Back pockets on baseball pants have traditionally been convenient holders for things such as chewing gum and batting gloves.
In the midst of a viral pandemic, Brandon Tingle has come up with an even more practical use for them.
“Bleach wipes,” said Tingle, a youth baseball coach in Joplin. “I’ve actually had my boys carry them around when they're practicing and going from station to station. It’s definitely a unique time for everyone. So you try to do different things to ensure these kids’ safety as much as you can.”
With many youth teams making their returns to the diamond this weekend, safety has been the top priority cited by coaches, parents, tournament organizers and health officials in the Joplin area.
Tingle’s team, the 14U Fox Sports Sox, will compete in its first event of the season this Saturday and Sunday in the Fox Sports Memorial Day Melee Tournament at Joplin Sports Complex. The tournament, consisting of different divisions for players ages 8-12, will be conducted with special guidelines to enforce social distancing.
“Personally, I think the kids and coaches won't mind (the new guidelines),” Tingle said. “They just want to play ball. My boy has been chomping at the bit. He wanted to start a month ago.”
"For one, spectators will be required to watch games from outside of the outfield fences. Moderations have also been made to the dugouts so that players and coaches can remain 6 feet apart when they’re not on the field. Guidelines that the city of Joplin has put together for us to follow have been sent out to teams, and we’ve been in coordination with them from the very beginning,” said Mike Greninger, tournament director for Five Tool Baseball, the organization sanctioning the Memorial Day Melee Tournament. “It’s basically all of the CDC requirements that have been out that we’ve already been getting accustomed to — social distancing, sanitizing regularly, avoiding large groups, and just your basic guidelines that have become a part of our lives.”
Each game will have one umpire standing behind the pitching mound who will be tasked with calling balls and strikes, as well as making calls in the field.
“Typically, we would use two umpires, with one behind home plate and the other obviously working in the field,” Greninger said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s another way to have proper social distancing.”
The tournament is limiting registration to teams within 50 miles of Joplin in accordance with a decision Joplin City Council made in a meeting on Monday. About 20 total teams are expected to participate in the event.
“When you have teams that could conceivably come in from long distances for tournaments here, we just had some concerns about that,” said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department. “You could have teams that might come from areas where you have really high case rates. But even beyond that, when you have a large tournament with more teams, you can have large numbers of people in one area for an extended period of time.”
Pekarek added that each individual baseball organization is being tasked with coming up with detailed plans and guidelines to implement at events. “Some basic guidance was put in place in the plan, and a lot of that came from the governor’s order that you can do those types of things but you have to do the best you can to social distance,” he said. “We’re kind of using that as our guidance here.”
Greninger said Five Tool Baseball held a four-team event at Joe Becker Stadium in Joplin this past weekend with similar safety guidelines put in place to this weekend’s tournament.
“It was very successful,” he said, "and people who weren’t even affiliated with any of the teams came out just to watch baseball games be played."
Dustey Howard, a parent of a player on the 14U Fox Sports Sox, believes it’s an opportune time for youth baseball to return as long as it’s handled the right way.
“I don’t know if we can ever go back to assuming what’s normal or safe again, but the way little league teams and tournaments have implemented rules here recently, I think they’re doing it the safest way possible,” he said.
The 14U Sox competed in the event at Joe Becker Stadium last week and are also signed up for this weekend’s Memorial Day tournament.
“I think they did it right last weekend,” Howard said. “They opened the stands up, but people were recommended to use lawn chairs to spread out even further. In between games, they also asked everyone to leave while they sanitized the dugouts and bleachers.”
Implementing the right safety guidelines during the current pandemic is a system of trial and error, according to Greninger, and tournament organizers will continue to modify safety regulations as more events take place in the coming weeks.
“Kids are ready to play, parents are ready to get out, and we’re trying to get things back to normal life here,” he said. “I think this is a good first step in doing that.”