitcher’s mound, coaches and umpires are required to wear masks at all times, and higher mask and social distancing standards in the family/fan areas around the field.”

With the league starting regular season play on July 7, the players and their families were thrilled to get back on the diamond.

“We got so many thank you’s over by the parking lot at Hilltop after the first game,” said Durbin, who is coaching the league’s Orange team.

“Everyone is super excited and so thankful that we have been able to play.”

Heartened by the enthusiastic response to the start of play, Durbin was also happy to see good compliance with the league’s safety procedures.

“I was coaching but I was keeping an eye on both teams’ dugouts and on the fans as they walked around and as far as I could tell, the fans did a great job with following the rules that we laid out,” said Durbin.

“The boys did a pretty good job. Each team only had to remind them several times across the six innings to spread out more in the dugouts.”

While the level of play may not have matched the spirit around the park at the outset, Durbin is confident that things will get sharper over the next few weeks.

“The players, coaches, and umpires are all a bit on the rusty side, but we have already seen some ESPN Top 10 caliber plays and individual performances,” said Durbin, who is hoping that the state Babe Ruth organization will be holding all-star tournaments later this summer.

“No doubt everyone will be doing well by the time the regular season ends in early August.”