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Collegiate Summer Leagues Cautiously Optimistic For 2020 Season

The NCAA’s decision to cancel the 2020 College World Series and conferences’ subsequent decisions in mid March to cancel the remainder of their seasons due to the novel coronavirus outbreak brought a screeching halt to college baseball’s season.

In the wake of those moves, fans, players and coaches turned their eyes to summer ball, the next part of the college baseball calendar. With a whole spring washed away, the anticipation for wood-bat leagues around the country from Cape Cod to the Coastal Plain to the Northwoods to the West Coast and everything in between is strong.

Opening Day for those leagues is still at least nine weeks away – the earliest any league begins is May 26, the day after Memorial Day (typically Selection Monday), and the Cape Cod League doesn’t start until June 13. The COVID-19 outbreak has moved at a dizzying pace, making planning nine days out, let alone nine weeks out, seem impossible. But summer ball leagues are carefully monitoring the situation and preparing for the summer season, optimistically hoping the outbreak has been contained to a degree that allows them to take the field.

Several leagues, including the Cape, released statements in the immediate aftermath of the cancellations, advising that they continue to monitor the situation.

“We put out that statement a week ago, it was an early stance,” Cape Cod League commissioner Eric Zmuda said. “I hope that everything smooths out and we can have a season as normal. We’re looking forward to that and hopeful that everyone has a great summer.”

In late March in a typical year, summer teams would typically be working on selling tickets, finalizing sponsorships and monitoring the spring season for any developments that might affect roster construction. For the most part, that remains the case this year. There are no spring games to track, but the work of selling tickets and sponsorships continues.

Coastal Plain League commissioner Justin Sellers said the league has moved its operations from its office in Holly Springs, N.C., to allow its employees to work from home. Otherwise, it is trying to continue as normal in an unprecedented time.

“Where we’re at today is no different than where we’re at in past years other than the uncertainty,” he said. “We’re trying to decipher from a seat on the bench, where we’re watching and monitoring each day and seeing how things happen. Everybody’s got players, they’ve got coaches, interns, gameday staff lined up. The promotion art, they’ve got uniforms, the bats and balls are in.

“We’re sitting where we need to be in a typical year for the Coastal Plain League.”

The cancellation of the spring season will have a profound effect on summer ball, if it is able to play.

First, it has the potential to change what players are available and how long they will stay with their summer teams. With teams not even getting in 20 games this spring, more players are expected to be available in the summer instead of getting shut down either because of the wear and tear of a long season or because they feel they have already done enough to impress scouts. The three-month layoff, however, may impact what pitchers are available, as players and coaches will have to determine whether it is a good idea to ramp back up for a new season.

The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament will also make all players available at the start of the season. That has some significant knock-on effects. That will, at least for the most part, eliminate the need for players on temporary contracts at the start of the season. That means fewer players will get a chance to play on the Cape, where a few temps every year earn full-time spots and have standout summers that in turn boost their draft stock. It could also raise the talent level of every league if players who were slated to be temps on the Cape end up being full-time players in leagues lower down the summer ball ladder. The players overall should be fresher and perhaps more likely to stay the whole summer, rather than returning home early as they reach games or innings limits or pick up nagging injuries.

If the NCAA grants Division I spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility, as it is expected to March 30 when the Division I Council meets, the player pool for summer leagues would expand as well. Most leagues require players to have college eligibility remaining to play. If every senior suddenly has another year of eligibility, there will be more players looking for spots to play this summer. Already Division II has taken that step, opening up those seniors to summer rosters.

“So many players who didn’t get a chance to play this spring want a chance to get seen, to put stats up, want to be developing,” West Coast League commissioner Rob Neyer said. “We think the level of play in our league will be higher than it usually is because there will be more high-profile players looking for a place to play.”

The return of baseball in any form will likely be celebrated around the country. Combine that with an increased level of play and interest in summer ball could be at an all-time high.

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That’s the rosiest outlook for the summer. To get there, the COVID-19 pandemic must first be contained. Like everyone else in sports, summer ball officials are carefully following the advice of authorities and medical officials. With states like California, Massachusetts and New York, all of which have several summer ball teams, under shelter-in-place orders and group gatherings banned throughout much of the country, there’s clearly a long way still to go before it will be safe for baseball to resume.

Even once those restrictions are lifted, there are other obstacles summer ball must deal with. Many leagues use host families to house players for the summer. Finding enough families willing to take in a player for the summer is always challenging and may be even more difficult following a pandemic. Some leagues are already adjusting to focus more on local players who don’t need host families. There’s also some worry that parents won’t want their sons to travel across the country to play baseball, particularly if they’re going to an area that was hit hard by COVID-19.

Teams will also have to be especially mindful of the restrictions every locality in its league is operating under. Since few summer league teams own their own stadiums, the cities, school districts or colleges they rent from could force schedule alterations even if the rest of the league is ready to return.

Summer ball teams are inherently small organizations, whether they follow a nonprofit model like the Cape or they are for-profit enterprises. The leagues tend to be compact as well. Their size is an advantage and a disadvantage in this scenario. The commercial clubs have few sources of revenue other than games, but they also don’t need much lead time to hold those games.

Once an all clear is given, summer leagues should be able to get operational very quickly. Neyer said the WCL teams could sell tickets for a game tomorrow if it were possible to play. The players themselves probably won’t need an extended period to prepare either, though some are planning for that contingency as well. The Martha’s Vineyard Sharks of the New England Collegiate Baseball League are planning to hold training a week to 10 days before their Opening Day, general manager Russ Curran said. Summer teams typically can’t bring their players more than a day or two before the games begin, but it may be necessary to do so this year.

Like everyone in sports, summer ball teams and leagues are watching and waiting, while doing their best to stay prepared for anything and everything before their seasons can begin.

“Our best hope is to play the full season, of course, but we have to stay in contact in case we have to move or shorten the season,” Zmuda said. “it’s too early to know that for now. But we are having the discussions and we want to be ready for when the decision has to be made.

“My biggest worry is everyone’s health and welfare. I want people to be safe and to take care of their friends and family.”

“I’ve had some communication with other leagues and we’re all in that same holding position, unfortunately,” Sellers said. “We all like to be in control just as Americans in general, but the simple thing for us is to continue our standard day-to-day life, respecting the guidelines handed down and just watching to see how things progress. I’m being optimistic that hopefully things get better as we get closer to our season.”

So, for now, the preparations for summer ball continue. What precisely the summer has in store remains to be seen, but, across the country, there is cautious optimism that the Cotuit Kettleers, Savannah Bananas, Traverse City Pit Spitters, Santa Barbara Foresters and dozens of other teams will all be able to take the diamond in a couple months for Opening Day.

“The real message that we are sending internally is that we are going to figure out a way to play baseball in 2020,” Neyer said. “We can’t know what that is going to look like, nobody knows. We’re operating under the assumption that we’ll play baseball and have a good season and that we’re flexible enough to roll with whatever comes up.

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