38 teams play in tournament at The Sandlot

As one of many precautions taken, an umpire called balls and strikes from 6 feet behind the pitcher during a youth baseball tournament this past Saturday hosted by The Sandlot, outside Mount Vernon. Thirty-eight teams in six age divisions played in the tournament, and another tournament is planned this weekend. COURTESY | Stephanie Henry

After receiving permission from county officials and the health department, something small like several consecutive hours of precipitation wasn't going to rain on baseball's return.

"If this had been rained out, it would have been so disheartening and so disappointing to so many people," Tom Cox said. "We worked our tails off until late Friday to get the fields ready."

Cox, Brad Longley and some volunteers got 11 fields ready at three locations, and on a sun-splashed Saturday, youth baseball returned to the Mount Vernon area this past weekend.

A total of 38 teams in six age divisions — 8-under through 13-under — played three games apiece on one of six fields at The Sandlot, the former Mickey Owen Baseball School located between Mount Vernon and Miller on Highway 98, four fields at the Spirit of ’76 Complex in Mount Vernon or the baseball field near the Mount Vernon Golf Course.

"The tournament went really well," said Cox, co-owner of The Sandlot along with Longley. "We could not have asked for a better day to start playing baseball again."

"The kids were so excited," Longley said. "You could just tell in their eyes that they just wanted to get out and play with their buddies, get some fresh air and some sunshine. It was really fun to watch their reaction and interaction to each other. They certainly missed it. That's for sure."

And they were interacting while maintaining their social distancing.

"It was interesting how the parents tried to help guide them and yet allow them to be kids too," Longley said.

Of course, area sports have been nonexistent for two months because of COVID-19. Naturally, there were some reservations before this tournament began.

"We did, but we felt good about what was happening," Cox said. "At that time, Lawrence County had zero cases of COVID-19 (it now has seven, all at the same long-term care facility). As serious as things have been, you always have that anticipation. I'm not sure we wouldn't have any less anticipation if we waited until June 1."

Meetings with Lawrence County officials put things in motion for baseball to begin.

"We presented a plan to the Lawrence County commissioners and the Lawrence County Health Department," Cox said. "In that plan, we laid out what precautions we had already taken at The Sandlot in terms of helping with social distancing in the restrooms and in the dugouts and with our on-the-field stuff.

"For example, in our women's restroom we have two sinks that are pretty close together, and we put a partition in between the sinks. In the men's restroom we were able to move the sinks to where they were 7 feet apart. We had urinals that we put partitions in between, and we had the water running constantly in the urinals and in the sinks so they didn't have to manually flush or turn the water on and off. We had somebody sanitize the restrooms every hour. We had the doors already open so nobody had to handle them."

Precautions were taken on the field for players and umpires.

"We only allowed three players, maximum four depending on the size, in the dugout at one time," Cox said. "If you were on offense, you had the batter at the plate, the on-deck guy and the next three or four hitters in the dugout. Everybody else we had marked off areas — some inside the fence and some outside the fence — where they could sit with their family unit. Each kid brought his own chair to sit in outside so they could social distance.

"Each team brought hand sanitizer, and players used it after every half inning, whether they were at-bat or in the field. Normally the umpires keep the baseballs, but the coaches kept the baseballs and disinfected their own baseballs. The pitchers brought the baseball with them to the dugout at the end of each half inning."

Two umpires called each game but not from their usual positions.

"We called balls and strikes from 6 feet behind the pitcher," Cox said. "We had the other umpire back at the screen behind home plate, and he was responsible for calling fair and foul (batted balls). He handled plays at third base and home, and the other umpire handled plays at first and second. They didn't want the umpire having close proximity to the catcher, and we had the catchers back up just a little bit to where they weren't right behind the batter."

The bleachers at the Spirit of ’76 Complex were not used. Fans were told to bring chairs, and they could bring coolers with food and nonalcoholic drinks.

"Everybody was excited to get a chance to play," Cox said. "They were willing to do about anything to not jeopardize that. No. 1, we want to make sure everybody is safe. And No. 2, we want to be able to play again (this) week. The coaches and parens did a great job."

It was also a boost for the local economy with just one Mount Vernon team in the field.

"I went to one of the convenience stores, and I had my Sandlot baseball hat and top on," Cox said. "The clerk said, 'I'll bet you've had a busy day.' I said, 'Yes, I have. How about you?' He said, 'It's been unbelievable, people coming in here and buying stuff and getting gas.' That's always encouraging to us because every little bit helps."

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