The Final Out

By IAN WILSON

There are final outs and then there are final outs.

The final out of a game. The final out of a series. The final out of a season. The final out of your final season.

Then there’s the last out that precedes a rain delay. Is it really the final out? Will this game start up again? Will we play the rest of this another day?

Such are the questions that come with rain delays.

Welcome to the season of coronavirus. It’s a season of uncertainty and one of far more questions than answers.

Alas, baseball players from Alberta are not immune to this season of discontent.

Everyone, from Major League Baseball (MLB) star pitcher Mike Soroka to the Little League squads of Wild Rose Country, has been given their social distancing marching orders and they essentially mean this: no more baseball until further notice.

With snow still on the ground in Alberta, outdoor baseball activities were largely still in the planning stages when the COVID-19 crisis brought out the figurative tarps for diamonds across the province.

But the impact has been felt by those who play the game across the globe, including Canadians who migrate south to play college baseball in the United States.

CORONAVIRUS CANCELLATIONS

Scott Gillespie, a right-handed pitcher from Sherwood Park, was taking part in his senior season for the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) Boll Weevils when the world around him began shutting down.

The Boll Weevils play in the Great American Conference in Division II of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). They were en route to Delta State University (DSU) in Cleveland, Mississippi on March 11th – the same day the National Basketball Association (NBA) suspended regular season play – when word began to spread about the impact the infectious coronavirus was having on athletic competitions.

“We all saw that the Ivy League had shut down all spring sports and Division One basketball tournaments were being cancelled. We were all just wondering how soon it would impact us,” Gillespie told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“We went to play Delta State on a Wednesday, left our school with no thought of suspended play or cancellation. After the game, we all saw an email from UAM saying classes were suspended until the 30th. Coach told us that meant our season was suspended, as well. Then, less than 24 hours after that, we were informed that our entire season was cancelled. It was just a whirlwind of about 36 to 48 hours.”

The sidearm hurler’s final outing came in the eighth inning of that Wednesday afternoon tilt against the DSU Statesmen, with UAM trailing by three runs.

“I had been pitching well this season, up to that point. This year I was used more in low-pressure situations … but I was pitching well enough in those outings and I was just starting to earn a role in tighter ball games,” said Gillespie, whose pitching arsenal includes a two-seam fastball and a slider.

“My defense helped me out for the first out by throwing out a runner who was trying to stretch a single into a double. Then I got a strikeout on a full count, so I was feeling great. The next batter was walked on a call that my team would say was missed by the umpire. Then, with an 0-1 count and a runner on first, I left a fastball down and in and got taken yard. I knew it was gone off the bat. He put a great swing on it … I just missed my location.”

One out after the Darek Sargent home run, and that was the ballgame for Gillespie. A forgettable 20-pitch appearance in a 10-5 loss made memorable by unfortunate circumstances.

As the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) alumnus stepped off the mound, other leagues – both collegiate and professional – were contemplating how to handle what was rapidly becoming a worldwide pandemic.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Any thoughts Gillespie had of redemption during a weekend series against Southeastern Oklahoma State University were quickly eliminated while his academic and athletic future were put on hold to help curb the coronavirus.

Fellow UAM senior Dylan Borman, of Camrose, had his own ignominious day at the dish to contemplate – an 0-for-4 outing that included two strikeouts and three runners left on base. But at least the former Lethbridge Bulls slugger got some hacks in. Vauxhall catcher Reed Odland and Coaldale sophomore infielder Torrin Vaselenak didn’t take the field that day for the Boll Weevils.

The Alberta quartet were left sorting out travel plans, navigating the remainder of their courses online and contemplating a season that was suddenly cut short.

“It just sucks that the season is over and to think about what could have been,” said Gillespie, who has also pitched the last few summers for the Edmonton Prospects of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).

Eligibility relief has been granted for seniors like Borman and Gillespie, a move that would allow them to play another season of college baseball, but many athletes will choose not to return, regardless of whether they’re allowed to or not.

“It’s just hard with all the uncertainty,” said Gillespie.

