‘We have a great responsibility’: Youth baseball returns in Missouri amid coronavirus pandemic

At a time when America’s Major League ballparks remain shuttered and empty, a Missouri event organizer is ready to bring back youth baseball. 

Rob Worstenholm expects 47 teams to converge on two baseball complexes outside St. Louis this weekend to participate in one of the country’s first sporting events since late March.

Worstenholm has devised a modified set of rules that he hopes will encourage proper social distancing without destroying the integrity of the sport.

The most glaring change calls for catchers to crouch an extra two feet behind the batter and for home plate umpires to stand six feet to the rear of the pitcher’s mound. Worstenholm concedes that will inevitably produce more botched balls and strikes calls, so he advises batters, “If it’s close, you better be swinging!” 

Baserunners also must follow a new set of rules intended to maintain six feet of separation between players. Infielders won’t have to worry about holding runners on base since taking a lead or stealing is not allowed until the pitcher has released the ball.

Tournament staffers must sanitize bathrooms and concession stands every few hours and the dugouts and baseballs between innings. Only three socially distanced players will be allowed in the dugout at the same time. The rest must spread out down the fence lines at intervals of at least six feet.

Fist bumps and handshakes are forbidden. Sharing the same container of water or equipment is too. Any coach tone-deaf enough to run onto the field to argue a call with an umpire will be immediately ejected. 

Worstenholm realizes many onlookers will view the tournament as a litmus test for whether it’s safe for kids to resume playing organized baseball with the COVID-19 pandemic not yet under control.

“We’re going way beyond the state guidelines to keep the kids safe, the parents safe and the umpires safe,” said Worstenholm, who owns GameTime Tournaments. “I’ve told all my staff and all the managers that we have a great responsibility. Nobody else is playing yet. If we do this right, we’re going to be the poster children for showing that this can be done safely. If we get this wrong, I don’t know what we’ll be, but it won’t be good.”

Youth baseball is returning in Missouri amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

The return of youth baseball in Missouri is a byproduct of governor Mike Parson’s decision to allow the state’s stay-at-home order to expire last Monday and to encourage most businesses to reopen. How quickly youth sports resume elsewhere will depend on what local and state authorities allow and what prominent sport and public health officials recommend. 

In Illinois, it will be a minimum of a month before youth sports return. Governor J.B. Pritzker announced Tuesday that gatherings of 10 or more remain prohibited through at least May 30 and cautioned that the restrictions will stay in place longer in regions with a high infection rate.

Conversely, Mississippi governor Tate Reeves already loosened restrictions to allow outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people in an effort to enable youth sports to begin anew. Reeves told reporters on Monday that “should be a large enough group to let kids to swing a bat or kick a ball or shoot a basket with their teams.”

Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Washington University in St. Louis, cautioned that May is too soon for any youth team sports to safely return. While kids typically contract mild cases of COVID-19, the concern is that they can transmit the virus to adults who are more vulnerable to it. 

The tournament will be played in two counties, St. Charles and Jefferson, where there are 631 and 286 confirmed cases of coronavirus, and 30 and 10 COVID-related deaths, respectively. In neighboring St. Louis County, there have been 3,539 COVID-19 cases and 204 deaths.

Asked specifically about this weekend’s youth baseball tournament outside St Louis, Newland said, “Honestly, I was surprised it was going on.” Newland noted that Missouri reported its highest number of new coronavirus cases the same day the state reopened earlier this week and questioned whether Worstenholm’s safety measures will be enough.

“As we all know, when we start getting people together like this, they’re going to congregate,” Newland said.  “If you have these sorts of events during a time when we’re still seeing significant numbers of cases occurring, that’s putting people in harm’s way. Not saying the event organizers aren’t doing everything they can based on what they know. I think they are doing that. But it seems a little too early to be putting people at risk when we don’t have to.” 

The way Newland sees it, how and when youth sports resume should not be one-size-fits-all. It depends on if it’s an individual or a team sport, if it’s outdoors or indoors, if the infection rate in the region is high or low and if staying six feet away from others is practical or not. 

Youth tennis tournaments can safely resume anytime, according to Newland, if participants practice social distancing before and after matches or during changeovers. Newland advises parents of team sport athletes to wait until at least July — perhaps much longer in the case of contact sports like basketball, football and soccer, where social distancing is impractical if not impossible.

The pressure to resume youth sports ahead of that timetable stems in part from the economic drain of having athletic complexes sitting shuttered and empty. Youth sports is a $19.2 billion market in the U.S., according to a 2019 WinterGreen Research study.

While Worstenholm hopes GameTime Tournaments will be a profitable business again soon, he insists that making money had little to do with his decision to begin holding tournaments again this weekend. About 170 teams participated in the 2019 tournament Worstenholm held during Mother’s Day weekend. With only 47 teams expected to play this year, Worstenholm expects to barely break even. 

About half the teams who registered for this weekend’s event last fall withdrew due to safety concerns, Worstenholm said. Each received a full refund. Worstenholm then whittled the field down further to make it more manageable for him and his staff to monitor whether participants and their families were abiding by his safety guidelines.

“Anytime you’re the first person to do something the automatic response is, ‘Rob’s doing this to make money,’ ” Worstenholm said. “Well, if I really wanted to make money, I wouldn’t have taken only 47 teams. I could have just as easily sat at home the next four weeks, but so many kids want to play so bad. It would have been very disheartening for me to sit at home knowing I could have done it.”

Among the youth baseball clubs planning to send teams to Worstenholm’s event this weekend is the St. Louis Bears. Director Rob Floyd said he polled parents of his 200 players seeking feedback on what to do. More than 70 percent responded that they wanted to play.

To Floyd, it’s an easy decision to grant his 14-year-old son’s request to play. He feels it’s the least he can do after his son has been unable to go to school, visit friends, play baseball or attend graduation parties for the past six-plus weeks.

“These kids have had a lot robbed from them,” Floyd said. “It’s been tough on them. A lot of them have been waiting to have something to look forward to. Truthfully, if they were holding a kickball tournament, we’d probably enter too.” 

Because of the nature of baseball, every game will likely feature interactions that violate proper social distancing. It might be a tag-out. Or two outfielders converging on a ball in the gap. Or even a collision at home plate. 

Worstenholm says participants are well aware of that. In reality, the loudest complaints he’s received have nothing to do with the safety risks of playing this soon. The angriest coaches and parents, he says, are baseball traditionalists who believe Worstenholm’s rules are too stringent and alter the game too much. 

The restrictions on base stealing have drawn the most criticism even though they mirror Little League rules. There’s also concern that repositioning the catcher will result in a barrage of passed balls. 

A staunch traditionalist himself, Worstenholm sympathizes but he won’t soften his rules. There’s too much at stake. 

The St. Louis media has already caught wind of his plan to resume playing baseball. Local TV channels will be on hand this weekend to evaluate if it’s possible to safely play baseball in the midst of a pandemic, if kids will stay six feet apart, if the rules governing social distancing go out the window after the first walk-off hit or mammoth home run.

“There’s going to be a lot of scrutiny,” Worstenholm said. “Believe me, I know that. We’re going to make sure we do this in a responsible manner because we want the kids to continue to get to play.”

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