“For your safety …”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, that announcement goes in only one direction these days, and it isn’t 90 feet down to first base.
So it came as a little bit of a thrill on a hot, sunny Monday evening when the PA guy at Shuttleworth Park said, “For your safety, please be aware of foul balls.”
A reminder so mundane, it’s the baseball equivalent of the airline seatbelt-oxygen-and-emergency-exit speech.
But it was oxygen to about 100 people in the stands, two baseball teams made up of college kids and at least one sportswriter.
The Amsterdam Mohawks and Albany Dutch kicked off the Independent Collegiate Baseball League (ICBL) with a doubleheader at 5 p.m., giving the players, some having just graduated from high school but most with college experience, the first opportunity to compete in their sport in months.
The four-team ICBL will play four times a week for five weeks, a precious 30 games for each of the players who have been starving for action, and a night at the ballpark for baseball fans. With the Perfect Game Collegiate League and the Albany Twilight seasons canceled, organizers used some creativity to put together the ICBL under state Health Department guidelines.
Among the mainstream team sports, baseball seemed like the most likely to figure out how to operate during the pandemic, since the players stay pretty well spaced apart for most of the game.
“I always kept up hope,” said the Mohawks’ Jake Reinisch, who just graduated from Shenendehowa High School and is headed to Wake Forest.
“Lot of smiles today,” Albany Dutch head coach Nick Davey said. “I know I saw that. A lot of enthusiasm. Guys are itching for some sort of organized baseball.”
There are limits to the enthusiasm, though.
For instance, the players were discouraged from high-fiving, and, sure enough, when Nick Kondo hit a rocket to drive in two runs for Amsterdam in the second inning, there wasn’t a fist bump to be found when Andrew Pedone and Reinisch trotted toward the dugout after having crossed the plate.
Also: No spitting, enthusiastic or otherwise.
Anyone who has watched a live baseball game can attest to the fact that the term “standing water” carries an entirely different meaning.
If you’ve been through a dugout after a game, you’ve wept for the sunflower population.
If there’s a Charles Dickens in a parallel universe who was a baseball writer instead of a classic novelist, he would’ve produced Great Expectorations, with Wally Pipp as the protagonist.
The ICBL players have been told to keep the saliva to themselves, and if it’s a hard habit to break, there is no shortage of incentive.
“Yes. Big-time,” Reinisch confessed, of his spitting history. “I usually have seeds or something.
“A lot of that is just second nature. It’s a habit, so it’s going to be tough not to do that, but once we get used to it, it’ll become the new norm and we’ll be accustomed to it. The last thing anybody wants is for this to get shut down, so everyone’s being cautious about it, following the rules.”
“It’ll be difficult, but once we get the hang of it, it’ll be routine for everybody,” said Albany Dutch player Chris Hamilton (Schalmont, Stony Brook). “But definitely different. Whatever keeps us on the field and keeps us safe and able to play, we’ll do anything for that.”
“I’ve probably told guys ‘Six feet apart’ a hundred times,” Amsterdam head coach Greg Christodulu said. “This is all a work in progress. I think the kids are cognizant, and our training staff is giving reminders throughout. It’s changing human behavior.”
Davey posted a sign in the Dutch dugout that got the message across.
There’s a photo of reigning AL MVP Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels running the bases with a mask on. His mom posted the photo on Twitter with a headline that says, “If Mike Trout can wear a mask while running the bases, you can wear a mask going out in public.”
After endless squabbling between players and owners, Major League Baseball released its abbreviated 60-game schedule on Monday, set to begin on July 23.
“I saw that on Instagram yesterday,” Hamilton said of the Mike Trout post. “The best player in the world can wear a mask and run the bases, we should be able to do it. Everyone looks up to Mike Trout. Anything to stay on the field.”
In the stands at Shuttleworth on Monday, fans were spaced apart, with yellow police tape blocking sections of seats. Food and drink were available, but only through a wait staff delivered to tables set up on several decks.
Mohawks general manager Brian Spagnola said the health department won’t allow Shuttleworth to run on-field games and promotions between innings. Each player was given just two tickets for family and friends, and they were seated in rows along the first base line.
Nobody seemed to mind.
“It’s not your typical ballgame, where you’re standing up with your buddies having a beer,” Spagnola said. “You’re at your table, but at least you’re not home sitting in your living room.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been challenging, but we’re really happy with the plan and the protocols we have in place. Obviously, everybody’s health and safety are first and foremost. If we can accomplish that and get players playing who really need to play and give our community something to do, even though it’s limited, we’re happy.”
“I’m tired myself, watching reruns on the MLB channel. Although the marble championship, l was excited about that when it came out,” Christodulu said with a laugh. “But baseball’s the great pastime, and people love it and want to watch it.”
“It’s awesome,” Reinisch said. “It’s just great to be back playing baseball, no matter what the circumstances are. Just grateful to be back out here with a bunch of guys that I played with before.”
So for the first time in who knows how long, there was chatter coming out of the Mohawks’ home dugout.
Bats rattled, there was the pop of cowhide ball on leather glove, whoops of celebration when Kondo crushed his line drive, a steady parade of French fries, chicken fingers and sweaty cans of beer up to the viewing deck …
And at one end of the dugout, a big jug of hand sanitizer, batting cleanup.