COVID-19

Baseball: Riverhead Little League says, ‘Play ball!’

Even back during the darker days of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, Riverhead Little League’s leadership had remained steadfast in its conviction that, one way or another, it would open up a 2020 season.

Optimism is a nice thing, but with so much uncertainty in this coronavirus age, nothing can be taken for granted. A big question remained: When would Riverhead Little League throw its first pitch of this historical season?

That answer arrived Thursday when the league managed to turn a frown upside down, commencing play three months later than originally scheduled with a revised Opening Day that coincided with Major League Baseball’s start date.

Not that anybody was complaining. The important thing was Riverhead Little League baseball and softball was back.

“It’s so good to be back watching them play,” Riverhead Little League board member Roberta MacGray said Friday evening while keeping a scorebook during a Majors game between Dietz Golf Corp. and Pooltime in the Hamptons at Stotzky Memorial Park in Riverhead. “It’s exciting. They’re excited. They’re happy. I think everybody’s happy to just be out.”

Later that evening, a couple of fields away, Nitrogen X coach Jason Perez congratulated his Majors team for its 11-3 season-opening win over John Wesley Village. “It was great,” Perez said of the return to play. “I’m just happy to be here because a lot of leagues aren’t.”

Players from neighboring little leagues that canceled their seasons have joined the Riverhead league. Riverhead Little League president Jeremy Savio said players from the North Fork, Mattituck-Cutchogue, Longwood, East End and Southampton little leagues have joined his league, the first time that has ever happened. Riverhead has divisions for T-ball, Minors A, Minors AA and Majors for baseball as well as Minors A, Minors AA and Majors for softball. Altogether, the league has about 325 players on some 31 teams, said Savio. The abbreviated season runs to the last week of August, barring unforeseen circumstances.

“Riverhead kept it alive and kept it going for us, which is awesome because some of these kids, it’s their last year” of eligibility, said Johne Hansen, coach of the North Fork Roadhouse Majors team.

Watching his players warm up for the first of their 10-game season, Hansen said: “These boys are ready. The kids are ready. Look at them. They’re back.”

Some changes were noticeable.

The umpire called balls and strikes while standing behind the pitcher’s mound instead of behind the catcher. No players or equipment were permitted in the dugouts, except for the on-deck batter. Bleachers were reserved for the players. With a few exceptions, players didn’t wear masks. Social distancing was observed in home-plate meetings between umpires and coaches. After games, players from both teams lined up along the foul lines and tipped their caps to each other in contactless fashion while opposing coaches exchanged elbow taps.

“One of the weird things about it is you can’t shake hands, you can’t high-five somebody,” John Wesley Village coach Jason Collins said. “I had a kid hit a home run the other night in practice and you couldn’t hug him.”

Between the lines, it was still baseball being played.

“We’re all just here to play one thing, to play baseball,” said Eddie Bedell, a North Fork Roadhouse middle infielder in his final Little League season. “It’s really exciting because all this stuff, the pitcher pitching and the sound of the glove pop and the bat, it’s really exciting.”

Majors is for players 10-12 years old. John Wesley Village rightfielder Gerry Caramore is 11 and has one more season ahead of him, but he’s grateful to be playing this summer. “I was eager to play,” he said.

A lot of work went into making the season a reality, but MacGray sees it as well worth it for the players.

“I definitely feel they’re so excited to be here,” she said. “The kids, there’s no balk from them at all at what has to be done to make it happen. No one complained. They know to remain socially distant. We have the hand sanitizer in the dugout. They know to use it. They know the rules, and they’re doing a pretty good job from what I can see.”

The way Johne Hansen sees it, “win or lose, it doesn’t matter. We’re here to have fun. We’re playing the game.”

Score that one a win-win.