“It’s tough for me to walk away from college baseball, but it’s a decision I had to make. I will not be returning to UAM. I’ll be hopefully enrolling at the University of Alberta to finish my degree. It was a tough decision to make, but at the end of the day, life keeps moving forward even if baseball is put on pause.”

FRANTIC FINALE

Gillespie’s pal from PBA, 23-year-old Chris Ewanik, had a frenetic finish to his season with the Husson Eagles of the North Atlantic Conference (NAC).

The baseball team from Bangor, Maine was in Florida for the RussMatt Invitational tournament, where their final game of 2020 took place on March 13th, a full day after the suspension of the National Hockey League (NHL) campaign.

“At first, we found out a neighbour conference had cancelled their trip last minute, and a few days later their season. Then came all the other news around the sporting world with the NHL, NBA and NCAA suspensions. I think by our last day, we had only one team left on our school schedule that was not suspended. It all moved so quick that in a matter of days, we knew we were done. Pretty much all of the schools were suspending play. We were all in the exact same situation before we even knew what happened,” said Ewanik, whose final at bat was a pinch hit single during a 16-6 romp over the Medaille Mavericks.

Unlike Gillespie and the Boll Weevils, who were unaware they were participating in their last contest of 2020, Ewanik and his teammates knew exactly what was going on and that the game would be their last time suiting up this year as Husson Eagles.

“It was one of the most unique season endings I’ve ever been a part of. The team we were supposed to play cancelled their season, so we made the game up with a different team. All of our seniors played, and it was sad for them,” said the first baseman and catcher.

“While they likely will get eligibility renewed, if they have jobs or careers ready after they graduate this spring, then they can’t just go back to school. It was gut-wrenching watching them conclude what should have been the introduction to their season instead as potentially their last baseball games ever.”

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY

Ewanik, who plans to return to Husson to finish his degree in data analytics and play baseball next year, had to work incredibly hard just to take the field this season.

The Spruce Grove product suffered a blown ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his elbow while he was working on pop-time drills – which help catchers improve how quickly they can throw out runners at second base – on Sept. 12th, 2018.

“I had a full rupture and was told that without Tommy John surgery I would not throw a baseball again. I was pretty devastated,” said Ewanik.

“Initially, I had decided to walk away from baseball. Eventually, I figured that if I needed to get the surgery anyway, I might as well do it right. There was a tremendous amount of physio and work and practice that had to happen for me to get back to playing. I think in some ways, that process is helping me through right now. Being in a spot where I’ve lost a season before to factors outside my control makes it easier to just focus on how I can make the best out of a bad situation. Just keep progressing and start focusing on the next step. I’ll likely take the rest of my quarantine rather light and then start preparing for 2021. It is pretty rare to get a five-month off-season for college baseball and, done correctly, you can outwork a lot of people.”

Before he was able to return to the comforts of home quarantine and an extended off-season, Ewanik first had to figure out how to leave the U.S. in the middle of a pandemic. Along with roommate David LeBlanc, a sophomore outfielder from Beaumont who was named the NAC Player of the Week to close out his season, he wasted no time heading north.

“Our departure was scary, honestly. We were in Florida when all the news was breaking, and the States was closing its borders to European countries. Dave and I discussed that we needed to get home as soon as possible,” recalled Ewanik.

“We got back from the airport at around 4:30 am, slept, and packed our stuff up in the afternoon. Half of my things were in garbage bags, and our apartment looked like a zombie movie scene where people just up and left. We crossed into Quebec and luckily had a super-friendly border guard that made us feel welcome back into the country. Then we had the massive – albeit a gorgeous way to see the country – 4,100 km drive through Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan to Alberta.”

NOT LETTING GO

Taft College played their final game on March 12th, a home date against West Hills Coalinga. Not ready to call it a season, the players pushed the game into extra innings, where Taft ultimately prevailed in a 7-6 win that concluded in the 13th frame.

Calgarian Brady Wilson struck out, walked and scored a run while playing second base in the contest. First baseman Colton Girard, of St. Albert, didn’t appear in that game for Taft but he went 0-for-2 against West Hills Coalinga the day before.

