Pictured: Buzzy Levin Field at the Pat Kidney Sports Complex has been locked up since March, when the coronavirus outbreak shut down the local sports scene and the sports world at large.
Note: Story is updated to say Cromwell will have a 17U team in the league.
By Paul Augeri
Middletown and Cromwell will field teams in the Connecticut Elite Baseball Association, a one-time, unaffiliated, American Legion-like league that hopes to begin play in early July.
CEBA is filling a void after the cancellation of the Legion season in early May due to the coronavirus pandemic. Participating towns will have teams in 19U, 17U and 15U divisions, plus a statewide division for 14U players, league director Craig Zimmerman said.
The season will consist of between 16 and 20 games depending on the number of teams in each division, followed by a three-day playoff tournament for all four divisions in early August. Zimmerman estimated there will be upwards of 90 teams across the state.
“The rest of the people that are helping run this league feel as long as we can do it safely and under the governor’s guidelines, we thought it was really, really important to give kids baseball and some sense of normalcy,” he said. “We felt having baseball this summer was more important than baseball in other summers.”
Baseball and other youth sports and recreation programs throughout Connecticut are awaiting specific safety guidelines from Gov. Ned Lamont to squeeze in what summer experience they can. Lamont is expected to publicize details at week’s end, with a “go” date of around June 20. CEBA anticipates towns then would permit access to their fields under the state’s safety provisions.
“We are anticipating June 20 for the start of practices,” said Zimmerman, who will coach the South Windsor 19U team. “I know for South Windsor, (once clearance is given) we plan to practice on June 20 at 8 a.m.”
As CEBA awaits this information, Zimmerman and assistant league director Tim Vincent have studied other states’ guidelines as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and plan to adopt similar tactics, such as:
*Social distancing outside the lines for ballplayers in the dugout as well as fans in the stands.
*A requirement that coaches wear a mask when in close proximity to players.
*A no-touch rule. Handshakes, high-fives, hugs, et cetera, are out.
*A no-chew rule.
*No sharing of equipment.
*According to Vincent, a team would designate an individual to make sure players are social distancing and following the rules.
*Whether the plate umpire is stationed behind the dish or behind the pitcher’s mound would be his prerogative. “Whatever they are most comfortable doing and feel safe doing,” Zimmerman said. An umpire’s choice could change over time, especially if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to show a decline.
Games are expected to begin as early as July 1, with a single-elimination playoff tourney in the four divisions to follow from Aug. 7-9. There has been talk about the championship games being held at one site or two. A league website with schedules and standings also is in the works.
Vincent said seven days would be ample time for teams to prepare for game action as well as learn the standards for safety.
“I really think that the kids and the coaches have to get used to enforcing the protocol before they get into game-day activity,” said Vincent, who runs the Connecticut Collegiate Baseball League for college players who live in-state. The CCBL is scheduled to play this summer.
The 19U teams could carry up to 24 players, a big number that is sensible knowing games are packed into a short schedule and players likely aren’t in game shape.
“Remember, the kids haven’t seen live pitching, live batting and fielding unless they have been doing something in their back yards or sneaking onto a field where they don’t get caught,” Vincent said.
The league will look and feel a lot like American Legion baseball, although there is no relationship between the league and the Legion brand. Middletown and Cromwell will be in a division that looks exactly like Zone 3, with Ellington, Enfield, Glastonbury, Tri-County, East Hartford/Manchester, South Windsor, Windsor Locks/Windsor, and Northeast, which is made up of players from Tolland, Stafford and three other towns.
Paul Francis will manage Cromwell’s 19U team (Cromwell also will have 17U and 15U squads). The program, like RCP Post 105, would draw players from Rocky Hill and Portland and play its home games at Fran Monnes Field.
Kyle Farrell will coach Middletown’s 19U team, Dan Botti its 17U team (a 15U Middletown team is in the works, too). The teams will be known as the “Palmer Dogs,” a play on the wildly popular hot dogs grilled at Palmer Field’s concession stand.
It remains to be seen where Middletown would play its games. Middletown High is a possibility, Botti said.
“Our whole team will still have the same structure,” Botti said, with players coming from Middletown, Xavier, Coginchaug and possibly Haddam-Killingworth high schools. “We’re not taking kids from outside the zone. We have our group of guys who were ready to play legion this summer before legion season was canceled.”
Botti said he and Farrell have talked about adding safety measures, such as changing baseballs out every half inning and cleaning a ball before it is put back in play. He also said he believes players and parents are comfortable with the league’s safety measures and expects “90 percent” of those who played for Post 75 last summer and are still eligible will play in the elite league.
“We think we’ll try to go above and beyond so that everyone feels safe,” he said. “For the most part, they seem all in. I’ve had a few say ‘I don’t know,’ but it’s a very small number. I think if a parent was against what we’re doing, they’d be reaching out to us. I think for the most part everyone’s on board with this idea.”
The league is batting around the idea of allowing each club an extra (10th) hitter, believing the more at-bats for players who have lost their seasons, the better. For teams that do not purchase new jerseys, they will be permitted to wear their town’s legion jersey but must cover up the post’s insignia.
Zimmerman said he’s heard nothing but positive feedback from the high school coaches he has been in contact with, and that Connecticut Legion Baseball commissioner Dave Greenleaf appreciates what he and Vincent have done to get the league close to running.
“I think he’s supportive of what we’re doing,” Zimmerman said.