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Youth baseball ready to make up for lost season

Youth baseball will be a summer affair this year as the Harvard Youth Baseball and Softball Association (HYBSA) joins other towns in the Macintosh Baseball League for a belated season. Teams will abide by guidelines set by the state and the Board of Health, but the goal is to get kids back on the bases to exercise, socialize, and practice their skills.

The league’s typical spring season was canceled due to the coronavirus, but with the state loosening restrictions on organized activities in Phase 2 of its reopening, playing this summer became an option. Coach and HYBSA board member Bob Greene said the board reached out to parents of players, and then to other towns, to gauge interest in the idea.

 “We didn’t want to lose out on a baseball season,” Greene said in an interview. “We sent out [a message asking] how many people would be interested if we decided to have a season and … we had some good feedback with people [saying] they want to get their kids out.”

The Macintosh League consists of teams from Harvard and many of the surrounding towns, including Pepperell, Groton, Shirley, Townsend, Bolton, Ayer, and Littleton. Greene said that the HYBSA reached out to residents of these towns’ teams and found that most were at a similar preliminary stage of planning and organizing but were interested in a competitive summer season.

HYBSA President Larry Feinberg said he originally had reservations about taking on the responsibility of allowing Harvard’s youth baseball teams to play this summer, but said the experience has been positive so far. “Seeing the metamorphosis, if you will, of these kids kind of coming out of their dark PlayStation and Xbox shadows … and seeing the sun and playing again, it’s been very healthy.”

Teams were able to start holding practices in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which began June 8. Feinberg said that getting back on the field was a special experience: “That first practice was like a very miniature version of … the first pitch thrown after 9/11. You know? It was kind of eerie, it was a little bit awkward, it was a little uncomfortable and now … the kids are basically … back to normal.”

Feinberg acknowledges that there is some risk involved in restarting play, but said he feels the benefit to the kids is greater. “On one hand, there’s not zero risk in terms of the virus, but there’s also a risk of these kids not being kids and not interacting with each other [after] being isolated for three months during quarantine.”

He said the teams will be spraying down the baseballs before practice, the dugouts will be closed, and the players will use hand sanitizer before and after play. Additionally, the league’s safety guidelines say that, once competitions begin in Phase 3, teams will wave and say “good game” instead of shaking hands as was customary.

Getting kids to adhere to safety guidelines will be a group effort, split between parents and coaches. Feinberg said that was one of the messages the board emphasized when reaching out to parents about a potential season. “Parents are effectively required to be part of the overall protocol … it’s too much for any single coach; we need everybody to be involved,” he explained.

The league’s written safety guidelines suggest that coaches be gentle with players, “No child should be scolded or punished in any way for not following these guidelines. These are kids and they will be kids.”

One stumbling block in organizing the program has been an unequal number of interested players in Harvard. The current number of kids signed up is too many for two teams, but not quite enough for three. Greene put out a notice on the social media platform Nextdoor trying to get enough additional 11- and 12-year-old players for a third team, but the post garnered no response. Feinberg said they are exploring additional options, such as increased rosters or a possible merger with kids from another town in the league.

Greene wasn’t surprised about the difficulty they are having finding additional players. He said he has seen interest in youth baseball wane in recent years. “I’ve been coaching in town now for three years and the numbers are slowly declining each year. You’re getting the same players every year that are playing baseball and nobody new.” He attributes the phenomenon to the draw of sports like soccer and lacrosse.

With no other sports planning to play this summer, Greene saw an opportunity. “We figured that we could try to draw some of those kids [from other sports] out to play baseball, but we’re not having any luck because it’s kind of hard to recruit during a pandemic.”

Feinberg said that this summer’s play will be about “fluidity ... flexibility, and a lot of patience and cooperation. Those are really the values that we are emphasizing very strongly.” Plans for competition are still tentative as no official schedule has been put out by the league. Feinberg isn’t thinking too hard about the potential for a fall season yet. “It’s really one season at a time,” he said.

His goals for the season are simple: “Number one, two, and three is to have fun in a safe environment and if we win a lot of games, great ... If we don’t win a single game, we’ve already won. It’s not just a cheesy cliche. I legitimately think just getting kids to play ball and be out in the sun and feeling normal again, that’s a victory and we’ve already done that, so everything else is just gravy.”

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