“We started seeing signs that the coronavirus was going to have a big impact one day at practice, probably about a week-and-a-half before our last game. Our coach conducted a meeting before practice that informed us about the basic symptoms of the virus and how the virus could affect us and our school. We didn’t think too much about it, but later that week we were on the bus coming back from a game, and the news kept popping up that all the professional leagues were being postponed, and at the point I realized that our season might be done right away,” remembered Girard, who developed his baseball skills in the St. Albert Minor Baseball Association (SAMBA).

“The day before our last game I was getting texts from all my buddies who were playing at different schools across the country and they were saying that their season was postponed a couple weeks and their school was moved to online. At the time we were still in a safe area where there were no confirmed cases, so we thought we would be okay to continue playing. The next day we were about to start playing and some of my teammates got word that this game was probably our last, so it came pretty rapidly.”

The third game of the series between the Falcons and the Cougars did not take place. It was yet another in a long list of athletic postponements, this time from the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA).

But the Taft Cougars continued to take the field, participating in intrasquad games through St. Patrick’s Day.

“It was a blessing. It meant a lot to me as a Canadian baseball player to get out on the field as much as possible, knowing the situations throughout America and Canada,” said Wilson, who pitched occasionally out of the bullpen, in addition to manning the keystone position for the Cougars this year.

“Our school was taking it day by day, which meant we were still able to keep playing. It was a big deal to be able to still get out on the field and see live pitching and hit BP,” said Girard, adding Taft’s team was split into three separate squads that faced off against each other.

“I thought it was a great idea and it kept the competitive feeling fresh in my brain. It was just great to have the opportunity to still play while our season came to a sudden end.”

Alas, even the intrasquad action would ultimately cease. On March 19th, the CCCAA Board of Directors voted unanimously to cancel the remainder of the 2020 spring season for its 9,500 student athletes. The stop work order included “nontraditional seasons and practices outside of regularly scheduled classes.”

NOW WHAT?

The longest and strangest rain delay these baseball players have ever experienced has put everything in limbo – for them, their coaches, baseball parents and fans, as well as those who could care less about sports.

For most, however, it seems like an interruption rather than an ending.

There is the hope that baseball will return, eventually, and when it does the grass will feel softer, the sun will shine brighter and the grip on that stitched ball will feel just right.

When that day comes, Wilson, Girard, Ewanik and Gillespie will be ready.

Wilson has a game plan in place for his down time.

“I plan to weight train and keep throwing and hitting as much as I can while back home, while also watching video to improve myself all around as a player,” said the Calgary Redbirds product, who is eyeballing a return to the Fort McMurray Giants of the WCBL.

“The city of Fort McMurray has been through a lot, and they deserve the best. The league, although tough, is fun and it was a great learning experience.”

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Pitcher Scott Gillespie of the Edmonton Prospects warms up at Athletic Park in Medicine Hat … photo by Ian Wilson

When and if the collegiate summer league starts up in late May, Gillespie hopes to be playing there, too, squaring off against Wilson as a member of the Edmonton Prospects.

“I love playing for Edmonton. Nothing gives me more of a rush or joy than going out and playing in front of my hometown. It’s a great ballpark, atmosphere, and fan base. I plan to return for this summer, and I’m confident the season will be played in some form,” said Gillespie.

Girard, meanwhile, would like to play for his hometown St. Albert Tigers of the Sunburst League, a senior men’s league in Alberta.

“My goal this summer is to stay in shape by training and hopefully playing for the St. Albert Tigers, getting live at bats, and developing my pitching skills,” said the 19-year-old, who is also looking ahead to 2021.

“My main goal is to return to Taft for my sophomore year and help them to win a conference championship next season.”

And Ewanik is considering coaching with the Parkland Minor Ball Association that helped develop his playing abilities.

“Obviously, what happened is unfortunate, but everyone is in the same boat. My plan is to have a really outstanding off-season and do as much work as I can on my own,” said Ewanik.

“I plan on spending a lot of time in the weight room. A big part of my game is being physical, so I need to maintain that. School is also my number one priority, so I will keep up doing my online classes and keep progressing towards graduating. I’m majoring in data analytics at school, and I’ve been applying for jobs as an analyst across baseball.”

In the meantime, we’ll all be waiting for those two magical words to be whispered in our ear soon: play ball.

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