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Little League baseball in Santa Rosa helps ease pandemic isolation

The smack of a baseball landing in a worn leather glove. The ping from a line drive off a metal bat. Cries of “good cut.” Those sweet summer sounds mostly have been silenced by the coronavirus.

But not in Santa Rosa.

A handful of regional Little League teams have decided the need for young players outdoor physical activity was not only worth the potential health risk, but essential in a time when youths are cooped up at home, can’t go to school and spend far too much time with eyes glued to screens.

“It has just been an amazing blessing for everyone — the parents, kids, everyone is so happy to be out here,” said Michael Wooley, president of the Santa Rosa American Little League. “I’ve had several parents from our teams and others saying they see a spark in their kids that they haven’t seen in months.”

In mid-March, just as leagues throughout the North Bay were preparing for spring Opening Day pageantry that evokes the best of America with hot dogs, red white and blue banners and little kids playing the American pastime, it all came to a screeching halt.

Professional sports leagues started scaling back seasons and playing without fans. Universities halted their spring sports seasons. And Little League International suspended all league activities for the millions of boys and girls nationwide who play organized baseball every summer under the umbrella of the 82-year-old organization.

But as time wore on and Sonoma County was allowed to gradually reopen public activities, several youth baseball leagues petitioned for approval to at least practice, as long as public health safety plans were implemented.

Having the physical outlet has been a godsend, said Steve Stiles, who coaches two Westside Little League teams based in southwest Santa Rosa.

“It’s been great. Everyone involved has been extremely excited to see their kids interacting with other people,” Stiles said. “We’ve had parents and kids cry when we first got together because it’s been so difficult to be apart.”

Under county and state public health orders, the Little League baseball practices and skills training are allowed with proper social distancing procedures in place, but games are banned.

While that’s not ideal, it’s something. It allows sunshine, physical activity and at least some semblance of normalcy at a time when everyone’s lives have been upended in the pandemic.

Santa Rosa American, which plays in northeast Santa Rosa, had just finished a major remodeling of its fields and coaches, and parents and kids were two weeks away from beginning their 2020 season.

“And then everything gets closed,” Wooley said.

Early in the pandemic, parents called, texted and emailed him worried about their kids.

“They were like prisoners of their own home,” he said. “Many said the first week, their kids were acting kind of strange, like subdued.

“They saw their kids living on the TV screen, playing video games, being on their phones,” he said.

Stiles, too, the father of two baseball players, noticed kids checking out mentally as the first few weeks of sheltering at home settled in during spring.

“It was really an emotional time,” he said. “Everyone knows how important it is to be outside and be with other kids. Some of our parents were lost. We’re a poorer league. Some of them don’t have a lot of resources.”

He knew many kids whose parents had to work, so they were left home alone playing video games.

“That’s been miserable hearing how much video games they were playing instead of playing outside,” he said.

So when the leagues got the approval of Santa Rosa City Schools to restart practices, with public health safety rules in place, it came as a salve to the soul of so many families.

“For a lot of our kids, baseball is what makes them feel normal,” Woolsey said. “With what was happening, so many of them felt jailed in their homes. Our son would hit into a net all the time, but he just wanted to hit with his friends.

“For most of them, it’s a sense of normalcy, happiness, joy,” he said.

Through baseball practice, parents have noticed the spark return to their typically bouncy kids.

That didn’t happen overnight, though, Stiles said.

“That first couple weeks of practice, kids were not used to playing outside with other kids,” he said. “They loved it, but they didn’t have the stamina to interact with other human beings for two hours. At the end of practice they were tired mentally.”

Santa Rosa American and Westside Little League have both been able to successfully practice for several weeks, with no coronavirus infections among about 300 athletes under age 15, coaches or parents.

Two parents related to Westside did test positive for the virus, but it appears they were infected elsewhere and it wasn’t spread within the league.

Not every youth baseball league decided to continue playing.

Petaluma National Little League, whose all-star team of 12- and 13-year-olds were en route to the famed Little League World Series in August 2012, polled its families to determine a direction.

“We took the results of the survey, combined with the fact that Sonoma County was not authorized to commence play and made the decision to call it,” league President Jon Ganley said.

Healdsburg Little League also polled its parents, President Matt Jenkins said, and the results were mixed.

“We asked, ‘Would you be interested in sandlot games, sort of pickup games on the weekend, something loosely structured? Or something like the fall ball program, a more traditional Little League program?’” he said.

But given the difficulties meeting state and county health orders, league leaders thought it was best to look forward instead of trying to limp through something this season.

“We’re in a holding pattern. We’re waiting for state guidelines to allow something more than just practicing right now,” Jenkins said.

Stiles, the Westside Little League coach, still holds out hope that games eventually will be allowed county and state public health officials. For now, only a maximum of 12 people can be on a field, so only skills clinics, drills and batting practice are allowed.

The Little Leaguers aren’t alone. Last month, the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school athletics, announced that the fall sports season would be pushed back to 2021.

But by keeping some semblance of a Little League season going has helped provide some routine in an upside down world.

“We want to allow them to be kids and have fun and not to worry too much about these adult problems,” Stiles said.

“The difference in the kids a month and a half ago to where they are now, you really see the benefit in this, in their happiness and activity level. You can’t put a dollar figure on that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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