By Gabriela Carroll
For local coaches and athletic program directors, one of the biggest questions of the summer is how to engage in athletic activities safely with the necessary restrictions. Baseball is one of the summer’s biggest sports, and travel team directors on the East End are left with hard choices.
Travel sports teams have taken an especially hard hit during the pandemic, since many tournaments in faraway states and towns have been called off completely, and most teams are limiting travel.
Both the Eastern A’s Travel League and the Long Island Junior Ducks made the decision to limit travel to within Long Island, so many teams are losing out on once in a lifetime opportunities, most notably Cooperstown All-Star Village, a weeklong tournament camp for age 12 and under teams, which kids only have one opportunity to do.
“I describe it as Disney World for baseball players,” said Joe Cuccia, director of the Eastern A’s. “It’s something that they remember for their whole life. I get why they weren’t able to do it, because the boys and all the teams actually stay on site in a cabin together, but it’s a great bonding experience for the teams, so it’s a bummer that they won’t be able to do it.”
Cuccia said that Cooperstown hosts another tournament for all ages that this year’s 12-year-olds will participate in next year, but he still sees how disappointing the loss of the tournament is for the players.
The cancellation of out-of-state tournaments also impacts the teams tremendously financially. The Junior Ducks were scheduled to play multiple tournaments out of state, all of which were canceled, but very few issued refunds, instead opting to credit the teams for a future tournament, and some didn’t even issue credits.
According to Vic Pirrone, co-owner of the organization, this then forces the Junior Ducks to pay more to attend local tournaments or to schedule local games, increasing the financial commitment of travel baseball in a time of widespread financial hardship.
“Our teams play at almost $150,000 worth of tournaments,” Pirrone said. “Most of them credited us for next year, but now teams still have to play. We have to go register for other tournaments and pay for them. And that certainly is a problem financially, because you’re using this year’s money this year, but also moving some of the money this year to next year.”
In addition to limited summer travel schedules, the season got off to a late start as dictated by the New York State reopening plan. The Eastern A’s were supposed to start play at the end of the spring sports season in June, and play through the end of July to give the team ample time to prepare for their fall tournament season. Because of the delay, the team started mid-July and will finish at the end of August, giving the team just a week to prepare for a tournament season.
The Long Island Junior Ducks started practicing indoors in a camp setting when indoor facilities were permitted to open in phase three on June 24 at 25 percent capacity. During those camps, the players socially distanced and wore masks while playing in small groups, though not on the field. Restrictions play out very similarly outdoors, according to Pirrone.
Starting June 24, the Eastern A’s began batting practices at Cuccia’s facility in Riverhead, the Cage. Cuccia split the teams in half to encourage social distancing and had the players wear masks.
Players must wear masks to and from the field, according to Cuccia. On the field, players do not need to be masked, but while in the dugout players keep masks on. Only three players can be in the dugout at a time, and the rest will be down the outfield line, 6 feet apart. They also have to elbow bump, instead of high-fiving or fist-bumping.
The rules for spectators have also changed, according to Cuccia. Each player will only be allowed two guests at games, and those guests will sit in a section in the outfield, as opposed to behind the dugout, where parents usually sit on bleachers.
“The way I explained it to a lot of the boys is that you’re living through history right now,” Cuccia said. “What we do today can affect tomorrow. By following the rules, you’ll be able to play longer this year. If everybody doesn’t follow the rules and the second wave comes, guess what, baseball season’s over again. I’m trying to instill that into my coaches and my players, and my parents. We want to be the organization that sets the example.”
For many families, the decision to allow their kids to return to playing sports this summer may have been a difficult one, but both Cuccia and Pirrone said they didn’t see a significant drop off in the number of players registered for the summer season.
Baseball in some respects is well set up for social distancing, Pirrone said, particularly because the players in the field are already relatively distanced from one another, and the dugout is an easy area to distance in. As a non-contact sport, players don’t need to be in close proximity to one another to still play the game, which makes the risk lower, in his opinion.
As a parent with a child playing baseball for the Junior Ducks, Pirrone said he feels he has a unique perspective on reopening, and can see and empathize with the organization’s financial desire to reopen, the kids’ desire to play, and the parents’ fear over the safety of their kids.
“I would never jeopardize the life of a child or a parent, even more so a child for a mere few bucks,” Pirrone said. “It’s not about the money. We pushed hard to get our kids back on the field with the data, knowing what the virus was about, following the guidelines, the laws, putting our COVID procedures in place, and taking them very seriously every single day, on every single team. Whatever I would do for my son, I would do for these 300 boys as well.
“If you put the kids first before money, before a business,” he added, “you always come out on top.”